“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.


This one chart suggests that Britain doesn’t have enough houses to go round

Please sir, can I have some more? Image: Getty.

For some time now, regular readers may have noticed, I’ve been publishing articles that could be parsed, basically, as, “Yes, Britain does need to build more houses, don’t be bloody silly”.

There was this article from November 2017, in which I asked if the housing crisis was a myth (spoilers: no). Then there was this, by the Centre for Cities’ economist Paul Swinney, in which he argues that, whatever you may have heard recently, supply definitely is one of the causes of the housing crisis.

Obviously, having been banging on about the need to build more bloody houses for several years now, I’m rather invested in this argument. But the reason I keep publishing this stuff is because of the recent appearance of commentators – most notably, Ian Mulheirn of Oxford Economics – who argue that there is actually no crisis of housing supply. The problem, Mulheirn argues, is one of excess cash pushing prices up. If and when interest rates rise to a more normal rate, then the cost of borrowing will become more expensive, and house prices will become affordable once again. (Rents, he argues, haven’t risen at all.)

I’ve never bought this argument. While interest rates are clearly a factor, it doesn’t seem sufficient to explain the rise in shared living, or the growth in the number of renters paying more than half their income in rent. So, while I don’t believe that building more housing will magically solve everything, I do believe, in the most expensive cities, like London and Oxford and Cambridge, it would help.

That said, Mulheirn is an economist, and I am not. He has a better grasp on the data than I do, and while I instinctively think he’s wrong, I lack the skills to prove it. So, human nature being what it is, I’ve developed a tendency to latch onto anything that suggests I’ve not been living a lie for the last five years.

And lo, it came to pass:

Click to expand.

This is from the Resolution Foundation’s latest report, A New Generationl Contract, which has won most headlines for its proposals to give every British citizen £10,000 at the age of 25.

In my quest to prove that I Am Not Wrong though, this is the chart I find most interesting. A couple of things about it grab me.

The UK doesn’t have many homes relative to its population. In fact, this seems to be a true across the English-speaking world: the US, Canada, Australia and Ireland are also all hovering around the 550 homes per 1,000 people mark, while most continental European countries have over 600, even over 700.

The UK housing market is inelastic. The three dots, representing the figures in three different years (1990, 2000 and 2015), are all fairly tightly clustered together. Again, this is true of all the English-speaking countries, except Ireland. Compare that to Japan, or Portugal, or Finland or Greece where the supply of homes relative to population has shot up over the same period.

We need to be careful here, as “increasing the supply of homes” isn’t the only way to get a higher number on this measure. Demographic decline – fewer people, in layman’s terms – of the sort seen in several European countries and Japan, but largely unknown in the Anglosphere, would have much the same effect. So would a boom of holiday home construction, of the sort seen in many Mediterranean countries and also, more bafflingly, Ireland. (That went well.)

Nonetheless: the result is that the UK has a smaller number of homes to go around than, say, France. In fact...

The UK position is getting worse. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of homes per thousand people in the UK actually increased - by sight, I’d say that’s a shift from around 555 to around 575.

But since then, it’s fallen back, to somewhere around 560 again. We know that the population has grown in that time. This graph suggests that housing supply has not grown to meet it.

Here’s what the Resolution Foundation report says about that chart:

While the measures outlined so far would improve life in the private rented sector and level the playing field for first-time buyers, building more homes is critical if we are to bring down the market cost of housing over the longer term. While some accounts have minimised the role that supply has played in exacerbating the housing challenges of young people, a rise in multi-family households suggests constrained supply. And when we look cross-nationally, as we do in Figure 9.5, we can see that the UK has a far lower housing-stock-to-population ratio than most comparable countries and has been far less successful at increasing that ratio in recent years.

Building homes at a faster rate than the adult population is growing is essential if supply and demand are to be rebalanced. The government’s target for England of getting 300,000 new homes built a year, significantly above the projected rate of population change, is a good place to start.

Or, to sum up: I was right, goddammit.

That said, CityMetric is a broad church. And all jokes aside, I am more interested in understanding this mess, so that we can fix it, than I am in being smug about my own righteousness. If anyone from the “No, we have plenty of houses actually” lobby wants to pitch a rebuttal, you know where I am.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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