September 12, 2022

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Undoing Optimization by Alison B. Powell

Undoing Optimization by Alison B. Powell is an excellent primer on "smart cities". It starts by looking at the evolution of them, then dives deep into problems with their default framing, and what we could do which would be better.

I loved how this book opened. Such strong opening paragraphs which brought the subject to life with a simple anecdote. Here are the sections I highlighted whilst reading it...

Page 1

Then we hurry across, because this signal doesn't usually last long enough for a child to walk across the road before it switches back to letting the cars, trucks, and buses through. When we get to the other side, my daughter asks, "How do they decide when the lights should change? Is there a person somewhere who does it, or is it a computer? Do they make them change at different times when there are not so many cars?"

Page 38

"We are now selling the smart city. It is an economic development tool. ... Wi-Fi is becoming the order of the day. It is like having better sidewalks—if you ask a city if they would rather have bad sidewalks or better sidewalks, they will always say they want better sidewalks. The overall principle doesn't change."

Reminds me of my thoughts on "superfast broadband" from back when I was invited to Council tech strategy meetings...

Page 55

This overall process of optimization narrows the frame for citizenship, individuals are perceived as consumers who can be nudged to change their behaviour based on predictions extracted from data they share.

Page 62

For example, smartphone apps can suggest straightforward walking routes to unknown destinations, make it easy to find restaurants similar to those you have already eaten at, or predict accurately when the bus will arrive. Of course, the logic of predictability and, indeed, possibility have deeper social consequences—because the big data produced in smart cities requires "small analytics" that, by aggregating, parsing, cleaning, and ordering data, enact particular social assumptions. This cleaning, ordering, and parsing is needed to make a cybernetic feedback system return optimal results, but the process removes most of the traces of friction and difference that are part of the reality of urban life.

Page 73

machine-learning techniques require a certain amount of stability in order to generate predictions.

Page 74

It is relatively straightforward to optimize transportation or the collection of recycling but more difficult to optimize volunteering, knowing neighbors, or creating local capacity to take care of people in a crisis.

Page 91

But seeing the city as only a marketplace reduces citizens to consumers and makes data advocates the critics of an administrative state that technology industry pundits like O'Reilly think should be replaced with more efficient platform-based marketplaces. For example, in the years after the founding of the ODI, it began to advocate for opening up commercial data as well as government data and to act less as an advocate and more as a networked broker of data-related discussions and connections, employing commercial and business justifications to advocate for businesses to release data that could be examined and reused by others. This shift over time illustrates how it is often easier for open data to be understood and justified in relation to innovation and open markets than it is to conceive of it as a shared or collective resource.

Page 95

Faced with the reality of class-based and racial discrimination, data do not automatically generate the kind of stories that garner attention and data that questions the decisions of the powerful can still be ignored.

Page 96

Being a civic intermediary for published open data is a significant responsibility, requiring advocates to strike a balance between the risks of publishing and the benefits of transparency. Organizations, including governments, can be defensive about making data publicly available and worried about misinterpretation. An interviewee said, "The way you deal with that is make sure you publish all the context that goes with it. So, you describe how it's been collected. You want to help people understand where there are limits in using the data, ways that you can usefully use it or ways that you shouldn't use it."

Reminds me of my well-worn Usman Haque quote: "It's not about making data public, it's about the public making data."

Page 100

The contracting standards that Open Digital Service Co-operative created include standards intended to prevent data from suddenly becoming the property of a different company after the takeover of a government service-provision contract. The detail-oriented excavation of the issues underlying the brokerage of data in smart cities shows the high level of political and technical skill required to carry public interest requirements into the heart of the function of a platformed government. For community advocacy using data to be successful, that data needs to be accessible, comparable, and usable, and it must remain in the public realm.

Page 127

For data to be used to address issues of justice, processes need to be put in place to make the measurements actionable and, furthermore, to link the collection of data to the problem defined in the first place. This is a more complex process than simply collecting data or even working through it in a hackathon; it depends on the community advocacy and capacity building that were part of the effort at building the commons but that otherwise don't fit the city-as-platform framework.

Page 137

Geese were originally misrecognized as shopping carts in water quality sensing applications in Oxford. Thinking about misrecognized animals also helps us to start thinking about the way that people are misrecognized and about how the emergent properties of "design" strategies for data-optimized smart cities also cause misrecognition.

Page 163

The tensions in datafication show that power and agency are always at work in influencing who can speak, be heard, or act in relation to things that matter in the places they live.

Page 171

The smart city in its data-based version measures everything and optimizes the processes that can be best represented through measurement. There are civic efforts to influence the consequences of such datafication by challenging the knowledge meant to be held by the data or the ontological power of organizing reality that smart cities promise, and these efforts can shift ways of thinking and acting. However, they still reinforce and reiterate the idea that a city is a system to be measured and made knowable and that data accrued as part of this measurement is a material that can be gathered and stocked.

Page 177

It means following a strategy of minimizing, rather than maximizing, this kind of data, and it means seeking to employ decision-making strategies that may appear to be more costly on the surface but that leave space for different kinds of knowledge, as well as for data to decay over time, for frictions to be identified and addressed, and for different forms of democratic participation and accountability, including but not limited to data audit, sensing citizenship, and autonomous networking. It means leaving room for determining what can be known, claimed, and acted upon outside, against, and within the data.

Posted by Adrian at 01:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 27, 2019

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Radical Cities by Justin McGuirk

Radical Cities by Justin McGuirk was an interesting exploration of a collection of South American cities, looking at a very different set of approaches and cultural perspectives to how cities could/should/might evolve, when compared to the typical US/European-centric view.

Here are the passages I marked while I was reading it.

Page 7
[Housing estates] sins were catalogues and generalised: treating people like ants, making cities ugly, replacing variety with standardisation, repetition, repetition, repetition. Citing 'failure', governments used these sins as an excuse to stop building social housing, relying on the private sector to fill the gap and allowing their neoliberal policies to make cities more unequal places.

Page 15
Indeed, the very process of branding-based cultural regeneration was complicit in the neoliberal attitude to the city,
where the ultimate motive is always rising land values and profit.

Page 26
As Urban Think-Tank puts it: 'The totally planned city is ... a myth. Therein lies the historic error of urban planners
and designers and of architects: they fail to see, let alone analyse or capitalise upon, the informal aspects of urban life, because they lack a professional vocabulary for describing them.'

Page 50
This organisation is building more houses than the volume housing industry in the region — whole communities built around giant swimming pools. A cooperative founded on people power, and consisting of tens of thousands of equal members, it sounds like a socialist revolution made manifest. It builds its own schools and hospitals and has its own factories and security force. In fact, it sounds almost autonomous, like a state within a state. The movement is called Túpac Amaru.

Page 58
Needy families were marshalled into working parties to build their own homes. This recourse to collective action was followed by another brilliant move that doubled Túpac Amaru's efficiency: it built its own factories for producing bricks and steel, obviating the need to buy building materials.

Page 59
'[...] We don't want to be in competition with the government. Because it is the state that has the obligation of guaranteeing health, education and work to the citizens. So the organisation works with the state but we focus on the people with most needs, people who don't have easy access to a school or a hospital or a house. Túpac Amaru is wherever there is a need.'

Page 75
That was the genius of PREVI: it was designed as a platform for change. The houses were not the end but the beginning. As frameworks for expansion, they evinced one of the key principles of the barriadas, which is that a house is a process and not a static object. Of course there was a tradition of the working class modifying their modernist offerings, as Le Corbusier discovered to his chagrin in Pessac, but it was never intended. Here, even though some of the architects tried to stipulate how the houses could grow, growth was the whole idea. It was potentially revolutionary.

Page 90
Does Aravena see himself as an idealist or a pragmatist? 'I'm not changing the conditions, I'm accepting the conditions. So you might use words like "pragmatic," he says, 'But it's also arrogant to an extent, because we're so confident in what we're doing that we don't need to change the conditions and we'll still prove to everybody that things can be better. And if we succeed in that there will be no reason for not changing things right here and right now.'

Page 127
The notion of conveniently located, self-built, adaptable housing has been rejected in favour of the construction industry's profits.

Page 140
The city fabric is badly run down. Driving across town, you're likely to take one of the sunken expressways built by Robert Moses, New York's own master builder, in the 1950s. The underpasses and overpasses that carve up the city are the legacy of Venezuela's heyday as the richest country in Latin America. In addition to being choked with traffic, they are also prone to flooding.

Page 146
In 2003, Brillembourg and Klumpner tested the idea of bringing what are known as dry toilets or compost toilets into the slums, where there are most often no sewerage systems. They designed the toilet as what they called a House Core Unit, the starting point for a self-built house. It was a pragmatic proposal but one that, implemented across the barrio, had the potential to dramatically improve the living conditions of its residents. The more idealistic position to take would have been to lobby for the installation of proper infrastructure, but, given how unlikely the chances of success, U-TT considered that almost an abnegation of responsibility. 'Considering ideal conditions is a waste of time,' they wrote in their 2005 book Informal City; 'the point is to avoid catastrophe.'

Page 166
The right to the city is not just a question of housing — as it stands, most of the residents of Caracas have already met their own needs in that regard. The right to the city is also a right to mobility, a question of how long it takes to get an invalid to a hospital. [...] The answer to a divided city is integration, and there is no integration without transport connections.

Page 170
Are they grateful to Chavez for the cable car? 'It's not a present', says one man. 'We elected him to do things like the Metrocable. He should have done a hundred of them.'

Page 209
By the end of [Antanas Mockus Sivickas's] two terms the homicide rate fell by 70 per cent, traffic fatalities dropped by 50 per cent, water usage was down 40 per cent, tax revenues had tripled and the city's finances were coming back into the black. A much-loved figure with approval ratings in his first term of sometimes 80 per cent, his greatest single achievement was to make Bogota feel like a city with a future.

Page 210
But the thing about Mockus is that his policies rarely left a trace, not a visible one anyway. Mayors normally measure their legacy in infrastructure and other tangible works. They like to cut ribbons. But Mockus's legacy was inscribed in the minds of Bogota's citizens. It was internalised. His was an intervention in the moral DNA of the city.

Page 224
As Penalosa was fond of saying, 'An advanced city is not a place where the poor move about in cars, rather it's where even the rich use public transportation.'

Page 226
What was unique about Mockus was that he redefined the role of a public administration, so that it moved beyond matters of law or the urban fabric and charged itself with resetting the belief systems of the citizenry. Mockus understood intuitively that the common good is achieved not through fear of authority but through a sense of ownership and that a sense of belonging to a city emerges through sharing the same rules and developing the same good habits.

Page 239
Fajardo described the process of running for election as 'getting the city in our skin.' What he meant by this was that he and the other members of Compromiso Ciudadano familiarised themselves with the real conditions of the city by walking from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. 'I don't know how many times I went around Medellin — on foot,' he says. 'There were parts of the city that I didn't know, or hadn't been to for years. This was a divided city, where hardly anybody on this side would dare go to the northern side of the city.'

Page 244
For him, social urbanism is partly about a participative way of working and partly about the message your interventions send. The building blocks of social urbanism are what Echeverri called 'integral urban projects' (PUIs). These are not buildings, but projects that incorporate multiple programmes simultaneously, from transport to landscaping, from street lighting to a cultural centre. 'So the definition of an integral urban project is one where many things are happening at the same time,' says Echeverri.

Page 254
At the end of his successor Salazar's term, which continued some of Farjardo's policies, the [High-school] dropout rate was down to 20 per cent. And the reason for that? 'We built hope,' says Fajardo. 'If you looked in 2004 at what kids wanted to study, they wanted to be policemen or in the army or studying criminology. Today they want to be medical doctors, economists, engineers and so on. So we showed people there could be alternatives. We still have a long way to go in Medellin, but that's a very powerful message for young people in this town.'

Page 266
For [Teddy Cruz], architectural design is far less important than the bureaucratic systems that determine whether communities are empowered or disempowered. And this is precisely one of those cases, where informal communities have the resourcefulness to build homes out of garage doors but not the bureaucratic tools — a legal address, for instance — to find employment outside of the informal sector.

Page 280
This, really, is the crux of Cruz's project. It is also the reason why I believe he is one of the most astute architects working today. He recognises that social change and the creation of a more equitable city are not a question of good buildings. They are a question of civic imagination.

Posted by Adrian at 08:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 04, 2014

Planning and the Department of Civic Design

Russell's most recent blog post reminds me of when I first started reading his blog. He had some sort of "planning club", which was very alien to me as I had no idea what this "planning" was - as it seemed to bear little resemblance to any of the planning I'd undertaken or encountered up until that point.

Still, as evidenced in his video, it was all interesting stuff. I think going by his explanation that the most important skill of the planner is to get people to do stuff, I'd like to learn to be more of a planner.

Back when I was choosing my career options at school, it was a toss up between computing and advertising. As crazy as that sounds now, given how badly I seem to do at promoting what I do for a living, it's true. Maybe in an alternate reality there's a version of me who had a career as a planner.

Anyway, the real reason I'm writing this blog post is actually to take issue with a throwaway comment Russell makes at the start of the video - that town planning was invented in the 1960s.

According to a rather interesting little exhibition at the that I never got round to blogging about (back in November 2009 it turns out), town planning was invented much earlier with the first university department for it founded at the University of Liverpool in 1909.

That had the much nicer name of the Department of Civic Design. Maybe that's something we should re-appropriate for a mySociety-style smart city movement?

My favourite bit of the exhibition was finding out that the department was founded with a grant from Lord Lever, he of the soap fame, when he handed over his winnings from having taken the Daily Mail to court for libel.

I took a couple of photos of the exhibition, but it turns out they're mostly uselessly blurry. This one, however, deserves more of an airing - I'm sure it'll come in handy for smart city slide decks...

Five town silhouettes

Update, 9th July 2014: Thanks to Tristam on Twitter for tracking down that the picture was drawn by Patrick Abercrombie in 1913, and then updated in 1933 for his book "Town & Country Planning"

Posted by Adrian at 09:50 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 23, 2014

Opening Up Planning Awareness

On Monday evening, Creative Exchange and Engage Liverpool are holding an event to investigate improving the planning process, as part of Creative Exchange's Open Planning project.

Unfortunately I can't attend as I'll be running Maker Night here at DoES Liverpool, so hopefully this will let me provide some input by proxy.

Given that I walk round the city lots, and have an interest in how it evolves, I often stop to read the planning notices posted up on lampposts to see what is being proposed. That's how I spotted that we were set to lose the Banksy Rat (which sadly has gone, although we're three-and-a-half years down the line and the building is only just nearing completion now).

The problem with notices posted on lampposts is that you have to spot them. And stop long enough to read them. And if you want to know more you have to try to remember a code for the application and then remember to check on the council website when you get back to a computer. Plus you won't necessarily spot ones round the corner if that's not somewhere you regularly walk, and you can't keep an eye on other areas in the country. I still have a house in Cambridge, so it would be handy if I could maintain an awareness of what's going on around there.

All of this is stuff that the Internet should make much easier, and a couple of years ago it did. There was a lovely civic-minded website called Planning Alerts. It let me define an area around a postcode (so I looked within half-a-mile or so of my house in Cambridge, and across most of the city centre and Georgian Quarter here in Liverpool) and then whenever there was a new planning application in one of those areas I got an email that told me about it.

It was great, but sadly fell foul of the misguided belief that it was better for us citizens if third-parties were made to pay to licence the postcode database.

It seems that Openly Local has made attempts to provide the same functionality, although it's hard to find on their site - I had to resort to guessing URLs to try to find the page of planning applications in Liverpool, and it doesn't seem to have been updated for almost a year.

That's good, but seems rather coarse-grained. I'd get all of the planning applications for Liverpool, whereas I'd prefer to limit it to a smaller area. I'm interested in what happens in Everton or West Derby, for example, but not at the level of reading every planning application.

So, as a first step I'd like something that restores the level of functionality provided by Planning Alerts.

Beyond that it would be good if there was some way for people who were interested in a particular area or application to find each other and discuss proposals.

I know that sounds like I'm suggesting a discussion board, or forum, but I'm not.

Planning applications aren't something that I want to discuss frequently enough to visit a website dedicated just to that. The discussion needs to come to where I already hang out. In my case, that's Twitter, but for others it would be Facebook. Hashtags (on Twitter at least) are the way that people congregate around a given subject, so reuse those. Maybe spark up a new hashtag for each application, something like the first half of the postcode, plus a unique number, for example #L1_325 for the 325th application in central Liverpool; or #CB4_88 for the 88th application on the Cambridge business park.

The new-planning-alerts website could then aggregate and display the latest discussion on a page for the application, but would be pointing people to where the conversation was happening. Yes, you'd split debate across Twitter and Facebook, but you wouldn't have to police a discussion forum and it would widen participation as other Twitter followers would see the hashtags and maybe join in.

This is all hand-waving and ignoring the problem that many people aren't as engaged online or even have Internet access. Providing SMS alerts as well as the email alerts would widen the coverage, although not completely.

I have long wondered (though annoyingly never blogged about, despite regularly wanting to point to it!) whether a Neighbourhood Printer would help bridge that gap. The idea being to stick Internet-connected printers (just a laser-printer) into corner shops, etc., which would print-on-demand the recent planning alerts, useful notices from the council, and also blog posts from relevant local blogs. (Looking at some of the information on Openly Local it does feel a bit like it could be the Openly Local paper edition). Pair it with routes into learning about computers and the Internet for people who then realise there's something useful on the Internet, and repurpose some of the techniques from Walking Papers and you start to take the Internet out to areas where it doesn't normally reach. If anyone wants to fund me building a few to test things out, get in touch!

Finally, the focus on planning applications often leads to people trying to stop things happening, rather than encouraging them. How can we find ways to bring people together to discuss and organise ways to make their locality better? Projects like I Wish This Was and YIMBY are an interesting start. How do we get more of that?

Posted by Adrian at 11:57 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 02, 2014

In the Footsteps of Robert Moses

In the Footsteps of Robert Moses is a fantastic, long journey charting the influence of one man over New York.

Moses was the head of planning in the city for the middle half of the 20th Century, and his legacy is in the reworking of many parts of the city in service to the motor car.

I first read this sometime in 2012, I think, on a train journey down to London. At the time, I wrote a long blog post of my thoughts as I read it, but managed to lose the draft. I've harboured dreams of rewriting it ever since, but have only just found the time to re-read it.

No epic, rambling blog post this time I'm afraid, although the talk of expressways carving their way through neighbourhoods still evokes memories of Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct and sends me off exploring potential futures to try to better resolve the legacy of the Shankland Report No.7 here in Liverpool.

The Shankland Report was the 1960s plan to run a network of inner-city motorways through the city, as happened in many other cities. It wasn't realised in the end, but much of the land was purchased and so while we escaped the elevated motorways, many of the ground-level main thoroughfares have ended up just as wide, and formed just as harsh a barrier.

We need to find ways to make those barriers more permeable, and to allow the pedestrian, more human life to move through them more easily, as that will perform a much better job of revitalising North Liverpool than Liverpool Waters.

Posted by Adrian at 09:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack