“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.

 
 
 
 

Updated: When does London’s Crossrail open?

Artist’s impression of a westbound Crossrail train. Image: Crossrail.

The article below, originally published on 12 March 2018, outlined the surprisingly complex answer to the question posed in the headline. On 31 August 2018, though, news broke that TfL was to miss the most important deadline in the Crossrail calendar – December 2018, when the first passenger trains would run through the central tunnel. 

According to the Guardian, Crossrail executives have warned that

the central section of the line, travelling under the capital from Paddington to Abbey Wood, would now not open until autumn 2019 to complete building work and allow for extensive testing to ensure it opened as a safe and reliable railway.

This is not a huge surprise – as you can tell from the fact I warned this might happen at the bottom of the article. And the authorities claim that construction work is largely complete, so hopefully the timetable wont slip any further. 

But nonetheless it means that the answer to the most obvious version of the question When Does Crossrail Open? is now autumn 2019. This is sad, and everyone at CityMetric Towers will be wearing black armbands for the next 12-15 months as an act of mourning.

Anyway: the text below contains a lot of information about both what should have happened, and what in many cases still will, so with a few minor edits I have left it in place. Read it, if that’s your bag.

Crossrail – or the Elizabeth line, as it was irritatingly renamed in 2016, for some reason; I’ll be using the two names interchangeably – will be the biggest addition to the London transport network in decades: a new east-west rail tunnel beneath the streets of the capital, linking the main lines into Paddington and Liverpool Street for the first time. Trains will run directly from Reading or Heathrow in the west, via the West End and City, to Shenfield or Abbey Wood in the east.

All this, the group building the line have promised, will increase central London’s rail capacity by 10 per cent. It’ll make it possible to get from, say, Whitechapel to Tottenham Court Road in just seven minutes. Best of all, it’ll make it much easier for the bankers of Canary Wharf to get direct trains to both the West End and the city’s main airport, and since we all basically want bankers to be able to have an easy time of it, I’m sure we’re all delighted about that.

At any rate: at some point soon, London will have what is, in effect, a giant new tube line beneath its streets, and if you’re reading this website, then there’s a fair chance you’re the sort of person who’ll be excited about this.

But when is it happening? When will Crossrail open?

The short, troubled life of TfL Rail

If you squint, the first bit of the line is actually already open, sort of. Transport for London (TfL) took over the Liverpool Street to Shenfield suburban services in May 2015, and currently runs them under its TfL Rail brand. It even has proper Crossrail/Elizabeth line trains: the first of the new Class 345 trains, with a purple colour-scheme, air conditioning and modern computerised information signs, began to run on this line in June 2017.

Inside a new Class 345. Image: TfL.

But while the Shenfield line now has Crossrail trains serving Crossrail stations, it is not in any sensible sense Crossrail: it’s the same old Shenfield metro service, slightly polished up and rebranded. Most of the trains on the route are still the rubbish old ones, and west of Stratford, it’s not even the right tracks: the Elizabeth line will enter a new tunnel and run to Liverpool Street via Whitechapel, while TfL Rail still trundles along the Great Eastern Main Line above ground.

All this is one reason why the service is branded TfL Rail. The other is that it is, currently, not very good, and closes depressingly often for engineering works, of the sort you need to do when you’re opening a £15bn new railway. If it had been called Crossrail or the Elizabeth Line, then people would start associating those names with rail services that were Not Very Good either. If people hate TfL Rail then, well, it doesn’t really matter because it’ll be gone soon.

It was supposed to be gone by the end of this year, in fact.

Bloody hell. Image: TfL.

A profusion of purple

A second TfL Rail service actually opened in May 2018: this one runs between Paddington and Heathrow, replacing Heathrow Connect and some of the Great Western suburban services.

But this one was intended to only last for seven months, because, in December 2018, this was meant to happen:

Hmmm. Image: TfL.

Look carefully at that map, and you’ll notice it contains not one Elizabeth line, but three. Two will be the TfL Rail services (Liverpool Street to Shenfield, Paddington to Heathrow), now rebranded. The exciting one is the third: that’s the new tunnel, running from Paddington, under the West End and the City to Docklands and Abbey Wood.

All this is a bit confusing, in its way. Someone arriving at Heathrow and trying to get to Stratford may glance at the map, see the Elizabeth line and think they can get a direct train. In fact, they’ll need to change, twice: once at Paddington and again at Liverpool Street.

Luckily, though, it was meant to be a temporary state of affairs because in May 2019 the Shenfield branch would be hooked up to the new network. In December 2019, the Heathrow and Reading branches would join the line too, and the project will be complete.

The full line map. Image: TfL.

So: why is Crossrail/the Elizabeth line meant to open? It depends which bit you want. The central section and Abbey Wood branch should have opened this December; the Shenfield one in May 2019; the western branches in December 2019.

Unless...

Except of course that isn’t actually happening at alll: on the last day of August TfL quietly admitted the opening of the central section would be delayed by up to a year.

All this was precited. In February, the excellent London Reconnections published a long read under the worrying headline, “Crossrail: Cutting it fine”. An extract:

To quote Mark Wild, head of London Underground, on 30 January 2018: “We can still do it but it is very hard and complex and of course it brings with it cost pressures as well.”

This did seem to a recurring theme – ‘it can still be done’. The trouble is, the assertion does now seem to carry an unspoken addendum ‘provided nothing else major goes wrong’.

The article in question pointed out that there are a number of signs of slippage. The first new Crossrail trains were a month late in making their debut on the Shenfield line, and their doors have been malfunctioning. There have been problems with the power and signalling systems on the new line, too, and there are signs some of the station construction work is behind schedule.

The report concluded:

The current consensus within LR Towers is that the Elizabeth line will still open on time – a fact helped by the exact date still not yet being announced. Some stations will not be in the state that one might desire, but they will be capable of serving their purpose. All that can be rectified. We do wonder, however, if it will be possible to catch a new Elizabeth line train from Heathrow to Canary Wharf in December 2019.

If the project schedule slips, slightly, it won’t be any massive shock: such things happen with megaprojects and the surprise with Crossrail, so far, has actually been how well it’s all gone.

It’s also worth noting that London has been waiting a very long time for this one. Crossrail officially received government backing in 2008 – but previous versions of the project had been proposed, and abandoned, in the 1990s, 1970s and even 1940s.


So: Crossrail will be a few months late. But after over 70 years, what’s a few months between friends?

The interesting question now is whether this means that, when it does open, it can open in full: perhaps rather than the phased opening originally intended, the Paddington and Liverpool Street branches will be operational from day one.

Whenever day one turns out to be.

If you’ve got a question you’d like us to answer, why not write in?

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

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