smart cities and why they need a lot more social scientists to get involved

I spent a very interesting day a couple of weeks ago at the MK Future Cities conference, held at The Open University in Milton Keynes.  It looked to me like there were well over a hundred people there, mostly policymakers, businesses and various organisations with an interest in this thing called a ‘smart city’. Milton Keynes is a city with a lot of ‘smart’ stuff going on, and the day kicked off with a great talk from its council’s Director of Strategy on what’s happening and – more importantly – why and how it will matter to the city and its inhabitants.

Definitions of ‘smart cities’ proliferate (and indeed there is some muttering that the term is now past its sell-by date), but they’re generally understood to use data produced by digital technologies to do three things: enhance their sustainability by encouraging more efficient use of resources; increase their economic growth by innovating new products and markets; and become more open by enabling greater citizen participation in city governance.  I’m interested in them because, as I’ve posted about before, visualisations of different kinds are key to the smart city phenomenon. They proliferate as advertisements for selling smart city kit, they’re an important way of communicating ‘smart’ as an idea (and of course, these two things are often overlap), and visuals are also crucial to how smart cities are managed especially but not only in the form of the online data ‘dashboard’ (which are getting some attention now, with excellent recent discussions by Rob Kitchin and Shannon Mattern).

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Smart cities are also proliferating – over half of UK cities claim to be smart, apparently – and so it seems important to think carefully about what sort of urban life they are offering.  I think right now that’s an open question.  There’s a lot of big corporations involved in selling smart city control-and-command centres, but there’s also a fair bit of discussion about how smart tech can also be designed and used by ordinary folk, for all sorts of ends other than profit.  (There’s a nice essay in First Monday exploring those latter possibilities, for example, from the Mobile City peeps Michiel de Lange and Martijn de Waal.)

From what I could gather of the make-up of the speakers and audience at the FutureCity event, it was pretty representative of who is driving the development of smart cities in the UK: local councils, tech enterprises small medium and large, and a bunch of other kinds of organisations, including universities, the UK-government-funded Catapults and a range of various interest and/or campaigning groups.  There were very few designers or architects; very few third sector organisations; and, bar one behavioural psychologist, no social scientists on the panels.

As a social scientist, though, various things struck me about the day, particularly about how social differences were – or were not – addressed.  Various thoughts follow. Continue reading

new publication: ‘producing place atmospheres digitally’

Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and I have a new paper just published online in the Journal of Consumer Culture.  The full reference is:

Degen, Monica, Clare Melhuish, and Gillian Rose. “Producing Place Atmospheres Digitally: Architecture, Digital Visualisation Practices and the Experience Economy.” Journal of Consumer Culture

This is its abstract:

Computer-generated images have become the common means for architects and developers to visualise and market future urban developments. This article examines within the context of the experience economy how these digital images aim to evoke and manipulate specific place atmospheres to emphasise the experiential qualities of new buildings and urban environments. In particular, we argue that computer-generated images are far from ‘just’ glossy representations but are a new form of visualising the urban that captures and markets particular embodied sensations. Drawing on a 2-year qualitative study of architects’ practices that worked on the Msheireb project, a large-scale redevelopment project in Doha (Qatar), we examine how digital visualisation technology enables the virtual engineering of sensory experiences using a wide range of graphic effects. We show how these computer-generated images are laboriously materialised in order to depict and present specific sensory, embodied regimes and affective experiences to appeal to clients and consumers. Such development has two key implications. First, we demonstrate the importance of digital technologies in framing the ‘expressive infrastructure’ of the experience economy. Second, we argue that although the Msheireb computer-generated images open up a field of negotiation between producers and the Qatari client, and work quite hard at being culturally specific, they ultimately draw ‘on a Westnocentric literary and sensory palette’ that highlights the continuing influence of colonial sensibilities in supposedly postcolonial urban processes.

atmosphere, obscured: London, August 2014

expressive infrastructure, obscured:
London, August 2014

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…

we’re all cultural studies scholars now?

Rather belatedly, something interesting struck me about the furore in the UK a week or so ago over a tweet sent by Emily Thornberry, now the ex shadow attorney general.  For those of you with short memories or not UK-media-aware, Thornberry’s tweet was criticised for being contemptuous of working-class voters, and she resigned from her shadow cabinet role after a couple of conversations with her party leader.

Here is the tweet (and notice the text as well as the photo):

thornberry

In the online discussion of the tweet, loads of things were happening, of course, but there was something about the whole dynamic of the discussion that I thought was intriguing: the way the tweet swung in and out of being seen as ‘representing’ something.

On the one hand, there were a lot of claims – including by Emily Thornberry herself – that the image was meaningless.  It meant nothing; the scene had just struck her as something that could be shared on Twitter.  Now, we could discuss the conditions under which certain things become noticeable and photographable, of course, but still, given how so many photos are put onto social media in just that way, not as meaning anything, just as a sort of ‘oh look’ statement, ‘I am here’, ‘that is here’, I think her claim has some credibility.  Perhaps it really wasn’t an image that meant anything, it wasn’t symbolic, it was purely descriptive, just a picture of a van and flags, a pure “Image from #Rochester”.

Its status as pure description also prompted a lot of online discussion about how photographs become meaningful rather than inherently carrying meaning as well.  So on the other hand, huge amounts of online work went into interpreting the meanings the tweet implied.  The flags, the van, the location: all were decoded, re-coded, explicated, interpreted, repeatedly, by very very many people.  And so were the processes through which all that interpretive work was being done, because there was also a lot of discussion about the sort of coverage given to the tweet in and by different media outlets.

Noortje Marres has been interviewed on the excellent LSE Impact blog about digital sociology, and a point she makes very well there is that the tools and techniques of  social analysis are now widely distributed among many kinds of social actors.  As she says, “social actors, practices and events are increasingly and explicitly oriented towards social analysis and are actively involved in it (in collecting and analysing data, applying metrics, eliciting feed-back, and so on)”.  She is particularly referring to the digital tools embedded in social media platforms, the internet of things, online transaction databases and the like.

But one of the things that the Thornberry tweet affair made evident to me was that the same might be said of the tools of cultural interpretation.  Textual and visual analysis, and an understanding of the significance of the role of the media – in the strict sense of the term – are alive and kicking pretty much everywhere, it felt like, as the vigorous debated unfolded.  The furore was a sort of mass cultural studies seminar.  And if cultural studies has gone viral, what are the implications for those of us who do it – possibly more carefully, certainly much more slowly – in the academy?

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.

patterns in visualising urban futures between 1900 and now

I’m getting interested in how so-called ‘smart’ cities are being visualised.  ‘Smart’ is a recent way to describe how cities might run better – more sustainably, more efficiently, even more democratically – by using data gathered in various ways by digital technologies of various kinds.  There seems to next to nothing that’s considering how ‘smart urbanism’ is being imagined visually, though, which is odd.  Because they are being visualised, not least by the large corporations who are trying to sell ‘smart’ technologies to cities all over the world; and those visualisations are interesting because ‘smart’ and ‘data’ are not things that are intuitively easy to see in urban spaces.

I wonder if this absence is because most of the more theoretical and critical literatures on the digital technologies that are deployed in ‘smart’ cities draw on the new materialist realism.  They thus focus on the ontological status of technology and media, on the symbiosis between human bodies and technologies – technogenesis – on the agency of the technologies, and on technologies as extending bodily sensoria.  In that theoretical scenario, there doesn’t seem to be any room for accounts of human creativity reflecting back on technologies, as it were.  Only cities remain sentient, it seems.

An exception is a very interesting report on a UK government website that explores how future cities have been visualised, by Nick Dunn, Paul Cureton and Serena Pollastri.  You can download it here.  It’s full of fantastic images of all kinds: drawings, diagrams, paintings, collages, maps, digital visualisations.  (Actually, the website is pretty interesting too – it’s the site of a bit of the Government Office for Science, itself part of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, called Foresight, which is looking at urban futures fifty years from now.)

Dunn and his co-authors have produced a very interesting graphic, too, which puts their chosen images on a timeline.

future city graphicThis suggests that we are in a particular historical moment; enthusiasm for new cities peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, it appears, and then faded for two or three decades, before re-emerging strongly in the early 2000s.  Which suggests to me that, even if a lot of cutting-edge work on the digital seems to disagree, there’s a clear need to think about how smart and sentient cities are being brought into visibility, and with what effects.

dust settles on visualisations of failed urban futures

I doubt anyone really believes in the visions of future urban spaces that are offered to us in the digital visualisations of new urban developments.  Nonetheless, there’s something strangely haunting about those visualisations when they start to look tattered and battered, dusty and faded, when they’re obscured by scaffolding and have other posters and signs stuck onto them.  The glossy futures they picture look best on screens; once inserted into the urban spaces they are meant to show (the future of), their seductive gloss immediately starts to tarnish.

I’ve already blogged about one artist who’s worked on the failure of these images to deliver their promise in the very spaces of their imagination: Randa Mirza and her project Beirutopia. Randa takes photographs of digital visualisations in actual urban spaces, and carefully includes signs of those spaces in her photograph – tatty roads and bashed-up cars, real bits of trees and cars and scooters – as well as photographing billboards with their images torn and sagging.

Now, thanks to Olga Smith, I’ve discovered another photographic project also working to disrupt the perfect finishes of those computer generated images.  This one is by photographer Rut Blees Luxemburg, and was on show in London earlier this year.  You can see some photographs of the installation here.  They look in particular at CGIs of a project in London for a 300m high office block, now on hold, paused at seven storeys.

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Olga has interviewed Rut about the project for Photomonitor.  As Rut notes, “dust unmasks the fantasy of the CGI once it is placed in the public territories of the city. The CGI becomes hostage to the materiality of the city, which very quickly covers the images with dust, dirt, pollution. So the CGI’s smooth surface becomes stained”, and her images play with that staining, its materiality and also its temporality. And in the way many of them stare close up at the surface of the CGIs and play with how various kinds light fall on the CGIs in situ, they also strike me as emphasising the way the CGIs carry a certain theatricality: they provide a backdrop to the staging of urban life.

Rut’s work thus serves explores the specific materiality of these sorts of images when they appear in urban spaces – their placement, their lighting, their relation to the urban atmosphere – and suggests that in all these aspects, the visualisations, for all their embedding deep in the property markets of contemporary capitalism, are also oddly vulnerable.

cultural geography’s provocations of the present: webcast now available

The OpenSpace research centre at The Open University hosted an event on 6 June which reflected on the status of cultural geography now, and, in particular, how the subdiscipline should respond to the demands of the present moment.  Members of two panels were given eight minutes each to explore ways in which the current context is, or should be, shaping cultural geography as a sub-discipline.  It was a great day, very interesting and, well, provocative.  The whole event was webcast live, and you can now watch those recordings here.  Enjoy.

 

is imaging software creating a new visual aesthetic?

 

manovichI’ve actually managed to do some reading in the past couple of weeks, and I’m just finishing Lev Manovich‘s Software Takes Command; you can access the full text online here.

It’s an interesting, provocative read; although, for a book advocating software studies as a new disciplinary field, massively undertheorised.  It argues that it’s impossible to understand media now without understanding the role of software in… well, here is just one example of where a bit of theorisation might have helped the argument, because I’m not sure whether to say enabling, or affording, or creating… a new, global visual aesthetic.  Manovich argues that this new aesthetic permeates all sorts of once-distinct media now, from films to ads to music videos to artworks, because so many are now produced using software packages that share the same functions.

I’ve also just finished putting together a Prezi about the digital visualisations that show as-yet-unbuilt buildings, and I included in it this showreel from the creative agency Uniform, to make the same point.  Uniform create advertising campaigns and architectural visualisations, among other things, and their showreel of projects they’ve undertaken in the past year demonstrates both the sort of aesthetic that Manovich is pointing to, as well as its existence in a range of different sorts of images, from short films to tv adverts.

Glossy, hyper-detailed, fast, using what-were-once multiple media – in this case, animation, film, typography, photography, at least – and three-dimensional: this is indeed a very familiar visual language now.  Indeed, Prezi itself might be seen as one element of its grammar.  And Manovich is a very useful guide to the importance of software in its creation.

However, Manovich’s argument does seem to be that it is the structure of the software alone that is responsible for the emergence of this language: it has “taken command”, after all.  This is an oddly formalist claim.  He suggests that the modernist argument that each art form should develop its own distinctive character, driven by the capacities of its specific materials, is now outmoded because all art forms are mediated by software,  and his own account gives the formal qualities of software considerable explanatory power.  So while there is passing acknowledgement that various users might utilise software in different ways, and that much of the innovation in software that drives visual culture now is commercial and therefore embedded in particular economic imperatives and organisational structures, neither is given sustained attention.

And this is where the theory matters.  Because Manovich is essentially proposing a theory of aesthetics: an explanation of why things look they way they do.  And he’s suggesting, mostly, that their appearance is due to the software that makes them.  The problems for me in this account are threefold, I think.  First, software itself can be theorised very differently: Alexander Galloway’s work on interfaces, for example, tells a very different story about software integration than does Manovich’s.  Rather than emphasise seamless ‘hybridity’ and ‘deep intermixing’ between and within software and media, as Manovich does, Galloway emphasises incompatability, friction and glitch.  While Galloway’s work might be criticised for at times appearing to insist on failure on principle, as it were, driven more by poststructuralist philosophy than empirical investigation, it nevertheless offers an important counterpoint to Manovich’s argument.  Second, there’s the question of whether software itself can be given so much agency in creating contemporary visual culture.  What about the hardware?  And what about the people who use the software to achieve specific, and not always compatible, ends, not all of which are reducible to what the image looks like?

And third, there’s the question of just how far these digital images really do form a global visual culture, as Manovich also suggests.  My sense is that it probably feels all-encompassing, if you live with images created by highly skilled visual designers of all kinds, and view them on a Mac and an iPhone.  But a lot of digital image production is very far from being glossy and dynamic; indeed a lot of architectural visualisations are pretty cruddy.  Drawing conclusions from the good stuff means theorising from the high-end part of the visualisation industry, based in a few cities of the global North, that is desperate to preserve its creative edge from other, cheaper producers elsewhere.  If we are indeed living in a global visual culture (which is also a visual economy, to use Deborah Poole‘s rather more robust term), we surely need to make its diversity and complexity inherent to our theorising, not ignore it.