‘Imagine an Ordinary Street Corner’. Rethinking the City

The discussion of the future city, of how the internet of things [IoT] will have a huge impact on the economy of the city. How it will improve efficiency and productivity. This topic is rarely discussed in terms of its impact on everyday life — the way you and I experience the city.

In the next few weeks I want to offer some ideas on how this revolution will have an impact on the things that matter: the world of work; how we learn; how we move around the city; how we come together. I want to start with the street. This is the basic unit of the city — and as a result is under the most threat.

Imagine an ordinary street.

It is morning. Standing on the sidewalk, people are wandering and weaving their way along the street, stopping in front of local store windows, halting for a chat with a familiar face. There are joggers, walkers, shoppers, parents with children, bicyclists on the hired Citibikes, while freelance workers stare into their laptops in the front window of the inevitable local Starbucks. At least 37% of those peering into their screens here suffer from some form of social media addiction. On the street, some are speaking into phones, while others are wired with earbuds, working through their streamed Spotify playlists.

Already this kind of activity has had a profound impact not just on the way we listen to music but also on how it is produced: LPs are being replaced by playlists and shops have started to disappear from our high streets. Further down the street, those using the ATM are warned by a message on the screen ‘To ensure privacy move closer to the screen to guard your PIN’. There is an irony in that advice: the greater threat to your data comes from the bank itself, not a passing mugger.

One person is using Google maps to find a local boutique, and then searching for directions. His phone using the GPS system first set up by the 50th Space Wing of the US Air Force in the 1970s, smoothly connecting with one of over thirty satellites that continuously circle miles above the globe to triangulate his position and his destination. Another is texting a friend to say that he will be five minutes late. Someone else is booking two tickets for the cinema that evening, and then using the camera to take a picture of the storefront, uploading it to Instagram where she will gather ‘likes’ and comments from his network of follower.

One friend in her network will wonder whether the picture was taken and check out the geotag on the image that, in a click, will lead her to the location on a map — she uses Google Streetview, which covers over 5 million miles of road around the world, amassing 20 petabytes of information, raising a mountain of issues from invasion of privacy to catching people in uncompromising images.

A child, perhaps, is holding their smartphone to scan the streetscape for a Pokomon. Using Augmented Reality [AR], her phone becomes a viewfinder into an enriched parallel world, that looks familiar but offers a data skin that envelopes the real world. The same technology can be used to move around the city in new ways, layering information upon screen. The only problem is the hazards of walking around while looking solely through the smart phone. Recent reports from Australia have shown that while pedestrian injuries in general have declined, they have risen among 16–26 year olds as a result of kids viewing their screens as they walked.

And in the middle of it all, as most people use their phones to find and connect with other people, one passer-by uses the Cloak App to ensure that he avoids those in his social media circle.

The city’s ordinary life is made of such moments. We need to be able to read this turbulence better.

It is too often repeated that in 2007 the world became 50% urban. In the same year, 70% of the population in the world’s core cities owned smart phones: hand-held computing devices that could perform a number of functions connected to the Internet.

Finally: once again in 2007, we reached the tipping point when more objects were connected to the Internet than people. By 2010 10.5 more objects were connected, from kettles that tweet when it comes to the boil, to phones and cars, CCTV cameras and city-wide sensors; by 2020, this figure will rise to 50 billion connected objects, a market projected to be worth $1.9 trillion.

These numbers are reason enough to attract the attention of corporations, governments, bedroom start ups and large-scale university departments, eager to profit from the swirl of investment cash, and all promoting spiralling theories, theses and management strategies on what the future should look like. No corner of the city will be untouched.

At the same time as this technology transforms the fabric of the city, it can also be used to to re-code our own identities; the city without will in turn colonise the city within.

We are living in the midst of an urban revolution that restitches the threads between us, the digital objects in our pockets, the places and spaces where we dwell. This revolution will transform the way we live, work, move about, connect with each other, and even how we construct our own individual and collective identities. But what is the price for such ambition? What will we lose in this desperate search for the future?

This hope for the future is an equivocal one. On the one hand, there are countless benefits that new information technologies bring to our lives, and I would not give back my gadgets at any price, but what are the costs for such devotion? While these things offer utilities that make aspects of our lives so much easier, there is a tax that has to be levied, hidden in the small print.

We often assume technology to be a neutral participant but many networked dreams of the future city disguise vast inequalities, uneven landscapes, and systematic regimes of expulsions. We often overlook these disparities because they are difficult to interpret; but we do so at our peril. Is this revolution a liberation? Or does this great transformation expose every corner of our lives to the rapacious market?

The smart city is a system of control. In a famous workplace study in the 1920s the Western Electrical Hawthorne Company wanted to know the impact of various levels of lighting upon productivity; so they watched the factory floor as the lights went up and down. The results were baffling until the scientists realised that levels of productivity were not changing as a result of lighting but whether the workers were being observed or not.

Just like those workers you are now being watched as you wander the streets, shops, malls, and parks.

Yet, despite IoT’s promises of a more efficient city, work place, and perhaps even a happier society, this is a promise they cannot keep. Not only is it impossible to collect enough data for a perfect prediction, there is no guarantee that it will help to make good decisions. Data is only as useful or as smart as the person who then uses it. And we are still very bad at making predictions, no matter how much data we have.

In the end, this rush to optimise the city breaks the connection between the street and the democratic representatives whose job it is to run it. It can even threaten democracy itself.

For example, in an interim report compiled for Smart City Amsterdam group, the writers recommended in future that officials avoid explaining the technology to people on the doorstep, as it was being introduced into their household, as it might just confuse them.

In the not too distant future, do not be surprised when ‘Google city’ claim that it knows what we want better than any Parliament.

Being on the street transforms the city, while also transforming us. As we think about the future shape of the metropolis, thinking about urban life on a human scale, we will be able to think about ways of running the city that allows these qualities to emerge.

We must see how ways of design, planning and governance change when we take into account the use and the shared ownership that comes with life on the street. The street is a common space, a place to be shared. Public space has always been contested, but that should give us courage to act, not in nostalgia but in hope for what might be possible tomorrow. If there is to be an urban future, it must include a revolution in everyday life, an embrace of urban complexity, with all its human complications, and the return to the public sphere — the street — as an actual place in the city.

The author of Inheritance, coming in May 2021, The Phoenix: The Men Who Made Modern London, and Stones of London, and the bestseller, Cities are Good for You.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store