Cities 2.0 RE:WORK

I attended an event at the Tobacco dock last week on the subject of Future Cities/Smart Cities/Cities 2.0. You wait years for this type of thing and then two of them turn up at once. The event format was dominated by speaker sessions with little time for questions. I think that with hindsight the organisers could have left some speakers out and extended the time for discussion. Tobacco dock is also a questionable venue in the middle of winter, it was very cold. It would have been better to put everyone into an auditorium where conversation would have been easier between sessions.


If you are in a real hurry… this event looked at many of the issues that future cities will need to address and what design ideas and technologies are available that may help them to do that.

If you are in less of a hurry… this event selected a number of interesting people from around the world with ideas relevant to future cities and asked them to present them to an audience of data analysists, transport specialists, infrastructure designers and masterplanners. The sessions were split into Urban Mobility, Cities of Tomorrow, Prototyping and Smart Citizens, Sustainable Cities, the Internet of Things & the Socially Driven City, synthetic Biology and the Living City, and Digital Fabrication.

If you are in no hurry, here is a synopsis.

Urban Mobility

  • Frauke Behrendt from the University of Brighton showed some results of a study where she gave e-bikes to a number of people who didn’t currently cycle and studied what happened. A great piece of work that demonstrates how cycling can transform urban mobility quickly and relatively painlessly without needing new and expensive infrastructure.
  • Erik Schlangen, from Delft University showed off a system for repairing concrete and one for repairing roads, the concrete system uses bacteria which are put into the concrete mix but stay ‘asleep’ and then activate when the concrete leaks to plug the crack. Then they go back to sleep again! The road system uses steel wool embedded in tarmac, when the tarmac loses its grip on the aggregate a machine goes over the road surface and using induction heats the wire wool, melts the ashphalt and it regains its grip on the aggregate. They think it needs to be done every three years or so to keep roads in good condition.
  • Fahim Kawsar from Bell labs, showed some research on urban mobility using TFL anonymised data to track movement in and out of intersections, transport nodes and major routes in London. This research showed that there are distinct patterns of use of London’s infrastructure, and I suggested to him that this could be used to identify places where there was good infrastructure but low levels of use, hinting at opportunities for development.
  • Nick Bromley from iCity Smart Cities showed that using mobile phone usage data a similar level of detail can be achieved but which continues to actual destinations and doesn’t stop at transport nodes. This is done using the MAC address of phones, so no-one is tracking actual people, just the hardware, and there is no link between the hardware address and the person. (unless the NSA/MI6 are involved, in which case all bets are off).

Cities of Tomorrow

  • Andrew Hudson Smith talked about the work of CASA at the Bartlett, UCL. He talked about developing a new science of cities to help us to understand how urban mobility, health, transport and economics works and how to help it to work better. He suggested that we are going to see a new transport layer made up of drones delivering goods and services for us in the next decade. See this article about a certain well-known company testing their use for deliveries.
  • Paul Hirst of Disruptive Urbanism wondered what we were trying to achieve in cities. Are these efforts aimed at helping people to be happier or more productive, using less energy or being more comfortable?
  • Manu Fernandez of Human Scale City was clear that technology on its own is not enough. He wondered what cities would be like if we changed pedestrian crossings to always be on, and cars had to press the button to cross? He suggested that a use of technology to control infrastructure would fail, but one which hands control to citizens would succeed.
  • Lean Doody of ARUP suggested that technical integration is the easy part, its more difficult for us to cooperate in an urban environment than technological integration would suggest. The fact that we can talk to anyone in the world easily doesn’t mean that we talk to our neighbours more than we used to.
  • Scott Cain of Future Cities Catapult described the job of the Catapult in joining together expertise in future cities. There is an investment programme of 10 Trillion dollars planned in global cities over the next decade to meet rising levels of urbanisation. The job of the Catapult is to bring expertise together to help meet this global demand.

Prototyping and Smart Citizens

  • Alicia Asin of Libelium showed the use of sensors in urban areas to allow people better control over their lives. She showed examples of sensors being used to hlep people find a parking space, or to show people what the local air quality is like, data is there for a purpose, to remove uncertainty. She suggested that the use of open-source technology like Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards may allow future citizens to access open data themselves and to relay it back to others for the common good. See this open source Geiger counter as an example.
  • Joel Gethin Lewis of Hellicar & Lewis showed some of their work creating interactive installations that bring some joy and happiness to the urban experience.
  • Priya Prakash of Design for Social change talked about setting up, a platform for enabling change in urban environments by bringing together interested parties. This team are working with Southwark to develop the Elephant & Castle Neighbourhood Plan.
  • Sam Hill of PAN Studio talked mainly about their work with Bristol City Council to provide text addresses for inanimate objects in the city. These could then accept text messages from people and respond with some helpful and sometimes less helpful information. A charming and witty project that shows that successful engagement need not always be about purpose and outcomes, sometimes fun and humour is enough.

Creating the Sustainable City

  • Phillip Rode of LSE Cities talked about research into what control cities have over some of the critical elements of being good cities. He oberved that many cities have no food policy, the one thing that every one in a city needs every day! There is a great variety of approaches to energy policy, in some countries the energy system is owned by the city and in others the city has no control.
  • Alsion Dring of elegant embellishments talked about their development of pollution eating facade treatments and their work to turn biochar into a useful production material. Her ambition is to turn consumption into a sustainable activity rather than trying to stop it. This is an interesting approach and it turns the usual environmental message on its head. Turn biochar into a material that can be used to make furniture out of, for example, and then encourage people to buy it and then send it to landfill. The biochar will lock up carbon for centuries and stimulate a renewable materials industry.

The Internet of Things & The Socially Driven City

  • Carlo Ratti of MIT showed some work from the Senseable City Lab. He showed a brilliant project where he tagged several hundred pieces of rubbish and then tracked their progress to waste disposal sites. The result was a bewildering pattern of networks some of them criss-crossing the US as these unwanted items were delivered to their final recycling or waste disposal site. He then showed another drone related piece of work where a drone showed a Harvard student how to get around MIT.  I was left thinking that the Harvard student would have been much better left to ask MIT students how to get around MIT, since his/her purpose in coming there was to meet MIT students and learn from them, rather than following a drone around campus. Drones seem to me to be a technology in search of a solution, rather than the other way around.
  • Marc Pous, from theThings.IO talked about the use of open source software and hardware to enable citizens to do their own thing to control their destinies rather than cities thinking that they need to use control systems to make citizens lives easier.
  • Mischa Dohler talked about how difficult it is to engage with citizens in their busy lives and how you need to develop empathy before you can enable engagement.

Synthetic Biology & the Living City

This section was frankly disappointing.

  • David Benjamin of The Living demonstrated how sensor data can be tied to visual signs to quickly illustrate to urban dwellers what air or water quality is immediately without needing to go through further data processing and relay to apps.

Digital Fabrication & 3D Printing

  • Enrico Dini of D-Shape showed his technique for printing buildings using sand, and then suggested that since there was lots of sand in deserts we should build cities there. This is a leap of imagination I din’t follow as we have been moving our construction materials to where we want to live for centuries, not the other way around. His illustrations of the types of buildings that could be built from sand were attractive, and interesting, but ultimately unconvincing.
  • Gilles Retsin of SoftKill Design showed a design for a house constructed from the smallest possible amount of material made into very intricate components. The problem was that it wasn’t a house that anyone could recognise as a house or live in. It was more an exhibition of itself than a realistic architectural proposition.
  • Fabio Gramazio from ETH showed examples of robots being used at ETH to build interesting shapes that human bricklayers would have difficulty with. For example, a winery facade made from bricks that rotate a few millimeters to create a ventilated facade that is still structurally sound. He then made an intellectual leap from small structures of brick made from drones to large structures made from larger drones where the construction elements are not bricks but individual homes.

All the projects in this session made a similar intellectual leap from a fascination about the use of a particular type of manufacturing to an idea about cities. The manufacturing ideas are strng, but the ideas for scaling it up were all weak. The idea of designing places around the technology that makes them is similar to the intellectual leap that led us to Brutalism, and Plan Voisin. Places should be about the lives of people that live in them, and not about the technology that makes the places. I think that 3D printing and new construction techniques have an important role to play in future cities, but I didn’t see it here.


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