City Living

From URL to IRL

Picture the scene. You’re on your daily commute, catching the train from Fremantle into the city, head bowed, peering at your phone. A cavalcade of news stories, friends holiday snaps and random promoted images of trending slippers proceed down your social media feed, which you idly push along in search of something fresh. You look up. Most of the people around you are doing something similar. Connecting intensely with their smartphones, and not with anyone near them. 

It’s a scene repeated across Australian cities every weekday morning, as more and more of our daily lives – how we work, how we navigate, how we learn and how we entertain ourselves – take place through the interface of glowing rectangular screens. There is societal concern about what smartphone addiction is doing to our attention spans, our capacity for random human interactions and our levels of self-esteem. But what does the age of the smartphone mean for our cities, and for the way we design our public spaces?   

It’s a question that has intrigued tech futurists for decades. Bill Mitchell was an Australian-born architect who trained a generation of digital urbanists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to imagine and plan for the coming ‘city of bits’. Writing in 1995, in his book City of Bits, Mitchell likened the impact of the infobahn to that of Haussmann’s nineteenth-century Parisian boulevards, in their capacity to radically reshape the city. Unlike Haussmann’s network of avenues, parks and water infrastructure, the ‘invisible city’ of the twenty-first century would, Mitchell argued, be shaped more by the logic of networked data. He believed places would be “constructed virtually by software instead of physically from stones and timbers”. Architects and planners would need a whole new sensibility and new training to support this coming city.   

Mitchell wasn’t the only one who believed our digital future would dramatically reshape our cities’ futures. Media futurist Marshall McLuhan speculated in 1964 that the coming ‘global village’ would inevitably mean that the city “as a form of major dimensions must inevitably dissolve like the fading shot in a movie”. Our need for spatial proximities and population densities, he believed, would become redundant as more and more of our connections would occur virtually.  

Telstra and the City of Joondalup have joined forces in a trial of ‘smart park’ applications at Tom Simpson Park.

Of course, the future didn’t quite turn out that way. Vibrant, productive places still matter, and architects and designers are still building places of “stones and timbers”. Smartphone-equipped citizens need not be tethered to their desks to surf the infobahn. The internet of things (IoT) entails more and more of our urban services and infrastructure being connected via tiny distributed sensors, allowing the virtual space of the internet to become increasingly interconnected with our urban fabric. 

The city of bits has become the city of data. The millions of interactions and transactions that take place in cities on any given day – volumes of energy used; movements of people, traffic, water and waste; social media interactions; emails; financial and retail transactions; and multi-modal transport flows – are now generating huge volumes of ‘data exhaust’. This data is increasingly being put to work in an attempt to better manage the pressures and challenges faced by our cities.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many hope this age of big data will lead to smarter, more responsive cities. Australian cities have begun trialling the use of smart technologies – parking apps, smart lighting trials, public Wi-Fi – to improve a number of basic city services. The Australian Government’s $50 million Smart Cities and Suburbs Program will help scale up these investments to allow for more ambitious technology trials, and no doubt Perth will be a beneficiary of it.  

Resident Felix in his Waterloo tower apartment. Image: Nic Walker

Many smart-city technologies are designed to help local governments better monitor the performance of their own services in areas like waste collection and roads maintenance. The city of Joondalup, for example, is partnering with Telstra to test the potential applications of IoT technologies to better monitor a range of environmental factors like temperature, humidity, pollution, and light and noise levels in real time.  

The recently released Smarter Planning Perth (SPP) map is another initiative that allows government agencies and utilities involved in infrastructure works to better collaborate, share costs and coordinate timetables. Ultimately, this is a platform designed to minimise works congestion and cut project time frames, allowing the city’s road networks to run more efficiently. 

But what kinds of places will these smart technologies and services actually create? With a focus on data analytics, efficiency and automation, there is no guarantee that the latest data-driven technologies will necessarily help our public places thrive.  

As the tech pundit Rick Robinson observed in his 2016 article Why Smart Cities still aren’t working for us after 20 years. And how we can fix them, commercial agendas for smart cities are “just as likely to reduce our life expectancy and social engagement by making it easier to order high-fat, high-sugar takeaway food on our smartphones to be delivered to our couches by drones whilst we immerse ourselves in multiplayer virtual reality games”.  

In other words, new data-driven technologies may make cities work more efficiently, but that may not always be what we want from our places. One of the great lessons of the past two decades is that, despite our growing dependence on digital platforms of communication, spaces that enable us to connect and mingle in real life still matter. Our enduring connection to places of “stones and timber” surely reflects our all-too-human desire not only for seamless interfaces and swipe-able apps, but also for places of disturbance, delight, random noises and chance encounters. 

As the US urbanist and writer Jane Jacobs observed many decades ago, good places are nourished by diversity and difference, not uniformity and efficiency.  

The lighting up of the Waterloo public housing tower. Image: Jessica Hromas

We need, therefore, to ensure the newfound insights generated by all of our cities’ data works in the service of good places. How can this be done?  

 In the first instance, putting data to use may in fact lead to a very analogue solution. For example, more fine-grained urban data that alerts us to temperature anomalies in different places should be used not only to monitor, but also to cool. This means more trees, not just more sensors.  

 Many cities have begun to design bus stops equipped with heat responsive water misters and blinds, so that they act as places of respite and shelter for weary travellers. This approach uses digital technologies to artificially ‘switch on’ natural services like water-cooling and shade in public environments that have, as a consequence of the use of materials like bitumen and concrete, become urban heat islands, exposing some of our most vulnerable to conditions of extreme heat.  

Digital technologies can also help us navigate and experience our places through the events and characters that have shaped their unique identities, allowing for different, perhaps more intimate, interactions between people and places.  

Through digital overlays, soundscapes and augmented media we can now interact with the past ‘lives’ of spaces, creating experiential interactions between the built environments of today and recorded spaces of the past. Crucially, these augmented experiences of the history of a place can help us recover that which has been lost through decades of urban transformation.  

Digital technologies can also be used to disrupt the official narratives of place. At Sydney’s Waterloo public housing tower, slated for demolition as part of a new phase of urban renewal, community artists collaborated with public housing tenants to create a large-scale digital artwork that expresses the residents’ emotional connections to their homes. Light strips were installed on apartment windows to highlight that residents should not be forgotten in the renewal process. Embedded digital technologies were used here to subvert the usual mechanistic processes of community consultation managed by development agencies to create a spectacular piece of digital art. It’s clear that the possibilities of digital technologies can be used to confound and enlarge our experiences of and connections to place.  

As McLuhan and Mitchell would no doubt have realised by now, the rise of digital technologies has seen our public spaces become more, not less, important to the experience of cities. As we design the digital interfaces and data-driven services to support our places and spaces, it’s certain that the evolving possibilities of place and digital publics will, no doubt, continue to surprise. 

This is the second in a series of articles we’re sharing from the issue 4 of Future West (Australian Urbanism). Future West is a print publication produced by the University of Western Australia’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts. Future West looks towards the future of urbanism, taking Perth and Western Australia as its reference point.