“Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” On art, smart cities and bringing people together

Voiceover in action in East Durham. Image: Richard Kenworthy.

As our world becomes increasingly influenced by data and networked technologies; as real time sensors stream from buildings, streets and mobile devices, informing us about what’s happening right now; and as our micro-decisions interact more and more with the micro-decisions of others, being meaningfully and consciously engaged with each other and the world around us might seem increasingly elusive.

The volume of data, and the variety of decisions that need to be made, can seem almost overwhelming. And so, introducing technological systems seems like an obvious answer.

Technologies like smart thermostats are supposed to help our homes decide, on our behalf, the right moment to switch on the heating. Automation systems driving our cars, or executing trades on the stockmarket, or managing our city infrastructures, or distinguishing criminals in crowds, or guiding our economies... All of these deal with masses of data, and complex interactions between all sorts of phenomena, much more quickly and, in a sense, more accurately than humans can.

But each of these technologies was designed. That means that somebody somewhere, some group of people, with their own perspectives and worldviews, made the most important decision of all – they decided, defined and designed the goals each of these systems should strive for.

The plan for VoiceOver. Image: Richard Kenworthy. 

Somebody somewhere decided on a definition for optimisation, or a definition of efficiency, or a definition of safety, of risk, of certainty. They decided how to evaluate progress towards a goal. They also decided precisely how goals would get encoded into algorithms – the set of rules used to derive solutions, or make decisions.

But goals are designed – they’re crafted, if you will – and crafting means that they reflect something about their designer, and the designer’s own worldview.

All too often the design of such technologies is done behind closed doors. Whether it’s driverless cars, or smart homes in smart cities, or curated news items in social media – other people, in companies driven by their own commercial requirements or organisations with their own unspoken objectives are making countless non-consensual decisions on our behalf.

The case for togetherness

We, the citizens, need to be involved collectively in helping shape the technologies that govern our lives. They are going to affect how and where we live, and what we do from minute to minute and so we all need to be part of the conversation. There is no single definition of “efficiency”, or “optimisation”, or “convenience”, or “comfort”. Or “terrorist” for that matter.

Technology is equally an outcome of, and a defining factor in the development of our social structures: it both affects and is affected by the societies we live in and the ones we want to create. The kinds of technology we hear about today are often good for doing things quickly, for controlling things or responding to large volumes of data. That means they are good if you have a clear definition of efficiency, and if you have decided that efficiency is what you’re after. In many cases that makes them good, unintentionally or not, for surveillance.

But the other thing that they are good at is bridging distance: connecting people and places and things and experiences and environments and neighbourhoods to each other in real-time. They’re good at shrinking the scale of the planet and making us more aware of how what we do relates to others, both human and non-human. They’re good at linking things that are far apart, or connecting people that don’t know each other. They’re good at helping us discover new perspectives.

So the goal, in my work, is to use networked technologies, not to make things more efficient or to optimise, but to see things differently so that we can make decisions together. Not to make decisions better (whatever that means) but to make them collectively; not to remove inefficiency and complexity, or iron out wrinkles and seams, but to embrace that complexity and build value from the unpredictability, serendipity and creativity that you find in messy situations. I look for ways to deploy infrastructure that gets taken over and repurposed by other people, so they develop a shared sense of technological enfranchisement and ownership in civic outcomes.

Take our project VoiceOver, sited in East Durham in the north of England. We’re deploying a chain of interactive light and sound that weaves its way round local streets of Horden to connect residents, in ways that we hope they’ve never been connected before.

It’s a communication infrastructure, designed and deployed in collaboration with local residents and organisations, that everyone can listen in on, and whose spectacular luminescent path explicitly depends on which residents have elected to host a node of the mesh network. As sound passes up and down the streets, each fragment lights up in response to the different voices and sounds passing through it, making explicit the lines of communication.

VoiceOver in action in East Durham. Image: Richard Kenworthy.

It’s not an “efficient” communication tool: a phone would have been better for one-on-one conversations, and Telegram more private. But the aim was to get as many people as possible together at the same time, communicating with others they might not even know, and meaningfully involved in creating, installing, supporting and bringing to life a cultural infrastructure – one that actively encourages performance, sharing and storytelling. The project has already uncovered the fact that three cousins, who've never all met, have been living near to each other all along.

It’s not that “together” is better than “efficient”. But it certainly has different outcomes. When people work together, my experience is that they have a greater sense of agency and accomplishment, as well as more responsibility and ownership in outcomes.

As we plan for technological interventions in our cities, installing networked technologies and infrastructures for managing the complexities of our lives, let’s evaluate these systems on more than just how efficient they are. Let’s evaluate them on how much they connect us together in new ways, and engage us in meaningful decision making.

The architect Cedric Price once said, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” Well, the question has got to be about more than just how to be efficient.

Usman Haque designs interactive architecture systems and researches how people relate to each other and their spaces.

VoiceOver is a new public art commission produced by Forma Arts and created by Umbrellium for East Durham Creates.


Air pollution in London is now so bad it’s affecting lung development

Cough, splutter. Image: Getty.

Air pollution is known to contribute to early deaths from respiratory and cardiovascular disease. There is also mounting evidence to show that breathing polluted air increases the risk of dementia. Children are vulnerable, too: exposure to air pollution has been associated with babies being born underweight, as well as poorer cognitive development and lung function during childhood.

Cities including London are looking to tackle the social, economic and environmental costs of air pollution by improving urban air quality using low emission zones. In these zones, the most polluting vehicles are restricted from entering, or drivers are penalised to encourage them to take up lower emission technologies. London’s low emission zone was rolled out in four stages from February 2008 to January 2012, affecting mainly heavy and light goods vehicles, such as delivery trucks and vans.

But our new research, involving more than 2,000 children in four of London’s inner-city boroughs, reveals that while these measures are beginning to improve air quality, they do not yet protect children from the harmful effects of air pollution. It is the most detailed assessment of how a low emission zone has performed to date.

Young lungs

Our study focused mainly on the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney, but also included primary schools in the City of London and Greenwich. All of these areas experienced high levels of air pollution from traffic, and exceeded the annual EU limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO₂). What’s more, they have a very young demographic and are among the UK’s most deprived areas.

Between 2008-9 and 2013-14, we measured changes to air pollution concentrations in London, while also conducting a detailed examination of children’s lung function and respiratory symptoms in these areas.

Every year for five years, we measured the lung function in separate groups of 400 children, aged eight to nine years old. We then considered these measurements alongside the children’s estimated exposure to air pollution, which took into account where they lived, and the periods they spent at home and at school.

Our findings confirmed that long-term exposure to urban air pollution is related to smaller lung volumes among children. The average exposure for all children over the five years of our study was 40.7 micrograms of NO₂ per cubic metre of air, which was equivalent to a reduction in lung volume of approximately 5 per cent.

Changes of this magnitude would not be of immediate clinical significance; the children would be unaware of them and they would not affect their daily lives. But our results show that children’s lungs are not developing as well as they could. This is important, because failure to attain optimal lung growth by adulthood often leads to poor health in later life.

Over the course of the study, we also observed some evidence of a reduction in rhinitis (a constant runny nose). But we found no reduction in asthma symptoms, nor in the proportion of children with underdeveloped lungs.

Air pollution falls

While the introduction of the low emission zone did relatively little to improve children’s respiratory health, we did find positive signs that it was beginning to reduce pollution. Using data from the London Air Quality Network – which monitors air pollution – we detected small reductions in concentrations of NO₂, although overall levels of the pollutant remained very high in the areas we looked at.

The maximum reduction in NO₂ concentrations we detected amounted to seven micrograms per cubic metre over the five years of our study, or roughly 1.4 micrograms per cubic metre each year. For context, the EU limit for NO₂ concentrations is 40 micrograms per cubic metre. Background levels of NO₂ for inner city London, where our study was located, decreased from 50 micrograms to 45 micrograms per cubic metre, over five years. NO₂ concentrations by the roadside experienced a greater reduction, from 75 micrograms to 68 micrograms per cubic metre, over the course of our study.

By the end of our study in 2013-14, large areas of central London still weren’t compliant with EU air quality standards – and won’t be for some time at this rate of change.

We didn’t detect significant reductions in the level of particulate matter over the course of our study. But this could be because a much larger proportion of particulate matter pollution comes from tyre and brake wear, rather than tail pipe emissions, as well as other sources, so small changes due to the low emission zone would have been hard to quantify.

The route forward

Evidence from elsewhere shows that improving air quality can help ensure children’s lungs develop normally. In California, the long-running Children’s Health Study found that driving down pollution does reduce the proportion of children with clinically small lungs – though it’s pertinent to note that NO₂ concentrations in their study in the mid-1990s were already lower than those in London today.

Our findings should encourage local and national governments to take more ambitious actions to improve air quality, and ultimately public health. The ultra-low emission zone, which will be introduced in central London on 8 April 2019, seems a positive move towards this end.

The scheme, which will be expanded to the boundaries set by the North and South circular roads in October 2021, targets most vehicles in London – not just a small fraction of the fleet. The low emission zone seems to be the right treatment – now it’s time to increase the dose.

The Conversation

Ian Mudway, Lecturer in Respiratory Toxicology, King's College London and Chris Griffiths, Professor of Primary Care, Queen Mary University of London.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.