looking at smarter London as smooth: simplified and friction-free flow

I visited the very interesting Smarter London exhibition at the Building Centre on Store Street, London last week. The exhibition is organised by New London Architecture with a range of other partners, including the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London.  Several large screens hang on the black walls of a dimly lit room, all looping various text and video projections related to London as a ‘smart city’. You can see most of the videos from the exhibition and download a report by the exhibition partners here.

The exhibition is based on a fairly minimal definition of ‘smart’ – “a smart city is one that uses data, technology and analytics to change the way we design, build and manage the city digital technologies” – and the exhibition is correspondingly diverse, though mostly focussed on various aspects of the built environment.  So, for example, and predictably, a lot of attention is given to big data and its real-time presentation, including dashboards like Greater London Authority’s London Dashboard (other products are available, including CASA’s City Dashboard) and animated 2D maps showing the distribution of various objects over various timescales, including, in London, buildings, Boris bikes and Blitz bombs. There are also  3D digital models of various cities, including Seattle as well as London; the London one is hooked up to what I assume was a Connect, so when you stand in front of it you can flap your arms and bank and wheel “like a pigeon” above London (this is going to help planners a lot, apparently).

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my arm failing to be captured as a pigeon while photographing the installation

Then there are a range of examples of mapping underground infrastructure, like cables and sewers and train tunnels, a digital model of Hammersmith flyover generated by laser-beam measurements, visualisations generated by projects using Building Information Modelling,  models of pedestrian flow across a bridge, analyses of tweets to show traffic flow… and the report has many more examples of ‘smart’ urban projects, including shopping apps and residential retrofits.

The exhibition clearly demonstrates the sheer diversity of ways in which digital technologies are shaping the design, management and experiencing of urban spaces.  In that sense, it’s a refreshing alternative to the visions of smart cities offered by big corporations like IBM, Cisco and Siemens, all of whom offer a much more integrated approach to the management of urban spaces using big data.

In other ways, however, the technologies, as they appear in this exhibition, visualised in various ways, have quite a few things in common.  One of them that struck me was how rarely pictures of people appeared in this exhibition’s images of ‘smart’.  There’s a clip from a tv news report showing construction workers using an augmented reality app on an iPad, a couple of talking head experts, a video (screenshot below) of lovely people smiling at an animated 3D model of buildings, and there was the pedestrian flow model. Other than that, these images either showed people converted into data points, or were entirely people-less.

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The images were also all somewhat abstract. Indeed, in the image above, the glowing 3D city appears as (what looks like) a photograph of a real city fades away. Otherwise there were very few photographs, and very few pictorial digital visualisations (though the report on the exhibition has more of the latter). Instead there were maps, diagrams of different kinds, and rather ‘reduced’ images, like the one above, of urban environments in which buses and buildings become simple cuboid shapes and sewers and tube lines became, literally, lines in empty 3D space. The 3D urban models were more complex, but still very stripped back.  Even when many of these visualisations showed very complex assemblages of objects, their individual components were simplified.  Most were animated, too, zooming you in and out and around and through buildings.

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This pared-down visual style is quite striking, and seems to permeate a lot of the commercial advertising for smart city technologies too. It conveys a minimalism, a feeling of efficiency and smoothness and even a kind of pleasure in  blemish-free surfaces and volumes.  There’s also an insistence on smooth flow in their animation.  The point of view in these images glides, swoops, revolves, even moves through walls, with nary a hesitation or trip – in the case of pigeon, if ‘you’ fly too low, the ‘building’ you’re about to ‘hit’ dissolves into Minecraft-like pieces.  There’s no friction in this world, no nubbly texture or glitchy stumbling.  (Paul Dourish recently tweeted about a whole range of ‘frictions’ this emphasis on smoothness of digital technologies obscures, for example software updates and incompatabilities,, dodgy wifi signals and reboots, using the hashtag #truthinadvertising.)   This perfectly echoes Hito Steyerl’s comments about digital images inducing a kind of free-fall effect in their viewers (my last blog post was about her fab book The Wretched of the Screen).

And Steyerl’s question about this mobile point-of-view could therefore be posed to this emerging visual aesthetic of ‘smart’: is this the latest incarnation of the god-trick of presuming to see everything from everywhere?  Or does it open out the possibilities of seeing things from different points of view?  More radically, perhaps, is this aesthetic suggesting that this is no longer about human spectators at all, since, as the literature on smart/sentient/intelligent cities never tires of pointing out, none of this software and digital infrastructure is visible to the human eye anyway?  In which case, the visitors to this exhibition are as invisible in its field of vision as the people (not) in its visualisations.

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