“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.

 
 
 
 

After a decade of austerity, Hartepool is looking to Preston for a new economic model

Hartlepool. Image: Getty.

Since the Lancashire city of Preston was named “most improved urban area” last November, the “Preston Model” has been attracting excitement in the Labour party and local government circles. Before this accolade, The Economist had reported from the city in October – labelling it “Jeremy Corbyn’s model town” and an “unlikely laboratory for Corbynomics”.

In the spotlight was Preston’s new local economic programme, led by the Labour-run city council and pioneered by its leader Matthew Brown, who my colleague George Eaton interviewed last year

The idea is called “community wealth building”, and basically sets up the local economy to keep as much money local as possible. It came about in Preston when a planned £700m city centre redevelopment fell through through in 2011. After this, the council decided to build an alternative growth model, based on local procurement, rather than its usual approach of chasing inward investment from large multinationals, which it argues leads to money leaking from a local area.

Beginning in 2013, and with help from the Centre for Local Economic Strategies think tank, Brown persuaded six “anchor institutions” – bodies tied to an area, like universities, colleges, housing associations, which cannot relocate – to spend their procurement budgets on Preston-based businesses, rather than outsourcing to companies headquartered in other parts of the country.

These six local public bodies went from spending £38m in Preston in 2013 to £111m by 2017. The proportion of their spending in Lancashire doubled from 39 per cent to 79 per cent. Preston city council has doubled the money it spends locally: from 14 per cent of its budget in 2012 to 28 per cent in 2016. None of this increases local spending – it simply redistributes it.

Preston city council became the first living wage employer in the north, founded a not-for-profit energy firm, established a credit union, and encourages local businesses to become co-operatives and public bodies to deal with more co-operatives. There are plans for a Lancashire-wide community bank, too.

These changes came long before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, but shadow chancellor John McDonnell has aligned himself with Preston’s innovation. He has established a Community Wealth Building Unit last February to export the Preston Model to other areas, announced a proposal for worker “ownership funds” in private companies at the last Labour conference, and featured Preston’s story in a pamphlet entitled “Alternative Models of Ownership” ahead of the 2017 election.

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Now the north east coastal town of Hartlepool is in touching distance of being next in line to the Preston Model. The Hartlepool Fabians – set up by members of the local Labour party in early 2018, and including prospective councillors, sitting councillors and trade unionists – have consulted Preston’s Matthew Brown and produced a fully fleshed-out policy proposal for a “Hartlepool Model”.

They are part of a majority of Hartlepool Constituency Labour Party delegates –described by one councillor, since resigned, as “power crazy individuals”- who want to see a change of leadership on the Labour-controlled council, and attempted unsuccessfully to oust Hartlepool Borough Council’s leader Christopher Akers-Belcher in a vote of no-confidence last November.

They have, however, deselected four sitting councillors, including the mayor, and expect their faction to dominate the council after the local elections in May, so that they can carry out their plan.

A23-page document entitled “The Hartlepool Model of Community Wealth Creation” has not yet been published, but has been seen by the New Statesman. It posits that residents’ prospects will be improved by “inward-facing” investment and procurement, and looks to “forge a future in which they benefit fully from as much of the town’s economic activity as possible”.

The plan includes approaching private “anchor institutions” like the offshore engineering company Heerema, Camerons Brewery and electronics manufacturer Stadium Group PLC to alter their procurement practices, and to group smaller firms together into “purchasing blocks”. It also outlines how to encourage more worker-owned firms, suggesting favourable business rates, a town-wide credit union and a community bank.

The paper reveals the number of unoccupied commercial and industrial properties in the town (1,727 and 430, respectively) available for use. And it proposes using Hartlepool’s “heritage and identity” as a unique selling point to attract entrepreneurs, partly by shifting more investment into arts and culture in the town, partly by promoting other positives: “Low rents, cheap costs of living, the inherent benefits of coastal life: all could be well-marketed to attract a new breed of skilled professional.”

Although it will be a “gradual shift”, the paper’s authors conclude that, “real and rapid gains can be made: through no additional expense or expenditure, money can be injected into Hartlepool’s economy, almost immediately”.

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Hartlepool has been hit hard by austerity, with spending levels slashed by 33 per cent from 2010-17 – the 24th highest in the country – and central government funding expected to fall by 45 per cent by 2020. Seaside towns are among the most deprived communities in the UK, with Hartlepool one of ten local authorities in Great Britain with the highest unemployment rate in 2017.

This is why the new economic plan is “essential”, according to a local English teacher and Labour member Gary Wootton, who founded the Hartlepool Fabians last year. “Hartlepool – typical of northern, coastal, post-industrial and predominantly white working-class towns – has been neglected during decades of economic policy focused on generating wealth elsewhere,” he tells me.


“Austerity politics and London-centric economic policy is shortening lives in places like Hartlepool. They must be afforded the opportunity to attempt innovative economic models, premised on cooperative models of ownership and socially responsible corporate behaviour.”

Wootton, who hopes the council will pursue the plans after new councillors are elected in May, calls the model “pragmatic socialism”. He adds that it took its inspiration from the “Cleveland Model” in the US – a pioneer for this type of economic programme, in which an industrial-scale laundry was set up as a co-operative in 2009 – as well as Preston.

Globally, from the American rust belt to the north east of England, it looks as if in-sourcing, competitive co-operatives and democratising local economies are gaining traction as a response to inequality and decline.

From a British political perspective, the Hartlepool story is unusual, as its local Labour party’s attempted coup is not a result of Momentum or a surge of Corbynite members. Here, it’s the Fabians making life difficult for their council. The Preston Model began before the term “Corbynomics” existed, and the Hartlepool Model policy proposal eschews that description:

“It moves beyond dominant Labour contemporary thought, and builds on an under-developed aspect of Ed Miliband’s proposals, reflecting the very real potential that public procurement has as a means of promoting and furthering social justice.”

Hartlepool will, however, provide the Labour leadership with more ammunition for its ideas of radicalising local economies.

Hartlepool Borough Council has been approached for a response.

UPDATE

A day after it was informed about these plans, a Hartlepool Borough Council spokesperson told me that the council itself has been exploring changes to its economic model, working with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies think tank that helped develop the Preston Model.

They told me: “The Council and Hartlepool’s Health and Wellbeing Board is working with the Centre for Local Economic Strategies to further develop ways in which we can use public sector spending to invest in our local economy.”

There are no further details forthcoming, but it seems pressure from local activists as well as inspiration from Preston and elsewhere means Hartlepool is the place to watch for the next “laboratory for Corbynomics”.

This article first appeared on our sister site the New Statesman.