picturing the users of driverless pods in smart cities

I’ve posted before on this blog about the ways in which ‘smart cities’ are being pictured through some pretty sophisticated digital visualisations.  The Crystal exhibition space on sustainable cities built by Siemens in London has an extended digital film showing ‘Future Life’ in New York, London and Copenhagen, which is a good example of some of the techniques that seem to be emerging when a lot of resource can be devoted to high-end imagery.  I’m particularly struck in the Crystal film by the way photographic imagery of the city is literally made to fade away, revealing the glowing skeleton of a digital city, which is then controlled by smiling shadowy figures swiping and tapping in response to real-time data flows.

More prosaic – but currently reaching much wider audiences than the Crystal film  – are the images created to picture the driverless pods that currently seem to be the public face of smart city technology in the UK.  Discussion of the pods seems to be almost entirely focused on their safety – how do cars without human drivers avoid crashing into things?* – though apparently there are issues with how to insure driverless cars too.

In this, the discussion of driverless cars, or pods, or autonomous vehicles, seems to be taking the same direction as so much other current discussion about smart urban technologies, which is a focus on the technology at the expense of the thinking about the complex social context in which it is expected to work.  At least, the media discussion based on press releases announcing pilot projects with the pods seems to be uninterested in how different people might engage with driverless pods differently.  A set of visuals – which I think were released by the UK Department of Business and Skills as part of recent announcements about more funding to test the pods in three British cities – suggest a rather different story, though.

mk pod snowdome

There aren’t that many people in the futuristic landscapes chosen as backdrops for the pods (this is the Snowdome in Milton Keynes).  But when people do appear…

mk pod exec

… they seem to be almost entirely men.  Business men.  Presumably men with no time to lose driving themselves, looking for parking spaces or waiting for taxis.  Not women.  Or parents with a two toddlers, a buggy and the weekly shop.  Nor an elderly person with mobility difficulties.

I did find one image with a woman.

mk pods diagram

She’s not actually in the pod, in fact, but once again she’s in business, wearing a suit and a carrying a briefcase.  The imagined users of driverless pods don’t seem to be that diverse, then.  Sigh.  Indeed, the imagery seems to be suggesting that the people who most want efficient transport are business people, even that business is what deserves efficiency most.

What’s also quite interesting in this last visual – which comes from the Sunday Times newspaper – is the trope of opacity/transparency.  High digital tech in this image, just as in the Crystal film, is signified (though not really explained) by going beneath the surface and revealing the glowing, flowing tech below.  And also, there are those orange-y rays in the graphic which are meant to show various forms of digital information: ‘talk’ between pods, says the graphic, or sensors at work.  This also seems to be an emerging trope of smart city visualisations: information flow through wireless technologies, the generation of data, is made visible by things that look a bit like radiating circles.  In animated visuals, they are often pulses (Shannon Mattern, in her great talk on urban interfaces for the Programmable Cities project – available here – jokes about IBM’s exploding blue circles in their smart city animations).  Sensors, smartphones, pods: all pulse information in the smart city, which creates the data from which so-called ‘smart’ decisions will be made.

So is a visual language for bringing aspects of smart technology into visibility beginning to emerge?  If so, it raises a challenge to the persistent trope to be found in a lot of critical digital studies on the invisibility of code and digital infrastructure.  In these images, aspects of smart are being made visible.  The issue then might not be making smart tech visible per se, but the kinds of visibility it is envisioned through and who it’s being envisioned for.

* the answer: a lot more effectively than cars with human drivers…

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