“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.

 
 
 
 

Buses are back on the agenda – but neither party has a strategy for halting their decline

A bus passes the Middlehaven redevelopment site. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Buses are back on the political agenda in the UK. The two main party leaders, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, have both made modernising public transport central to their pitches in the current general election.

The big-ticket items on both sides are to do with railways. Both parties promise to invest in new high speed trains and in improving the poor services in the north of England, and Labour promise to take train companies back into public hands as part of their extensive programme of nationalisation. That isn’t surprising: railways have always appealed to the politician who wants a grand projet as a legacy.

The attraction of the humble bus is a little harder to explain. As ever in politics, the answer is to follow the numbers. Bus journeys dwarf rail journeys – there are 10 times more of them every year. But those numbers are in decline and, together with route closures and the reduction in bus grants – down nearly a half in a decade – the missing bus has become a symbol of austerity and government neglect of the public realm in villages, towns and cities. In parallel, the rise of new city region mayors has created powerful politicians outside London, like Greater Manchester’s Andy Burnham. who make the case for public transport as crucial to economic vibrancy and city regeneration. 

Crucially, though, for this election period, buses are used by large numbers of Labour voters the Conservatives want to win over. And Johnson is that rare Tory leader: one with a genuine passion for buses. As mayor of London he had a new double-decker designed and built for the city’s transport network – the eponymous “Boris Bus”.

In many ways, London is the model for the reforms that Burnham wants for Manchester and Labour is offering in its manifesto. When Margaret Thatcher opened the bus market in England to competition in the 1980s, she exempted London. The mayor franchises bus routes, protecting Londoners from the free for all of the “bus wars” that privatisation brought. Transport for London, the mayor’s strategic agency, also integrates ticketing for rail, tube, tram and buses through the Oyster card.

Cynics with a long memory will see City Region Mayors controlling public transport as just the return of the English Metropolitan Counties in a new guise. There is some truth to that. What is interesting is that the drive is towards franchising rather than the wholesale municipalisation of the bus network.

This is because the new generation of bus industry leaders talk the same language as politicians. Meet the Chief Executive of one of the bus companies and the will talk to you about climate change – they will tell you that their buses are going electric, that one full double decker replaces 75 cars and that their “Chatty Bus” helps to tackle loneliness and improve mental wellbeing. Great corporate citizens who see that their buses are vehicles for so many important policy outcomes.


However, the problem with bus policy – both Labour and Conservative – is that it risks missing the fundamental point. Neither party has any coherent strategy for halting, let alone reversing, the decline in bus usage.

Franchising is not the answer. In the words of HL Mencken, that’s a policy which is “simple, obvious and wrong”. The lesson of London is not that bus privatisation is a failure, nor that buses are cheaper or more frequent than outside the capital. Bluntly put, it is that the main competition to buses – the car – has been made systematically more expensive. It’s not just the congestion charge, it’s also the way that bus and cycle lanes cut car space and make roads more congested and slower for drivers. Then there’s planning policies that have central London so much denser – unlike most of the country’s big cities. And the cost of parking in large parts of London – plus tough enforcement – which increases the expense of driving.

In the end, this is the harsh reality that the battle between the Labour and Tory parties over bus policy conceals. It is impossible to make buses so cheap and the networks so extensive that people give up cars: that would be unrealistically costly. People will only be driven out of their cars by making them far more expensive.

But there’s a collusive consensus here. Drivers in English towns and cities are precisely the swing voters over whom the parties are fighting in the marginal constituencies which will decide the election. Neither Johnson nor Corbyn would dream of suggesting a policy that would make driving more expensive.

So we are left with warm words and modest change that may slow the decline of bus use but the full potential of this form of transport – which is now nearly 200 years old – will remain untapped.

John McTernan was a senior adviser to the Blair government.