Friday, 19 December 2014

Overwinding the clockwork city

Now that Dan Hill is back, based in London as executive director of Futures at the UK’s Future Cities Catapult, he also seems to be back to posting more incisive critiques of our urban futures, based on his specialty in 'urban informatics'.  It's what he used to do so well on his blog City of Sound,  I got pretty irritated at the more social chit-chat while he headed Benetton's Fabrica, the communications research centre and transdisciplinary studio in Treviso, Italy.

So I am back to reading him.  This article is the in-depth version of an 'Opinion' column posted in Dezeen earlier this year, around the impact of predictive analytics on cities.  Hill develops a proposition that contemporary 'disruptive technologies' may be bad for society.  His central argument for all intents and purposes concentrates our focus on the lack of social contract between startups and most societies, and how they can therefore pick off the services that are the most lucrative, without any obligation to maintain equitable access for all.  Simply put, Hill argues that the greater access is not better access.

Hill uses public transport services and new transport startups as his primary example, because in his view, 'transport (or transit, or mobility) is a fundamental aspect of city services currently being transformed, disrupted and contested through such dynamics.'

He was once again prescient pointing the finger particularly at Uber, Lyft, Bridj alongside MTA, Transport for London and MBTA, given added poignancy by the more recent spate of legal action and bans against Uber.  The case for the startups, and their computer enhanced service models, was not helped, when Uber's automated demand pricing cut in with a minimum charge of AUD100 per ride for people fleeing the centre of Sydney during the recent fatal hostage drama in that city.

But the article is far, far more comprehensive that that snapshot from an earlier discussion would suggest.  Hill expands in depth on the more general issues of the predictive city and the responsive city.  In other words, our increasing ability to monitor through the proliferation of sensors, and to apply the techniques of fast analysis to very large data have profound likely social consequences.  As he suggests:
'now would be a good time to pause to think through —to design through—the unforeseen implication of predictive analytics and responsive city services. What might we gain and what might we lose? It doesn’t mean we have to remain trapped in our clockwork cities; just that we need to try to unpick the unforeseen and adjacent. We might want to hang on to some of these precarious incumbents, clockwork or not.
This time I don't even apologize for not attempting to summarize or contest  Hill's well considered propositions. Hill does not fall into the trap of the easy 30 second blog post masquerading as an addition to knowledge.  He still attempts the traditional long-form essay, and he manages to do it as eminently readable, very up-to-the-minute text.  take the trouble to read the original, here.

Also see my previous related posts:
Internet of things
Let them eat cake?

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