Smartphones are all-consuming vampires, sucking our mental energy and leaving city dwellers disoriented and alienated. But they’re here to stay — so how can urban designers use their immense power for good?
We are living in a time of unprecedented visual distraction. In the modern urban environment, our attention has to battle with myriad layers of signage and communication — some useful, some not — from billboard advertisements to traffic lights. At the same time, an even more pervasive source of visual pollution can be found in our own hands. The constant drip, drip, drip of digital diversions originating from our smartphones and other devices is reshaping how our minds behave and function, and how we perceive the world around us.
The “tragedy of the commons” — the term used to describe a situation in which individuals act in accordance with their own self-interest at the expense of the common good — is often used to explain the persistence of modern environmental problems. If only we had more data, facts and knowledge of the unintended consequences of our actions, the thinking goes, we would make better choices that would benefit everyone.
I’ve come to realize that this is wishful thinking. Even with a clear understanding of the consequences of our actions, a vast majority of people will still seek to have their desires satisfied rather than extinguished. The desire for travel is no different.
In his “Confessions,” St. Augustine prayed to be delivered from his lustful desires. “Grant me chastity and continence,” he pleads with God, “but not yet.”
To put this into modern terms, most environmentally minded people (me included) are living as if to say, “I want to reduce my carbon footprint, but not yet.”
Cities stand to benefit from ever-increasing technological advances. Digital information is helping solve our most pressing urban challenges. Yet the rising level of data we are now capable of generating can obscure the original intention and purpose of this work if we don’t stay mindful of the social dynamics at play by engaging with the people that are meant to benefit from it.
Smart and connected technologies embedded across city infrastructures can help monitor, anticipate and manage urban issues in new and effective ways. From spotting economic trends and improving health to combating crime and optimizing traffic flows, intelligent infrastructure has the potential to help us make more informed decisions for solving some of the greatest issues that cities face.
Much of the optimism surrounding intelligent infrastructure, however, relies on concepts that can be easily misunderstood or overhyped, particularly those related to smart buildings and smart cities such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and Big Data. “Smart” should be understood not as something that you simply install as an add-on; rather, it is an enabler of larger outcomes, something that requires human intervention and implementation. To really get the most out of these technologies, in other words, we first need to take a step back — and maybe even slow down.
The first three days of 2018 were unlike any I had ever experienced. I was in Laos visiting the town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its rich urban character and remarkably well-preserved architectural and cultural heritage. As I wandered the side streets — with its human-scale temples, humble homes, cool cafes, and seamless integration with the local ecosystem — I was struck by just how good this town made me feel. It was a sense of well-being so unique that it was almost palpable, yet difficult to put into words. What I found so striking wasn’t just its visual appearance, but also its acoustic ecology, its friendly residents, and its simple cuisine. As others who have visited Luang Prabang before me have noted, I learned after I returned home, it’s the kind of singular place that can elicit this sort of response for no other reason than just being there.
The experience reminded me
of what the acclaimed architect and urban theorist Christopher Alexander
described as architecture’s ability to heighten one’s sense of being in the
world. Under ideal circumstances, Alexander contends, the built environment
could help people “feel their own existence as human beings”; a certain kind of
existential experience can arise between building and individual.
Smart urban technology has the potential to transform our cities — but watch out for unintended consequences.
What would cities look like if they were built from scratch, from the internet up? This is the question being asked by Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. What’s emerging from this thought experiment is a new approach to city-building, one that sees urban districts as platforms for testing and refining technologies that improve quality of life. Sidewalk Labs’ mission, it claims, is not to create a city of the future, but to create the future of cities. Continue reading →
There is perhaps no scientific innovation more anticipated — or misunderstood — than artificial intelligence (A.I.). A.I. will transform every industry, from medicine to finance, from law to education, and from energy to agriculture. It holds the potential to bring unprecedented benefits to humanity, influencing how we will communicate, travel, learn, work, and live. It will fundamentally change how we see ourselves. It has the potential to help us solve some of our most enduring problems, from climate change to economic inequality.
A.I. isn’t without its risks, however. It seems increasingly likely that as long as we continue to make advances in A.I. we will one day build machines that possess intelligence far superior to our own. The concern is not that this “superintelligent” A.I. will become malevolent or evil, as is so often portrayed in pop culture and the media. Rather, the concern is that we will build machines that are so much more competent than we are that even the slightest divergence between their goals and our own could turn out to be disastrous. Even in the best-case scenario, where our interests and the interests of a superintelligent A.I. are aligned, we will still need to absorb the social and economic consequences. Continue reading →
Misinformation can now be spread effortlessly through the echo chambers of social media at an unprecedented scale and velocity. However postmodern these assaults on public facts may seem, they are, in fact, nothing new. The “post-truth” narratives and the construction of alternative realities are merely a reflection of a much deeper and more systemic problem, one that did not originate in the twenty-first century.
The problem is one of human cognition. We have a tendency to exhibit numerous biases, fallacies, and illusions — the very lifeblood of post-truth narratives. These behavioral and cognitive errors aren’t flaws in the system; rather, they arise as a result of being built into the very cognitive machinery that allows us to think. So while problematic post-truth narratives may appear to be imposed on us from outside or above, they are actually more of a collective manifestation of our default cognitive setpoint. Continue reading →