Chair Henry Fletcher, BuroHappold Engineering
Stephen Hilton, Director Futures, Bristol City Council
Hugh Knowles, IOT Academy
Indy Johar, Project00.cc
Judith Ward, Sustainability First
The classical underpinning of a city has always been the invisible infrastructure under the surface – water and drainage and more recently power. In the information era, cities now have new hidden infrastructures often defined as ‘smart’ with their drive towards gathering data and processing it intelligently – or at least that is what we are promised. These new infrastructures bring diverse issues – energy, health and wellbeing, data access and security, amongst others.
The Invisible City conversation focussed on what is now perhaps the most important issue – the issue of democracy. Infrastructure is no longer solely an issue of civic delivery. Cities are now the economic battleground for multinational technology companies as well. There are questions of access and privacy that have implications for citizens. Democratic and economic models are challenged and new systems proposed and sometimes tested. In some cases we are still quantifying the benefits and risks of these technologies, in others we have already implemented the next disruptive intervention regardless of how this might impact on the quality of city life.
The Invisible City Conversation discussed both these new invisible infrastructures and the often invisible impact on citizens. The panel considered questions such as how we go about making these infrastructures more visible and democratic? What are the challenges for infrastructure professionals, and those they work with? What might be the next disruptive shift and how will it come about? How can we make infrastructure work on behalf of citizens and democracy?
Firstly, the panel discussed the nature of The Invisible City. The old infrastructures have not gone away – they are still vital to the wellbeing of a city. Are these now taken for granted? Efficiency of delivery and maintenance is an important issue for the modern sustainable city. The more advanced cities manage and co-ordinate their underground realm with the same or even greater regard than the above ground.
The new invisible infrastructures are not so tied to physical location, with connection available through the airwaves. Although sensors can be buried deep inside infrastructure and building systems – Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction is monitoring long term the performance of tunnels, bridges and other structures, for example – the data can be transmitted, stored and processed virtually anywhere. There are very few recognisable architectural examples or admirers for data centres as there are for the traditional infrastructure buildings. The data centre is quite deliberately kept invisible – some countries bury them deep underground to deal with the energy and heat aspects of them also.
Hugh Knowles of IOT explained that sensors can move – they become personal and subjective. From the mobile phone in our pocket to the newly placed air quality monitors employed by IOT, sensors can provide dynamic real time data about the way citizens interact with the city and how the city is performing for citizens.
The new infrastructures are often described as ‘smart’, but this is a term that is avoided by many of the Conversation panellists, often because it fails to deliver anything clever at all, but mainly because the challenges come in the combination of the technology and the empowerment that it can give to citizens. Stephen Hilton prefers to use the term ‘liveable city’ as opposed to ‘smart’. Hugh Knowles despairs of the ‘automation’ tag that is so often trotted out with stories of intelligent domestic appliances. Meanwhile Indy Johar sees a brave new world that address the humanising benefits of invisible infrastructures that give new opportunities for the city – from a democratic, economic and wellbeing perspective.
Judith Ward of Sustainability First applied this thinking to a very basic new (or enhanced) invisible infrastructure – the roll out of smart meters for UK homes. What could we really do with this technology for the benefit of the consumer, the producer, broader sustainability issues? “The reality is that we are going to miss those opportunities and the potential unlocked by a very simple ‘automation’ – as in, nobody comes to read your meter any more – will be put aside for concerns about privacy and complexity. This will result in of lack of vision,” Ward explained.
In the wider world we haven’t really scratched the surface of the potential of invisible infrastructures. Some see it as a case of put it out there and see what happens. Bristol takes just such an approach, providing another level of interaction with the civic environment and then monitoring the results. Indy Johar, however, looks at empowerment and increasing ‘wellbeing’ as a driving force – therefore defining the problem and engaging intelligent solutions, rather than embracing the technology for its own sake.
The issue is about the relationship between the citizen, consumer and customer with the lawmakers, suppliers and technology companies. The questions of privacy and liberty seem at odds with the simple matter of ‘reading a meter’, but they are at the heart of our problem with the adoption of invisible technologies. For Indy Johar, the solution would be a new kind of democratic delivery beyond the publicly provided or commercially viable. Johar explained, “the nature of this would be hard to define but it would have to be based around open systems of both infrastructure and information.”
We are rightly cautious about exchanging personal data especially when we are unaware that it is happening, but would better trust improved by debate and education be the answer or is it an ambiguity inherent in the very fact that it is invisible.
The invisible can be dangerous – air quality is a major environmental problem in many cities including London. The cost to public health and wellbeing of particles and gases that cannot be seen is immense. It is important to be informed and to be able to call government and commerce to account. Therefore the IOT project that hands the measurement of air quality to the people for whom it matters most – for example, parents with pushchairs – is important for many reasons. Fundamentally it makes the invisible visible and enables an informed response free from self-interest.
However the arguments about the value of invisible infrastructure remain. These often centre around the issue of automation and the de-humanising of our lives. The example which provoked heated exchange between the panellists during this Conversation was over remote health monitoring of elderly or sick people often living alone: do these technologies assist them or increase their isolation?
These technologies are here to stay. Most people would agree that to live “off-grid” from the information infrastructure would make engagement in modern city life impossible. But as we become more aware of the potential impact we must also engage with the broader issues: privacy and security, public ownership and commercial interests or a new ‘open’ system in the form of IT enabled libertarianism in the service of civic progress. Architects and engineers have a rich world of ideas, designs and problem solving ahead of them if we get the democratic and commercial infrastructure right.
Suggested follow up workshop topics:
- Where does urban data come from? How can it be made useful?
- Security vs privacy. What are the issues?
- 101 things that would make a city smarter.
- 20 things you could do with smart meters (but you are not allowed to ask)
- The world wide web / open systems. Are they under threat?
- Infrastructure of Wellbeing: cause, prevention and treatment.