“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.


Does cutting speed limits to 20mph actually work?

20’s plenty. Image: educators.co.uk/Flickr/creative commons.

A new speed limit of 20mph has been proposed for roads in central London. The plans, which would reduce the limit to 20mph within the Congestion Charging Zone, are part of the “Vision Zero” strategy, which aims to “eliminate deaths and serious injuries from London’s transport network by 2041”.

The main reason for reducing traffic speed is to lessen the likelihood of a collision – and to reduce the severity of road traffic casualties. Research indicates that if a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle at 24mph, they have a 10 per cent risk of dying. This goes up to 25 per cent at 32mph, and 50 per cent at 41mph. A reduction in speed of as little as 1mph is associated with a reduction in casualties of up to 6 per cent.

Yet plans for the 20mph limit in London have been controversial. Some question the impact it will have on increased traffic congestion and air pollution. Retailers are concerned it will discourage customers from visiting the city centre due to increased congestion. Others question the need for a 20mph limit in areas where congestion means it is rarely possible to go any faster than that. So what’s the evidence on 20mph limits so far?

Many look to the example of Bristol to support the introduction of 20mph limits. Headline findings have so far suggested that “four lives a year are saved” in the city, which reduced speeds in 2014 and 2015. It has also been estimated that Bristol has saved over £15m per year due to lower casualty rates.

Elsewhere, results from pilot schemes in Edinburgh and Portsmouth indicated an overall reduction in speed of between 0.9mph and 1.9mph on roads where 20mph limits were implemented. In Portsmouth, an average reduction of 6.3mph was seen on roads that were characterised by speeds of over 24mph before the lower limits were introduced. The city also showed a 22 per cent reduction in reported road casualties where 20mph maximums had been introduced.

The pilot research has also indicated that 20mph limits in Bristol and Edinburgh have led to increases in people choosing to walk (up to 10 per cent) or cycle (up to 5 per cent). Other studies have shown increases in perceived road safety, and the pleasantness of residential environments.

But others are more swayed by what has happened in Manchester, where the supposed benefits of 20mph limits have been questioned. There, a drop in the number of accidents in 20mph zones was not as great as it was on some faster roads. In light of these findings, Manchester City Council reviewed their 20mph scheme and withdrew funding.

An overall review of previous research concluded that 20mph schemes can reduce accidents, injuries and traffic volume, and improve perceptions of safety, while being cost effective. However, of the ten studies included in the review, only two focused specifically on speed limits (use of 20mph signage without physical interventions such as speed bumps).

The review also found a lack of evidence assessing the impact of such schemes on addressing social inequalities – road casualties are higher in the most deprived areas.

What is less clear are the potential risks of implementing such schemes, particularly for noise and air pollution. Some argue that lowering traffic speed will lead to increased congestion and consequently increased air pollution. On the other hand, if 20mph speed limits are successful in encouraging more sustainable travel modes then this will result in a reduction in air pollution.

The evidence to date is somewhat limited because of a lack of robust, long-term evaluations. In particular, there has not been enough investigation into their economic impact and cost effectiveness.

Looking at the signs

So what can London learn from the evidence so far? The first lesson is that communication is key – it is vital the public is kept up to date with plans. It is also important to have an evaluation plan which includes interim analyses, so that any changes made are based on solid evidence.

And that evaluation should be a broad one. As well as measuring changes in traffic speed, and the number and severity of collisions, include other measures such as changes in behaviour when it comes to travel mode and liveability.

In our increasingly congested cities, more must be done to move towards sustainable modes of travel – and for society as a whole to become less reliant on cars. However, changing social norms will take time, and in order to be successful, local authorities must ensure they engage with the general public when implementing ambitious transport plans.

London is the latest city in an ever growing list to implement 20mph speed limits. At the “Is 20mph plenty for health?” research team, we would encourage London to learn lessons from the other cities – and to share its knowledge as we continue to build the evidence base for 20mph speed limits.

The Conversation

Ruth Hunter, Lecturer, School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, Queen's University Belfast.

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