Our weekly synopsis of stories & signals that might impact the way people live in future cities

Month: April, 2014

Future Cities Digest #22 (24/04/2014)

by Lukasz Alwast

#Mayors #Challenge #European #competition 

Out of 155 applications, 21 cities made it to the final round of the 2013-2014 Mayors Challenge – a competition set to inspire cities to generate innovative ideas that solvechallenges and improve city life. The cities nominated from the UK include: Bristol – for tackling obesity and unemployment through creating a system that increases access to locally grown food; Cardiff  – for creasing productivity in residents’ personal and professional lives, so that a series of small improvements add up to a much more ‘productive city’; Kirklees – for pooling the city and community’s idle assets, from vehicles to unused spaces to citizens’ untapped time and expertise; London – for empowering citizens to monitor and improve their own health through a coordinated platform with new technologies that improve quality of life; and York – for improving the way citizens, businesses and other propose new ideas to solve top city problems. The main winner of the competition will receive 5mln euro for supporting the vision, while the remaining four finalists will receive 1mln euro. Worth having a lookat the full list of selected cities.

 #urban #agenda #science #base

It might seem that for a few of the Medelline conference participants there still remains a degree of ambiguity around the evidence-base for some of the assumptions framing the recently announcedmanifesto for the New Urban Agenda. Representatives of The Global Urbanist and the World Bank reflected on  their blog sites about the ‘lack of scientific knowledge underpinning the new urban agenda’ and ‘a need for high-quality data to understand how modern cities function’. But rather than exploring new possibilities – they say – the central objective should be to show that the spatial interventions we are already making really do the things we hope they will – ie prove that compact, mixed-use development is inclusive, equitable and sustainable. In this spirit, the Carbon Disclosure  Project released  datasets about the greenhouse emissions and actions on climate change of over 100 large cities from around the world (a project funded by a grant from Bloomberg philanthropies).

 #city #maps #social #computing

A compelling project is run by the Social Computing group at MIT, where a team of designers, computer scientists, artists and educators have set themselves a challenge to create every day a new map that will be ‘an aggregation of the thousands of city micro stories, tracing the narratives of our collective experience’. In the near future the group hopes that these maps will serve as a tool for people to better understand their city, and will provide a language to help people discuss the facets that involve living in their city and making them a better place. In the long run, the group hopes to create maps for advocacy at a much broader scale – the most recent examples including coffee shops in Philadelphia, street greenery in Atlanta and bicycle crashes in Los Angeles.

 #dashboards #data #interfaces #IoT

Much is being written these days about a wide range of new platforms to manage streams of data from the Internet of Things. Today,this still requires some degree of programming knowledge but hopes are shared to create an application as easy as Dropbox to work on data generated from multiple sources. An example of a new product in this space is Freeboard, a virtual dashboard which in ‘a few clicks allows to create quick graphical displays of shared information, such as location, temperature, motor speed, or simply whether a device is on or off’. The model on which this platform is running at the moment resembles GitHub – it lets people use the service free of charge and adds fees when companies want to make the data more private. There are a few examples of these dashboards – eg air quality monitoring in San Francisco, measurements in residential homesor even a home cigar humidor.


Recent reports and publications:

  • The Medellin DeclarationApril 2014, UN Habitat
    (highlights: statement of intent to work towards Habitat III, call to action and framework for the ‘New Urban Agenda’)
  •  U.S Views of Technology and the Future – April 2014, Pew Research Centre
    (highlights: survey of predictions about the long-term future of scientific advancement, feelings and attitudes towards new technological innovation)
  •  Innovation Population – April 2014, NESTA
    (highlights: public opinion research looking at the UK’s views on innovation; 5 attitudinal groups of innovators; areas at which people are most excited about – health, wellbeing and quality of life)

This week’s artefacts from the future:
The Grey Mirror (IDEO)
It is difficult to convince young people to take actions now that will benefit them in the future — even when they understand the benefit at an intellectual level. This gap between belief and action is a risk to their financial well-being and health in later years. Research has shown that, when confronted with artificially aged photographs of themselves, young people are more willing to save for retirement or adopt healthier behaviours. The Gray Mirror is a tool that can be used to encourage young people to empathize with their future selves and to perceive elders in a different light. The screen shows positive messages associated with aging and can be customized for the service being offered.


Future Cities Digest #21 (17/04/2014)

by Lukasz Alwast

#urban #sensing #data #NYC

Hudson Yards, one of the largest estate developments in New York City is to become an ‘urban laboratory for data science’. A few days ago a group of developers announced that they are teaming up with CUSP to create a ‘quantified community’. Among the elements of the environment expected to be measured and modelled are: pedestrian flows, street traffic, air quality, energy use, waste disposal, recycling, health and activity levels of workers and residents. Besides this, researchers are particularly excited about the opportunity to research the ‘conditions under which people feel comfortable sharing their personal information’. The first office tower is scheduled to open next year and the first residential building in 2017.  You can read the full article in NYT Bits.

#city #services #technology #diffusion

Equity, public versus private delivery of city services and worker displacements – argues Brook Rainwater – are the key concerns cities might experience when introducing driverless cars, drones and on-demand transportation. In a FastCoExist article Rainwater insists city leaders need to already start developing plans (and frameworks) for the potential impact driverless cars and drones will have on city services. For example: if a city adopts a predominantly private driverless cars system, usage and support of bus and wider transit systems could be affected and lead to less community support. Another valid questions is  what to do with underutilised parking garages, spare street lanes or unused on-street parking etc.? Quite a good piece for a quick read.

#modular #phones #Google #Ara

Google is hosting this week the first developer conference for its Project Ara – a prototype of a modular phone announced back in October. The idea for this project is to provide a highly customizable, from a hardware perspective, smartphone (‘Android for hardware’). One of its main objectives is to cater people in the developing world who otherwise would never be able to buy a smartphone, and thus open new market opportunities. The project is (yet another) in Google’s portfolio that steams out  from DARPA’s Advanced Technology and Projects groups, which models a small-team, tight-deadline approach for delivering innovation. ‘Innovation under time pressure, is higher quality innovation’ – argues the team leader. Full article available here.

#behaviour #modelling #social #engineering

A very interesting book review (and short critical analysis) appeared in this week’s MIT Tech Review. ‘Social Physics’ by Alex Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory,argues that ‘our greatly expanded ability to gather behavioral data will allow scientists to develop “a causal theory of social structure” and ultimately establish “a mathematical explanation for why society reacts as it does”’. And deciphering people’s behaviour is perceived only as a first step, and Pentland sees ‘the prospect of using digital media and related tools as a vehicle to change people’s behaviour and motivate groups and individuals to act in more productive and responsible ways’. However, the reviewer finds some of the assumptions problematic, as he thinks defining social relations as a pattern of stimulus and response makes the math easier, but ignores the deep, structural sources of social ills. Insightful read – available here.

Recent books releases:

“How does nature work in our human-created city and suburbs? How is ecology, including its urban water, soil, air, plant, and animal foundations – spatially entwined with this great human enterprise? And how can we improve urban areas for both nature and people? The book explores the  urban area: from streets, lawns, and parks to riversides, sewer systems and industrial sites; presenting models, patterns and examples from hundreds of cities worldwide.”

“The book focuses on exploring recent advances in architectures, algorithms, and applications for an Internet of Things based on smart objects (SO). Topics include insights from advanced IoT projects:  methods for SO development,  IoT networking, middleware for SOs, data management for SO,  agent-oriented SOs and applications of SOs in smart environments: smart cities, smart health, smart buildings, etc.”

“Social physics is about idea flow, the way human social networks spread ideas and transform those ideas into behaviors. Pentland shows that, in fact, humans respond much more powerfully to social incentives that involve rewarding others and strengthening the ties that bind than incentives that involve only their own economic self-interest” [review above]

Spirit of times
Spray-paint-wielding drone (Katsu)
“Katsu, who gained graffiti fame in the 1990s in New York City, showed a series of paintings created by the flying machine at the Silicon Valley Contemporary art fair last weekend. The splotchy canvasses wouldn’t necessary stop you in your tracks, but the process by which they were created is entirely new. Katsu pilots the craft remotely, but every movement is translated through the machine’s need to keep itself aloft.”

Future Cities Digest #20 (10/04/2014)

by Lukasz Alwast

#urban #data #behavioural #analytics

Interesting work happening at Cambridge Uni – a group of scientists are working on add-ons to the  ‘next generation recommendation engines’ thatshould be able to use behavioural and location data to determine events we’re most likely to attend – music festivals, sporting events and conferences. To get their insight, the group gathered and analysed Foursquare data on the movements of some 190,000 people in London, New York, and Chicago during an eight-month period in 2010 and 2011. The results provide a useful insight – it turns out that ultimately, the major influence on attendance is whether our friends are also there. This has a significant influence on recommendation engines, as anticipating consumer behaviour alongside social network data allows to increase sales – a feat that is often beyond conventional marketing and advertising techniques.

#tracking #developments #Yimby #NYC

 A useful online service has been recently launched in New York – a website which allows people to track the progress of new developments in the city. The website is called New York Yimby(Yes in My Backyard) and has floor plans, renderings and photography’s of buildings in the city,  as they are constructed. The creator of the website is 23 year old Nikolai Fedak, who collects data from developers, architects and The Department of Building. The site is primarily a platform for sharing information, but also construction workers appreciated the effort and started uploading instagram pictures to illustrate the developments in progress. Despite the political divide about the effects of real estate in New York, Fedak’s website has been described – even by estate policy critics – as a tool that provides a ‘useful perspective’ and ‘performs a real public service’.

#battersea #housing #desconstructivism  #Gehry

 The big news in the world of architecture this week has been unveiling the designs for the third phase of the Battersea Power Station redevelopment. Frank Gehry and Foster & Partners offices have joined forces to create a new ‘landmark neighbourhood for London’ – with shops, a community center, parks and 1300 new homes. Not surprisingly,  Gehry’s famous style of deconstructivism reigns strong, with curved forms and organic distorted facades, but there has been some criticism accusing the designs for being too ‘flamboyant’ and ‘fatally compromising the landmark status of the power station.’ Also, none of Gehry’s flats will be affordable social housing due to an agreement between Wandsworth council and the developers which caps affordable housing at 15%. But as Gehry argues: ‘I can’t demand there will be social housing in the middle of this project. This will be a real people thing for the city. I can’t tell London what to do.

#systems #design #algorithms #Superflux

 Alexis Lloyd, Creative Director of R&D at the New York Times, wrote an interesting guest blog for Superflux’s website about our relationship with technology and information. The article focuses on algorithmic systems and how we gradually start to prevail to some of them. Alexis main argument is that more systems should be explicitly showing the assumptions on which they are running, especially if they rely on behavioural data(increasing credibility and transparency). She advocates that the systems we create should contain affordances for all kind of skilled techniques that can become embedded into processes and cultures, meaning that designing interactions should allow us to ‘converse across complex networks, where we can understand and engage in informed and thoughtful ways, where the systems around us can respond with equal nuance’.  Interesting read.

Recent reports & publications:

  • Digital Life 2025March 2014, Pew Research Center
    (highlights: insights from interviews with over 2500 technology experts, 15 theses about ‘the future of digital life’, a LOT of great opinions and quotes)
  •  Good Incubation – April 2014, Nesta
    (highlights: different models of social venture incubation, success factors, case studies from around the world)

Spirit of times:
Gravity (RCA students – video)
A group of students from the Royal College of Art have invented avirtual reality tool that allows designers to sketch in three dimensions. It consists of a stylus and a tablet that have been adapted specifically for sketching in 3D. The tools can link to almost any augmented reality headset and the team have also connected it to an Oculus Rift. “Gravity was developed specifically for creative. We designed it to be simple enough so it could be used by everybody without prior explanation. It makes creating shapes as easy as doodling on a piece of paper.” The designers believe the technology could be applied to a multitude of fields, from animation to medical science. 


Future Cities Digest #19 (03/04/2014)

by Lukasz Alwast

#BigData #insights #Harford #FT

One of the most commented and shared articles last weekwas Tim Harford’s piece on Big Data. The author’s key message was that ‘Big Data has arrived, but big insights have not’. He backed his argumentwith a number of cases where the use of very large data samples deceived its users, meaning they skipped in the process some of the classical statistical checkpoints and jumped to quick – and in the end misleading – conclusions. In principal, Harford doesn’t disagree that ‘large, cheap datasets and powerful analytical tools will pay dividends’ but argues that big data will not solve the problem that ‘has obsessed statisticians and scientists for centuries’: the problem of insights – inferring what is going on, and figuring out how we might intervene to change a system for a better. Article worth a 10-minute read – available here.

#innovation #platform #cars #Android

Back at the beginning of the year four major car manufactures (Audi, GM, Honda and Hyundai) teamed up with Google and NVidia to develop an open model and common platformthat will allow automakers to more easily bring cutting-edge technology to their drivers, and create new opportunities for developers to deliver powerful experiences’ – in other words, an Android OS for cars. At the same time, Audi has released an interesting vision for a virtual cockpit that would accommodate ‘the smartphone generation in cars’. The system could be interconnected with popular music and entertainment services from the cloud, have an inbuilt, universal Google search function and be controlled through natural language voice control. Most cars fitted with this new kind of system will be available from 2015 (with a handful like Volvo and Ferrari making it to the market this year).

#connectivity #drones #Internet #Facebook

Facebook’s $2bln acquisition of Oculus Rift, a virtual reality head-set manufacturer, seemed to be the big tech news last week. However, what passed slightly less noticed was  Facebook confirming rumors that ‘its engineers are working on developing a fleet of solar-powered drones that can beam internet access down to people in remote regions of the world’.  According to Internet.org, a partnership between Facebook and six major mobile phone companies, the drones could fly autonomously for months (at a time)  at an altitude of 20,000 meters. Worth noting that the kind of drones described by Facebook are rather similar to MQ-9 Reapers, than the smaller octocopters, that people often associate with urban applications. Also, worth seeing a link between this project and Google Loon– a ‘balloon-powered Internet for everyone’.

#wereables #IoT #embeddables #buzzword

A new buzzwordin town? Forbes published last week an excerpt from a forthcoming book  ‘Designing for Emerging Technologies’that discussed the future of ‘even more personalized computing’. It brought up the concept of ‘embeddables’, associated with the big idea that everyday objects will become ‘responsive and predictive, connecting us to data and reducing the distance between our skin and the surfaces of the made world’. Based on a few, quite legit trends – wereables, living services, IoT, smart materials – the latter description made it more difficult to ‘buy’ the authors vision, as theydrifted towards heralding ‘a revolution in functionality, that will dramatically alter how people fit into society, affect human psychology, and even propel us toward intellectual or spiritual transcendence’ – in some way revealing a classical question / doubt whether its technologyshaping human behaviour, humans shaping technology, or a bit of both (and if so, skewed towardswhich?). For you to decide.

Recent reports and publications:

  •  The Future is Cities – Winter 2014, MIT Spectrum
    (highlights: a series of articles from MIT scholars discussing urbanism, DIY manufacturing, urban data visualization in healthcare and many cities-relevant topics)
  •  Cities Alive – March 2014, Arup
    (highlights: how the creation of a linked ‘city ecosystem’ [parks, streets, squares, woodlands] can help to create a healthier city, 5 requirements for the future design of cities)

This weeks’ artefact from the future:
CV Dazzle Anon Salon (Adam Harvey)
Is a world first hairdressing and makeup salon where the artist applies makeovers to visitors using geometric designs and making them invisible to Big Brother’s CCTV facial recognition software. The work deals with the most current of issues in secrecy, surveillance, aesthetics and design.  According to Harvey, the method is effective at blocking the face recognition used by Facebook, Picasa and Flickr — and it doesn’t simply cause some mild confusion, it actually prevents the software from detecting any face at all.