Inter Active City
Can technology help solve the problems of city dwellers?
Or even just tell them when a bus is coming?
Last Fall, anyone strolling the streets of Cambridge in the U.K. could wear their heart on their sleeve — or, at least, on a screen. A collection of computers stationed around the city invited people to anonymously submit their regrets: a great job missed, a guy not kissed, a trip not taken. Database software then collected the entries and immediately responded with five similar tales to help share the burden. The regrets were displayed on large signs around the city and were eventually projected onto building walls in the city centre.
Microsoft’s Cambridge research arm was behind the project, along with the University of Westminster. Why did they bother? It’s about piercing public and private boundaries, said Richard Harper, the researcher leading Microsoft’s involvement in the initiative. “They’ll make anonymous regrets public,” he said, “highlighting how everyone might have regrets that may never be spoken aloud.”
So what impact does this sort of thing really have on a city?
Not much, according to Austin Williams, technical editor of the Architects’ Journal and director of Future Cities, a forum that critically explores city issues. Williams, who calls such technology-driven projects indulgent, points to more urgent urban problems awaiting solutions, such as the loss of social connections between city dwellers.
“The people who are inventing these technologies are creations of this fragmented society. They don’t want to have a hard argument. You need a proper political analysis,” he said. “A lot of these things are public art projects. It relates to people on an individual emotional level rather than on a group political level.”
Tech, trash cans, society
What irks Williams could be the sense of playfulness in many of these urban computing projects, which is at odds with the hardheaded policy building that is the mainstay of think tanks like Future Cities. But playfulness lies at the centre of Eric Paulos’ work. A research scientist at Intel’s Berkeley laboratory, Paulos bases much of his research on the Situationists, a movement founded in the late ’50s which encouraged urban folk to drift through the city aimlessly, looking at their surroundings in new ways.
If the daily movement of individuals through their home cities were charted for a year and drawn on a map, it would reveal that most follow a limited pattern of movement — from home to work and back again — with the occasional visit to local bars and shops. Most people miss 99 per cent of their cities.
Paulos wants to change our understanding of how we interact with our urban environment and he’s betting on cultural probes to do it. These probes are hastily built devices like computerized rubbish bins, designed to disrupt and measure the activities of people in a city during a short period of time.
By studying how people react to these probes, Paulos aims to understand their relationship to the city around them. After stalking a standard trash can to monitor how people approached and used it, Paulos’ team wired a bin to photograph the trash and project the photos onto the ground nearby. Projected images of the trash moved further away from the trash can as time passed. “People passing nearby will be able to glance at the augmented trash can’s visualization, noticing a familiar or unusual ebb and flow of trash within a local area of the city,” stated the project’s Web site.
A trash can that regurgitates its own garbage. Cute, but how useful is it? “You can look at some of the things you do as being efficient and productive and getting things done, while some things are about wondering and reflecting and daydreaming,” Paulos said. “I am fearful that ‘city’ plus ‘technology’ equates to Wi-Fi cafés. [It should be] more about letting us radically rethink what’s possible.”
I just want to catch a bus
While these projects gather data to help frame questions about urban spaces, rather than changing the relationship between the city dweller and the street in any meaningful way, other initiatives, such as those run by HP Laboratories, take a more pragmatic approach.
HP’s Mobile Bristol initiative in England uses a network of Wi-Fi access points in the city, a precursor to the more ubiquitous municipal wireless currently rolling out in cities like Toronto. Wi-Fi, complemented by cellular networks and an application toolkit for use by partners, provides a platform on which people have created useful projects.
These include Active Print, in which individuals can use camera phones to scan bar codes on posters. The bar codes provide a reference for everything from Web sites displaying local information through to voting systems, said project director Neil Stenton. Another project, a commercial spin-off called Node Explore, provides a tour guide service using Mobile Bristol’s location-aware network to beam information to tourists carrying handheld computers.
Mobile Bristol is part of the local Department of Trade and Industry’s City and Buildings Centre, designed to explore the uses of mobile technology in the city. The Centre also funded Urban Tapestries, a project launched by Giles Lane, founder of creative studio Proboscis. “We want to challenge the idea of location-based services just doing mobile tourist guides,” he said. “What other kinds of products and services enable or enhance or augment?”
Urban Tapestries was a computing project that attempted to seamlessly integrate technology into the city environment, providing, among other features, practical location information for passersby. But like many other urban technology projects, it relied heavily on mobile phones. For technology to be truly integrated, experts have asked if it shouldn’t knit itself more closely into the fabric of the city. Think lamp posts that talk to you or Plexiglas paving slabs that sense people’s movements and display pertinent information.
“Mobile phones are the fabric of the city,” said designer and Royal College of Art lecturer Ben Hooker, who has authored several urban technology projects. “If I was to do a project in London, some kind of urban thing where I wanted to collect consensus or get a dialogue with people using a layer of technology, mobile phones would be the most democratic.”
But even though mobile phone penetration rates are high, fiddling with a phone or handheld to interact with the city is not necessarily intuitive. At MIT, researchers are proposing projects that integrate technology into the fabric of the city even more seamlessly. The Smart Mobilities project, a proposal to rethink the Parisian bus system, would use a range of technological enhancements to change the way people use public transport. The innovations suggested include the use of memory interfaces — surfaces that show images and other material related to the history of a particular place as the bus passes through it. A person wanting more information could request it by pressing an environmental sensor (the bus’s handgrip, for example, or the seat’s armrest) and could receive additional soundtracks, images and text.
Other more pragmatic ideas for urban transport advanced by the MIT team include the use of self-organizing systems. Sensors on buses measure the number of passengers, while the location of other buses and the number of waiting passengers is fed back to a central location. The transit system would then organize itself to make better use of resources, allowing passengers to request pickups and drop-offs at random locations using kiosks located around the city.
Hooker’s own use of mobile technology came with the Urban Pollution project, part of a government-funded E-Science initiative. Pollution sensors bluejacked the Bluetooth radio interfaces of nearby cell-phones with unsolicited information and Web links on pollution levels in the surrounding area.
But, Hooker said, because people walk quickly through city streets, by the time the device set up a connection with a nearby phone, most people had already walked out of range, eager to reach their destination. And that is a reminder for urban technologists: the biggest challenge of all is to keep pace with a fast-moving and multitasking population.