Networked Cities and Crumbling Infrastructure
I’ve been following the ongoing conversation around the internet of things and the networked city and have enjoyed it very much.
(To follow along, check out—in no particular order—Really Interesting Group, mammoth, City of Sound, frog, The Infrastructurist, Berg, Dentsu, Stamen, and Quiet Babylon. Very light on Americans, by the way. Something to think and perhaps feel a bit of shame about.)
There’s a feeling of being right on the cusp of something—that, soon, many things will be profoundly different for us not just in the world of screens that we’ve already been immersed in, but also in the physical world in which we exist (or, for lack of a less cynical way of saying it, the world in between screens). The only problem is that this future world—the networked city we’re imagining now—just isn’t that appealing to me. The idea of being followed around by the ghost in the machine, being addressed by name on public transportation (because of technology, not because I know the bus driver), being sold things in the park by disembodied voices, etc., is dystopic to me. All we’re doing is imagining a future in which the virtual world we already know so well, characterized primarily by commerce, is manifest as an invisible layer over the organic, physical one. How interesting, really, is that?
What we really need to do is apply the technology in ways that will network the city to make our day to day experience less virtual. Invisibility is actually pretty key to that. So is a focus on us, but not from the perspective of finding more ways to reach us with advertising (no matter how soft or “social” it may seem), but from the perspective of making the work we do more productive, more efficient, safer, more enjoyable, etc.
This occurred to me dramatically when I read an article recently bemoaning the fact that the United States physical infrastructure has declined to such a great extent as to rank us shockingly low in global terms. Yes, us. It’s sad that we walk around crumbling cities with shiny new gadgets in our hands. Our infrastructure is hurting. It really shows where our focus is—I could string together quite a nice metaphor about these screens being the reflecting pool to our Narcissus, but that’s been done. But what’s even more troubling to me is how quickly our narcissistic trance could be broken and transformed to anger and entitlement by a dumb and harmful accident due to lack of upkeep on a bridge or road or something similar. I can imagine the response, the outraged questioning: “Why wasn’t this prevented? How could we let this happen in America?” I know I risk oversimplifying things by imagining that the answer lies in our unproductive online distraction. But hey, I’m going to say so anyway. Maybe we’d get more done, and have a more reliable physical experience if we weren’t so obsessed by our virtual one.
So how would this tweak to the motivation actually change what a networked city could be? One example came to mind right away, and could be the confluence of several technological trends of interest right now. Imagine if every municipal trashcan had a sensor in it that could detect when it had reached capacity. That sensor could report back to a main database. That simple full/not full report could be measured over time, and once the data set represented a large enough span of time, we could begin to do analysis on it to predict in advance when the trashcans would be full. Couple that will an algorithm that would apply the full/not full statistical analysis to the pickup crews and their routes, and we could create a system that plans and assigns routes based upon realtime data. I believe that would be a truly smart system that would create all kinds of efficiencies: better route planning would, of course, save time and fuel by reducing the waste of hitting cans and streets that don’t need attention, but also reduce monotony for the workers, which I’m willing to bet would increase their happiness and reduce turnover.
My firm began working with a client several years ago that created software to coordinate municipal road projects, in particular between systems that don’t ordinarily know what the other is doing. Their tool would allow workers to know when a street is being or has already been dug up, whether to fix an electricity problem, communications issue, or a sewer, water, or gas main. They created it because many cities and towns impose moratoriums on digging in order to reduce traffic problems, so that if a street is dug up it can’t be dug up again for a period of years after. You can imagine, then, why coordination is so important. If a street is cut in order to do maintenance on an electrical line, then resealed before the sewer team can do the work they may need to do, the sewer work is delayed significantly. I didn’t realize it at the time, but their tool was anticipating where this networked city concept could go. The only limitation is that their tool (as far as I know right now) has to be adopted on the municipal level and is not being run in the cloud. To distribute it widely enough to make it really effective, it would have to be adopted and installed on enough machines and mobile devices to fill it with enough data to make it worthwhile. It’s just kind of clunky right now. But if each of the municipal systems were networked, the same kind of analysis system I described for the trashcans could be created to detect and anticipate problems and then plan maintenance routines that are efficiently coordinated across systems.
We don’t need more advertising systems, but we do need smarter infrastructure. We certainly have the technology to do this—we’ve spent at least the last decade amassing huge amounts of data from consumer technology use and continue to gather it at unprecedented levels; surely we have something better to do with this computing power than find new ways to do advertising (see here and here and here for an indictment of how we’re using our tech and time, and here and here for an indication of what’s technically possible).