Separation in Smart Cities

Who owns the urban future?


“The pervasive deployment of air pollution masks had become a mandatory feature of the urban experience by the 2010s. At first glance, citizens during the 2040s seem to have much in common–surgical masks turned into audiovisual masks, though, covering for a different kind of pollution. The Smart City is experienced as an immersive projection now, with data overlaid onto the physical and constantly overstimulating. Information is flashing, sounds becoming incomprehensible due its overall mixing with the environment. The masks seem a little bulkier than normal glasses, and have apparently integrated filters. This new kind of pollution is cloaked by the glasses, just as all urban noise is cleaned
More people than ever are living in the city; cocooned by the mandatory masks. But they don’t really feel home anymore–it is quite the opposite. And yet, a few had recently started wandering the city in a search for unadorned shelter, a space of audiovisual silence, where they can wide open their eyes, ears cocked, experiencing what is left of the unmediated.”

A transformation is taking place in how our urban environments work. A digital landscape overlays our physical world. In the cities of the future, technology isn’t just with us, isolated in different devices, and services as it is today. It surrounds us, supports us, promises to offer ever-richer urban experience by measuring changes of any motion, temperature, air pollution, and more. It uses the context of our environment to empower us in more natural, yet powerful ways. So familiar, so mundane, that we hardly notice. The cities of the future will be smart.

We are aware of the technology in our closer environment, talking about it, questioning, and deciding it. We learn to secure our phones with pass codes, and customize the privacy settings of our social networks to be in control. But the architects of the urban future are already one step ahead: they are evolving the technology we know for a larger scale, globally. A massive collection of cross-referenced data points, involving a massive number of people, and centralized computational surveillance—that has become intimately linked with the vision of the “smart city”. Smart cities need to know who we are, where we are, what we are, and with whom we are, to keep their promise. Technology in smart cities will tap into a pool of information to understand the world, to react, and predict. This “big data,” as it is increasingly known, will be an immanent force that pervades and sustains our urban world. Are we aware of the powerful ways in which these systems and their use will change our world—our policies, economies and built environment?

The project deals with the question of how a seamless data-collecting technology can determine the culture of a city and its citizens. Through an extensive research about smart cities and their concerns it focuses on one possible future. This future is formulated in a design fiction. “Separation” includes the loss of identity in the urban space. It shows the broken relationship between the city and its citizens as a result of the transformation. The story builds on a strange feeling of impenetrability, when profit-seeking interest may become as ubiquitous as the technology. What plans do the architects of this technology have, and who gets to see the data, make sense of it, and use it?

This project follows a Critical Design approach and is characterized by deep empathy, trust in a possible better future and a belief in the demonstrative power of well-designed, human-centered utopias. This requires a broad spectrum of knowledge about the material, before the designer can start to speculate or express critique. The overriding motivation, that is the coherent and powering catalyst in all these visions I read, watched, listened to, was one: efficiency. But if we look there, we find that there is more, much more, to urban life than efficiency. The city is its people. We do not build cities in order to make buildings and infrastructure. We make cities in order to come together, to create wealth, culture, and more people. As social animals, we create the city to be with other people, to work, live, and play. Buildings, vehicles, and infrastructure are mere enablers, not drivers. They are a side-effect, a by-product, of people and culture. Smart cities are necessary to face the problems we will have in the near future. But the vision of smart cities leads currently to a strange conclusion for Interaction Design: after all, the majority of people neither know that the technology exists nor feel like they own the technology, that affects every part of their life. In the field of Interaction Design and its human-centered approach it is time to understand and accept our role in this process, in which we need to take an active role in democratizing urban planning.

The full research paper can be found here.