A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

So began A Tale of Two Cities written by Charles Dickens in 1859. The novel depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by their aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same time period.

This week I’ve come across two very interesting and contrasting views of what smarter cities might look like which could well be summed up by the opening words of Dickens’ novel. One very new (February 2013) and one quite old (September 2008), they offer respectively a utopian and dystopian view of of the future of our cities.

The first view comes from the engineering and architectural consultancy company Arup. Their internal think-tank, Foresight + Innovation, has produced a report called It’s Alive – Can you imaine the urban building of the future?  In the report the author, Josef Hargrave, imagines what life will be like in 2050 if, as is predicted, 75% of the planets 9 billion population are living in cities. Hargrave asks:

As city living takes center stage, what will we come to expect from the design and function of urban structures and buildings?

In the future cities of Hargraves view:

  • The buildings in our cities will be manipulated in real-time and the components that they are made up from will be a part of the internet of things.They will be flexible structures whose components can be upgraded and rearranged over time.
  • Buildings will understand an individuals personal preferences, possibly at the level of their genetic composition.
  • Buildings will be more akin to living organisms and react to external conditions through a series of feedback loops. They will function as a “synthetic and highly sensitive nervous system”.
  • Buildings will not only be made from sustainable resources but will become an integral component of urban food production, containing areas for food production as well as bio-fuel cells that provide energy for the building.
  • Buildings will be integrated with the systems around them (green spaces, public transport and smart energy grids).

All of the above are obviously going to require a smart infrastructure of sensors generating data that can be analysed in real-time and reacted to by both the buildings systems as well as individuals who live and work in them. A nice job not only for the building architect but also the IT architect who needs to design those systems and make sure they all work together.

The other future vision I stumbled across this week is not quite as reassuring or cozy. Written in 2008 The Internet of Things – A critique of the ambient technology and the all seeing network of RFID is a series of essays which describe a slightly more alarming world where the promise of large numbers of interconnected devices (AKA The Internet of Things) are used for more surreptitious monitoring of the earths citizens.

Mark Weiser, Chief Scientist at Xerox-PARK and the so-called father of ubiquitous computing once said:

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.

As the name of this paper suggests it largely focuses on the threat of ubiquitous RFID devices. At the time the paper was written smart phones like the iPhone, introduced one year earlier, were only just taking off and the tracking and monitoring capabilities of these devices was in its infancy. This paper provides a series of warnings of what might happen when computers disappear completely and really become fully integrated into our lives.

For example at one level there might be benefits from tracking John who goes to shop A and buys object B, then visits shop C and buys object D because we know the ingredients for making that bomb too. For some governments however if shop A happens to be the offices of an “illegal” human rights organisation and shop C is actually an outside public space where an organised march is taking place arresting John may be for a different purpose.

I guess the second city tale could be summed up by asking: when the environment becomes the interface, where is the off switch?

Whichever vision comes to pass (and it is most likely to be some combination of the two) as technologists we have it within out power to shape our future for the good not the worse. In the United Kingdom, where I live, we sometimes work ourselves into a bit of a frenzy over the machinations of government and industry whether it be the latest sex scandal, expenses misconduct or banking wrongdoing. We do, compared with many countries, have a relatively free press however where we eventually learn of these scandals. We also have unfettered access to the internet and tools like this where we can make our voices heard. It is beholden on us all therefore to make sure we do express concerns where they are valid and make sure we continue to make out governments and business leaders are held to account and use technology wisely. I certainly know which of these two cities I would rather live in.