“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.

 
 
 
 

To bridge England’s productivity gap, the government should plan the north’s housing and transport together

Houses and bicycles in Hulme, Greater Manchester. Image: Getty.

At a meeting with the Northern Metro Mayors last year, chancellor Philip Hammond said that increasing productivity in the north of England is vital to the government’s plans to boost economic growth.

The scale of that productivity challenge is vast. According to an excellent report from the Centre for Cities, cities in the South East of England are a whopping 44 per cent more productive than cities in other parts of the country. The think tank estimates that, if all British cities were as productive as those in the South East, the national economy would be over £200bn larger. 

To boost productivity levels across Britain, regions need to be able to attract and maintain the kind of highly skilled talent which companies seek when choosing where to set up their operating base. A recent Homes for the North report found that over the past decade 300,000 highly skilled workers had left the north. Retaining this talent will require both better transport links and more quality and affordable homes. The challenge is enormous. 

To be fair to the government, the aim of its modern industrial strategy is to tackle the productivity problem over the next 30 years, ensuring that all parts of Britain can participate in and prosper in what policy wonks have termed “the fourth industrial revolution” – the labour market of the future. 

While the fruits of this industrial strategy will not be felt immediately, the government has made some other encouraging moves which could help attract investment and talent to the north. 

The decision to establish combined authorities and regional mayors to allow local councils to pool responsibilities and receive specific functions from central government means locally elected and accountable leaders, not Whitehall, will be responsible for more decisions over housing and transport investment. 

It is also good news that Transport for the North (TfN) will become a statutory body. TfN is a true pan northern organisation which can help identify the infrastructure priorities that the region wants and needs. The government’s decision to create a sub-national transport body is welcome – although it does need budget responsibilities to be truly transformational.

Research from the Mace demonstrates the opportunities that TfN could grasp to deliver real economic growth across the north. The construction consultancy found that reducing average journey times by 60 seconds across the north of England could lead to £1bn a year extra in productivity gains. 

However, when it comes to housing in the north the picture is less rosy. While the Prime Minister has clearly made housing a political and economic priority, recent moves by the Government risk undermining the housebuilding efforts across the north.

The reason for this can be traced to a set of proposed changes the government put forward before Christmas on how local councils assess future housing need. The aim was to exert pressure on local authorities to increase the number of new homes they plan to build. Unfortunately the draft methodology is flawed. It focuses on councils using a new, backwards-looking methodology based on growth assumptions which reflect today’s problems rather than tomorrow’s aspirations.


Councils are not required to plan housing to match their plans for economic growth. Instead the new numbers will only require them to plan in accordance with what is in effect historic trends. If this seems counter-intuitive, hostile to aspiration and growth, it is because it is. As a result, thousands of homes have been shaved off local benchmarks in the north. The proposed changes effectively amount to an anti-northern bias and a potential cap on economic growth across the north. Common sense must prevail.

New quality housing for rent and for purchase – hand in hand with an upgraded transport system – could act as an economic boon to the northern economy. However, infrastructure investment is currently viewed in silos. Decisions over new or upgraded road and rail routes have to be made in conjunction with an assessment of how many new homes should be built as demand increases. Quite simply, if the necessary homes do not follow, there is a danger that infrastructure investment will be squandered. 

Improving infrastructure across the north could truly unleash the Northern Powerhouse. The further devolution of powers is vital. So too is unlocking the purse strings and giving local leaders the funding they require. Finally, the north needs a sub-national coordinating body – whether under the auspices of TfN or something else – which can deliver a coherent plan to deliver the investment we need in our railways and roads, energy infrastructure, as well the hundreds of thousands of new homes the region requires over the coming decades. 

If the chancellor seizes this agenda then the government’s industrial strategy really could work in the interests of the north.

Mark Henderson is chair of Homes for the North.

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