Write up: TEDxCity2.0 City of Bits in Adelaide

There is nothing like a review of an event that comes 6 months after the fact. Well actually there is (and this is a pathetic attempt to retroactively justify why I have not been able to contribute to my blog as much I would like to) and that is that since the Adelaide based TEDxCity 2.0 in Adelaide last October, there have been developments both in Australia and overseas that will make this post a much richer commentary than it otherwise would have been.

For those of you who aren’t in the loop, TEDxAdelaide hosted a dedicated TEDxCity 2.0 event last October. The licensee and curator, Kristin Alford of Bridge8, is what we call a ‘futurist’ and as such a very apt host for the day. The program gathered the very best of urban thinkers and social entrepreneurs of Adelaide (and this includes the Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Stephen Yarwood) in an intimate setting. The event was developed to coincide with the IDC’s closing statement, the 5000+ Collaborative City exhibition at Tuxedo Cat on North Terrace, a great way to retire the IDC’s role within DPC and the State Government.

collab City

I had been involved in the Moving City Forum, once of the 5 or 6 forums that formed the basis of the consultation and collaboration between public and private sector to imagine the future of Adelaide and to develop speculative strategic projects throughout the city that would promote integrated design. At the forum, I was asked to speak about data in cities and how movement in cities extends beyond the movement of goods and people into flows of invisible data. It was an Urban Informatics 101 that, I think, challenged the thinking for some of the attendees. You can have a look at my talk here. I would also encourage you to browse the other talks and resources that have been compiled on the 5000+ website, a great compendium to use as an educational tool.

The Moving City Forum was a good introductory piece for the TEDx talk which went one step forward and built on the argument that data is also moving through our cities capture by sensors, analysed by computers and fed back into the urban realm to establish that invisible information shapes the way we design and use our cities. You can view the whole talk here.

My talk was called ‘City of Bits’, a title that was not of my choosing but that was an apt reference to William J. Mitchell’s eponymous book of 1996.  A visionary piece of literature that foresaw the logic behind cities and people connected to one another through the platform of the World Wide Web.

For TEDx, I couched my argument in an obvious analogy, pointing out the shortsightedness of relying on the tangible and visible as inputs into the design of our cities. I used the analogy of Charles Booth’s mapping of London under the cholera epidemic to show that small and invisible thing such as bacteria, once visualised and understood, reshaped forever our understanding of the connection between water, sanitation and built form. A bit of a retro argument to make a point about the digital age but seemed to illustrate my premise adequately.

Charles Booth

This established the discipline of data visualisation as a strategic activity in urban analysis, not only a cool art form that will fade with time. I looked to the work of CASA at UCL, SIDL at Columbia University, and now the recently founded Civic Data Design Project at MIT as research institutes that are establishing data visualisation as a strategic discipline.

There has been some debate in the past few months around the fact that data visualisation and infographics in general have been trivialised and are, in many instances, not as statistically sound as they should be, and used as a way to make an argument or a dataset more convincing that it really is. This is an issue that mapping and statistical analysis in general suffers from, as both of these can be, in fact, deeply political and subjective toolsets.

I feel it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this discipline and the need for spatial analysis to be grounded in sound methodologies as well as intuitive ways of presenting complex information. This is something that the Data team at the Guardian does so well. Only yesterday I was looking through their forensic work on the London Riots which looked into the detail of how social media helped create and quash rumours.  The interactive interface is also nothing short of awesome. The team explains how they built it here.

Screen Shot 2013-04-13 at 1.30.16 PM

Back to Adelaide and the City 2.0, my argument then moved on to establish that there are 6 ways in which invisible data impacts the way we design and use our cities. I rushed through some of these on the day so I thought it worthwhile to spell out my thinking on this in written form.  These are:

1. Data as a primary input shifts the discipline of urban design into the realm of service design where the urban experience is created spatially but also in a layered fashion through the data about that space that you can query at any one time. Whether through augmented reality applications such as the Museum of the Phantom City, or through location- based services such as Evernote’s Hello or Highlight, our experience of a particular space in the city is something that we can tune in and out of. This is impacting on the way city makers are thinking about the role and programming of public spaces: why should urban design elements of a city be fixed when it could be looked at as a platform for renewable programming, supported by the basic infrastructure of power and data? This is a theme I had already explored on Arup’s Thought Leadership Blog a few months earlier.

2. The second way in which data changes the way we use our cities is in the possibility of gaining mass insight into the way cities are used. For this I used the example of the interactive visualisation project Arup did for the City of Melbourne which looked at understanding on a city scale the patterns and frequency of noise complaints throughout the city. Rather than looking at this data as a series of incidents that are seemingly unrelated, the interface help policy makers think about the relationship between complaints and council-led activities and permitted uses.

3. The third is the exponential growth of Digital Public Space which refers to digitally connected spaces that are emerging across cities globally. Wi-Fi is indeed fast becoming a basic public amenity, yet one that is still marred with a lot of confusion and unresolved governance. The concept is to make of  public spaces both physical and virtual commons that can be used as a third space. Through our work with the State Library of Queensland, the State Library of NSW and others, we have found that digital public spaces are amongst the most popular offerings of some of these institutions and that these drive visitation numbers in unexpected proportions.

Digital Public Space

4. But all this data unfortunately doesn’t just live in the cloud with no impact on land use and the environment. Through the spatial dissociation of where data is created and where it has a physical and environmental impact we have created a disconnect between the creation of data and where that data needs to be stored, in a very similar way to the way we have created a disconnect between meat and where is comes from. Every single tween, every single instragram needs to be stored somewhere on a server, in a data centre that is a highly energy, and therefore carbon intensive, facility. Carbon (In)Justice refers to the urban and land use impacts of these data centres as a proliferating urban use that has really never been planned for that impacts on energy demand, co-location, urban heat and so many other environmental factors in their direct vicinity. This highlights that, to our great despair, the cloud cannot be the answer to our environmental woes: what goes into the cloud has to come out somewhere….

5. In terms of how increasing data is impacting the design of our cities, data and our expectation for large and instant amounts of it is also driving a particular infrastructure agenda around the design and delivery of fibre optic networks. The NBN is currently being rolled out in Australia, which under the Labor government, connects fibre to the home (the Opposition plan, proposes to connect fibre to street corners and then use the existing Telstra copper infrastructure to connect to homes, a subpar solution in my humble opinion). The intention behind the roll out of the NBN is that it will drive the growth of a digital economy (which it probably will), but this economy will also continue to demand ever improving infrastructure, or in other words, Hyperperforming Infrastructure. The NBN’s currently proposed speeds are probably fine for domestic use, but the use of fibre in commercial contexts, where instant access to data is a matter of profit or loss, is actually driving locational choices in cities. As Frank Partnoy explains in his book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, locational decisions for stock trading firms in New York City are driven by the need to be able to wait as long as possible before making a decision on whether to buy or sell stock. And we are talking milliseconds here. Which is where the demand for not only high performing, but hyper performing infrastructure is coming from. It is banking and high frequency trading that is driving that agenda today. What sector will be next?

6. Finally, data about the way we use our cities and its analysis is shifting design from a predictive discipline to an adaptive discipline. This is an idea that Dan Hill and I used to discuss a lot when he was still at Arup (and I am sure he won’t mind me using the diagram created to explain this): a concept that challenges a lot of what we hold true about architectural design and practice as a way of anticipating activities and behaviours in a space. Adaptive design looks first at the evidence of behavioural patterns to then intervene in space and thus creates a practice of urban prototyping of services and spaces that is much more nimble and flexible than the way we currently procure our built environment.

Adaptive design

This quick and imperfect write up and hopefully a good way to translate what my thinking was on the day, especially given the limited time I had to present on the day (more TED speaking training needed here!) and is also the foundation for the interview I did on ABC by Design for Fenella Kernebone and Janne Ryan only shortly after.

I will soon be doing a write up of the #digitaldisruption talk presented by Siobhan Toohill (@verdantflaneur) of Westpac, Shauna Coffey of Deloitte, Rachel Dixon of Viacom and myself. Stay tuned and enjoy the weather!




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