“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.

 
 
 
 

Council tax is the new poll tax. It’s time for reform

A poll tax protest, Hackney, March 1990. Image: Getty.

Rummage around in the “too difficult to touch box” of policy issues and somewhere near the bottom you’ll find a slip marked “council tax reform”. But as that tax is increasingly becoming as unfair as the poll tax it replaced, politicians need to be bold and reform this failing tax. Here’s why.

The poll tax was a political disaster which is widely credited with precipitating the downfall of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. In response to the failed poll tax, the current council tax system was introduced in 1993 as a pragmatic fudge. Now politicians fear touching the issue again.

But council tax increasingly resembles the unpopular poll tax which it replaced. A new report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) out yesterday highlights how this system of taxation is failing.

It is increasingly a regressive tax, with those living in the lowest-value homes paying a higher proportion of council tax with regard to property value, than those living in the highest value homes. A household in a Band A property in London would on average pay nearly five times what a Band H household would pay as a proportion of property value.

The council tax system also takes too little account of people’s ability to pay and punishes the poorest. The devolution of council tax benefit in 2013, together with the cut in the funding provided for it, means that people on the very lowest incomes are paying council tax for the first time since the poll tax – and bills are rising.

IPPR research found that the burden of council tax on London’s poorest households is more than six times greater than those on the highest incomes – and that was before the latest round of increases. At the same time, the number of those in arrears and facing prosecution has also dramatically risen.


Furthermore, the current system is an increasingly unsustainable source of local government finance, not least due to its regressive features, discounts and exemptions. Meanwhile, upward pressures on local government spending are rising.

Council tax, like the poll tax before it, is punishing those on the lowest incomes, and it’s time for an overhaul. There is public appetite for fundamental reform and politicians should no longer ignore the issue. Council tax needs to be reformed to create a more progressive, fair and sustainable system.

In our report focused on the system in London, we propose that the first step should be to devolve council tax to London’s government, as also proposed by the London Finance Commission. London’s unique housing market and strong sub-national governance make it well suited to a pilot devolution deal which could later be rolled out across the country. A reformed system needs a sub-national approach, rather than the current overly centralised one.

Second, action should be taken urgently to protect those on low incomes. A capital-wide council tax benefit system is needed to support London’s most vulnerable households. This will ensure no minimum payment is required of those on the lowest incomes and restore eligibility for support to at least their pre-2013 levels.

Third, in the long-term council tax should be replaced with an annual flat-rate tax proportional to present day property values. This should be levied on owners rather than occupants. A rate of 0.25 per cent would raise the same funds for London as the current system, but 80 per cent of households would benefit from paying lower tax.

Any reforms should also be accompanied by an improvement in public services to ensure the reform commands political and public support.

Reform of council tax will not be easy: there’s a reason why it has remained unreformed in England for nearly three decades. But it’s time that politicians abolished this failing tax, just like the poll tax before it.

Luke Murphy is associate director for energy, climate, housing and infrastructure at the Institute for Public Policy Research.