Mobile Cities

Few days ago the tech news world was been dominated by the Amazon’s Whole Food acquisition. Different sources speculated around the strategic value Whole Food has in Amazon’s current business, as the Seattle company has been already experimenting on grocery from a delivery perspective (AmazonFresh) and location (AmazonGo). Where does Whole Food stays? Reading this article in Wired I sense that the company is looking for a wider spectrum that possibly aims to join the physical and the digital world, by means of people, cities and infrastructure. The Wired article points out that AmazonFresh has a delivery problem: i.e. even though fresh vegetables are delivered to you in instants of (Amazon) time, there is a “pick up” issue. Customers are not always available for pick up, thus making any purchase ready for bin. With AmazonGo the company made physical the digital web experience. By removing “human employees”, customers can stroll around the shelves and leave with no queue; the app identifies individuals, and their shopping list, thus making the payment touchless. However the problem is that customers actually need to go to the grocery store; the convenience of having custom deliveries falls, which has been Amazon strength since the beginning.

Moby Mart is an automated grocery store, which “satellites” around the city. Imagine a food truck, but with some embedded AI, which can read on demand customers’ needs and keep food fresh until needed. Of course the project is only a prototype, but it is very fascinating in terms of the conversation it opens on automated mobility, urban design and digital/physical infrastructure. Imagine that still becomes obsolete and shops, services, etc are able to move around the city like Uber. A dynamic urban space, which deletes centuries of urban planning and creates different kind of places, which parameters are no longer defined by residence/green/retail/industry etc but on the relationship people make around the physicality of a place.

I might be quite optimist and, of course, I am concentrating only on the positive opportunity I can see emerging. However the possibility of creating a city based on human networks, which become triggers of social, economical, leisure, political opportunities sounds exciting.

The near future looks like the Plug-In City  Archigram envisioned in 1960s. The innovative perspective the dynamic Moby Mart scenario offers is the elimination of the shell, the physical confined space that creates the building/city, for a mobile, fluid and dynamic space of interactions, like digital networks already achieve in digital space.

The Infrastructure of Safety

After the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 AD, cities moved away from open spaces. If before the barbaric attacks being next to a river would guarantee florid commercial exchanges, with the new historical conditions open spaces turned into an exposed easy target. Unaccessible natural areas became the most popular locations to guarantee the population’s security. Middle Age cities were indeed enclosed spaces surrounded by walls (or water in the case of Venice) and permanently guarded by soldiers. Through the cultural progress started in the Renaissance cities started their way out of the walls and slowly opening up to XX century Modernist urban design , were walls turned into archeological locations to visit.

The topic of the wall is back to our society (XXI century), even though people links through digital social networks that make the whole global population closer. Digital infrastructure is for us what rivers and streets were for Ancient Roman society: it enable connection for personal or business reasons and make people learn diversities of cultures, ideas, habits, lifestyles. Nonetheless the topic of the wall is trendy again. Besides the wall between the US and Mexico’s border, for which there are competition winners (believe it or not – I probably suggest to give a look at Manfredo Tafuri’s books, Antonio da Sangallo might be of help), wall is an urban and architectural “accessory” back to fashion on the topic of urban safety.

In north Italy a new residential suburban area in Treviso has been built within the perimeter of a wall to defend its community from crime. Interestingly enough Treviso is also the land where Palladio built his villas, which were one the first examples of unwalled architecture.

Recent events put attention on people’s security in public space. Nice, Berlin and London’s attacks targeted crowed spaces. The reaction to Berlin attack was to fortify pedestrian area accesses around Europe with concrete barriers. Historic and central areas became mini fortresses surrounded by police, in a similar style medieval castles were guarded by soldiers. Is this the answer? Do we need to fortify our spaces for safety reason? Do we want to go back of hundreds and hundreds of years? Walls belong to the past, together with fortified architecture and urban design (please keep Sangallo and his fellows to architectural historians not to designer). Walls don’t belong to our society and I don’t think that built infrastructure can give any answer to the problem we are currently facing. Besides the economic and unsustainable cost, people are smarter and dynamic. People adjust, while the wall, and any fortified solution, is there for ages with no possibility of change.

The approach I would go for is creative thinking. This article written by Patrick Dunleavy makes an interesting point around the way our security forces around the globe should focus; approach to security changes people’s behaviour, which is the one that can guarantee the safety of urban communities. A ban has limited impact; a way of thinking creatively, analyse data, patterns behaviour can lead to dynamic solutions with longer impact, which also adjust to changes. What I am proposing is a dynamic infrastructure of ideas that can be shared around communities and networks to learn solutions that adapt to local cultures. What I am thinking is an infrastructure of safety, that people from different cultures, background and with different expertises create to collaborate on making our neighbour, city or nation safer. As Dunleavy suggests, one of the 9/11 attacks didn’t reach its destinations; people reacted. I do hope we can prevent to put people in a danger that leads to sacrifice lives. The understanding of how we can create systems that make people prepared to react and act to save lives looks to me a solution that belongs to our time, our way of thinking and our social progress and innovation.

The Design of the City

Our urban environment has never been so fluid than now. From hailing-based businesses, migrations and shift of urban identities, environmental issues, political boundaries and sovereignty claims to data and autonomation, just to name few, the understanding of physical space needs to combine fluid and overlapping information, which do not stay still, but adjust their mutual impact according to local conditions. Urban space is a kind of entropic environment, which agents loop and, by looping, create many different territories, which influence may last seconds or ages, that affect the next iteration.

Within this landscape the question of urban design becomes a challenge. Which are the data to include? Which parameters we need to look at? Which behaviour we should analyse? There are many questions to be addressed, each one with its own complexity, which makes any strategic planning of any urban environment a challenge. One of the most interesting debates on the topic took place in Quito, last October 2016. The UN Habitat conference started a new conversation. By looking at CIAM, and the design guidelines urbanists draw in 1933, Ricky Burdett, Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett’s conference presentation analysed the human value of those points and the impact they had on the city. The Quito Papers depict urban space as a territory that stages the life of its people. From Saskia Sassen’s “Who owns the City, to Richard Sennett’s “Open/Pourous City” and Ricky Burdett’s accent on the value of design in urban planning the conversation places at the foreground the quality of urban space, the streets that people walk on, that people dwell and occupy; the streets that build urban life. I agree, streets and the life that passes through them and gets transformed, are one of the most interesing aspects to observe to understand patterns of human life.

The autonomous car will be soon the way we move. What does it mean for the street? Owing a car will be possibly replaced by hailing on need. People will move for different reasons, if services are provided by digital infrastructure, which, on its turn, provides a series of sub-infrastructures. The working environment might change too. People will commute for different reasons, at different times. The attentions towards sustainability, and thinking a city as a metabolic system, which energy can be transformed throughout its living organs, can make a huge impact on the people who live the city, because the everyday will change. Which would be the daily routine? How and where people will meet? How the space of the city will react, adapt and transform to different fluxes of people?

To design cities according to fix parameters, which foretell economical trends, then growth, looks no more feasible. Google AI Peter Norvig describes AI “coding” as a work in progress methodology that needs to take into account dynamic patters that adapt and learn from entropic and temporary conditions. At a bigger scale, and bigger problems, the city needs to take into account dynamic information and try to understand how its infrastructure might react and adjust to enable behaviour.

Behaviour is produced by the human factor; people make the city, the way they life, they meet and work create the territory for urban life. People are the central value of urban design. This Wall Street Journal article on the hailization of services in the South East Asia demonstrates how trends adapt to the culture. Any innovation confronts territorial resiliency. Any innovation needs to face local culture, i.e. the way people understand their life, to create its own territory. With innovation I include strategic patterns that influence they way things flow. Indeed the city should confront its own people, and provide them the temporary opportunity capable of relating diversities that, together, design the next move.

Piazza 3.0

The brand new AmazonGo is a great metaphor of the state of our the real, digital and physical. The detail that Amazon caught quite well is that, indeed, the physical and the digital look as part of the same “whole”. When we describe our interactions with the digital we quite often make a distinction from the physical. AmazonGo represents that this is not true; our interactions with technology tell a different story. To be in the digital is equal to be in the physical; from social interactions, jobs, getting things done, etc. The Seattle based company found, and well combined together, the technological infrastructure to make this happen.

Amazon understands that humans are made of bones, and they like stuff; stuff you can show, share, touch. Even though you make your shopping online you do like the thing. There is not any VR that can generate the same satisfaction of buying a very cool brand new pair of trainers and show them to friends in (at) Instagram or at the pub. The bound we have with stuff is ontological. I don’t believe there is any technology capable of replacing such bound. Even though VR engages the body by simulating other senses – like smell and touch – our physical relationship with our stuff wins. Maurizia Boscagli’s book “Stuff Theory” frames quite well such relationship.

On the other hand the possibility that AmazonGo opens relates to the way we interact with people and space. What can the retail world learn from this? Is it only about retail or it can also extend to our house, place we work, exhibitions we visit, etc. ? What is the opportunity that our everyday space can take from it?

The reason why I used the word ontological to describe our relationship with stuff is because we associate a “human” value to the things we own. Once we get possess of our stuff, whether home or shoes, we assign a value. Value is not universal and it’s not about the stoke market. It is the literal human quality things have for us. It is related to the memories we associate to the object, the kind of experience the object represents to us. There is an embodied process of events encoded in the objects we own. I think it is not projected, as Walter Benjamin described in the Arcade’s Project. What does this mean for our everyday infrastructure? What does it mean for our experience of the physical/digital world? What can the AmazonGo model trigger and generate in terms of the physical experience we have with humans and things? Which consequences are related to the use of technology to smooth, and blur, our digital/physical interactions with humans and things? I believe these are questions to address in order to generate new forms of social opportunities. Where “people” should be?  Is it about a special meal you want to cook for a special occasion? Is it about joining a talk of a new book?

The over celebrated model of the Italian piazza was at the beginning a market. People met for a reason. There was an embodied system of exchange that called other factors, which over time became what we know as “piazza”. What is the piazza3.0?

 

When Design is the “Shell” of Technology

One of the projects exhibited at the Oslo Architecture Biennale – which is described in The Guardian – tells the story of Mark and the experience he provides through Airbnb. Mark’s homes stage family everyday living. You will find family’s pictures and anything that will satisfy your imaginary of renting a family home. Well, it’s all fake. Mark’s business hacked the Airbnb’s keystone value: dwelling the everyday of anybody’s home with all the memories, artefacts and memorabilia that each of us collect along our life.

Airbnb’s strategy, indeed, uses the human’s perceived meaning of intimacy into a business value (which Mark flipped into the core of his business). The more the host makes you feel home, the more the accommodation will provide the experience – and good rating- you are expecting to live visiting the place, whether you ever been there or not. Intimacy is no longer a private sphere of our being, which takes shape through a series of objects we relate to. Intimacy is something you can sell. Your life goes on market (and rated), as much your image does with selfies.

Airbnb is not the only company “looking after” people’s interiors – with the collection of objects and memories; Amazon and Google are also on the same page. Amazon Alexa is indeed an artificial intelligence capable of sensing the environment. Alexa learns from you, about your taste, what you read, the music you listen, the place you visit, the friends you see,.., the list is quite long; Alexa absorbs your life, so that it can “suggest” Amazon what to suggest to you. Whether in Airbnb your intimacy mimics the social masks you need to wear to perform the character your house is placed in (romantic, modern, family, etc), Alexa moulds the character (you indeed).

Similarly Google is shifting its business approach by changing what made them very successful: search engine. According to this article in the MIT Technology Review Google is ready to introduce Assistant to the public. Assistant is a “third person” that reads you and the environment you are in (physical and digital) to make suggestions. The ambition is to turn Google search from a general page you can type in to a custom, interactive character that suggests information, whether asked or not. Assistant can enter a conversation you are having with friends and make suggestions on the topics of discussion.

Alexa, Assistant and Airbnb make design the Shell (under Venturi, Scott Brown, Izenour’s perspective) of technology, at different scale of course. What does design propose more than decorating technology’s performances (both aesthetically and technically)? Is there any value that design adds, besides embodying sensors that can connect you to the Internet? Interiors and products are interfaces at different scales that provide information. We interact with spaces and objects through algorithms that “learn” our behavior to loop information back to the private company, then us. What we achieve is a chewed digested information. If interiors will be probably designed to satisfy the best AI scanning (as currently shopping mall are designed to give shops the most of visibility) and objects to keep us “busy”, what can design do? Probably I need to define what I mean with design. The human passion for making and working with materials, thinking about mechanism, sorting problems, satisfying needs. Does design still performe a service to society?

 

The Infrastructure of the Urban Cloud and the Dichotomy of Private and Public Space

The intricacy of the city is deployed by the system of streets, cables, people. Similarly the Internet is based on connections, which allow information to circulate and get exchanged. The challenge that private network companies, economists, politicians and policy makers are facing is the concept of “interface”. It is not only a matter of interfacing information, but interfacing people that use information, likewise streets, cables and people do in physical space. If people are happily interfaced – with other humans or machines – it is possible to generate information derivatives, which are more valuable than the original primitives. The interface is then the key. The interface is real, it is not abstract, as “data”. It is something that you can interact with, touch it. Nonetheless the interface is a gateway that facilitates information traveling through it. What is the relationship between the world of interface and the urban space?

If looking at the scale of the city, smart city studies are generally looking at big data and, most importantly, at data consume/production variables. The way people and things consumes information is the contemporary commodity. The consumeristic data society  generates markets and, also, political patters. As “The Economist” describes, data are currently key values to win elections. “Democracy” doesn’t happen any longer in the polls but in Twitter or Facebook.

Similarly Alphabets is investing capital on connecting the city, physically and digitally. The Sidewalk project is a platform that aims to design the infrastructure 2.0. Urban data are the system by which cities render their social section. By combining and interfacing many aspects of the everyday – from commuting, to shopping and meeting friends or family – it is possible to understand new directions, and, most importantly, how to “drive” them.

The ubiquity of data  is possible through the interface and, most importantly, to the personal relationship we have with it, which is scalable. We hold an object in our hands or in our wrists but the scale is just apparent. The object can scale up and down by means of the connection it is enabling, which happens in any time and any space.

The question I would like to ask is, who owns my private space, if any is left? While writing I am in a specific space, physically. Digitally I am in many spaces, which are facilitated by the number of interfaces I am using and help me to organise my day. From the exhibition I would like to see, the trip I would like to make or the food I would like to eat.. Is this “space”? Is this private or public? Is space defined by my interface?

This lecture from the LSE gives a very interesting perspective on the subject. Professor José van Dijck describes what a platform society is by looking at the private and public. I cannot agree more. If we want to talk about cities, the concept of the private V public is one of the most important elements to be analysed. Urban space looks at the dicothomy between private and public space since its origin. The relationship between them renders the quality of society and politics. The way people coexists together is quite pivotal. An unbalanced system might lead towards social decay, that does affect society. To affect what people are allowed to wish, hope and desire for their life affects urban space and, with it, innovation, curiosity and any of the human qualities which has been driving human being towards a better world to live.

Cities are not made of buildings; city are made of people. Urban form is given by the way people interact. Indeed the space of the public and the space of the private need to understand diversities, whether physical or digital.

In this blog post I zoomed in and out, with the intention to look at infrastructure from a different perspective. The cloud infrastructure can enable urban innovation in the specificity of people interactions.

Cities are made of streets

RagusaIblaLR.jpg

Ragusa Ibla, Italy 2013 ©Laura Ferrarello

Different kinds of factors – like economy, climate change, career opportunities, education, etc. – transformed contemporary cities in megacities. The freedom we achieved last century through cars transformed dense urban agglomerates into spreads of houses that blurred the border between the “inside” and “outside” of our cities. Concrete have been poured horizontally, thus transforming the environment. Cities like Los Angeles are no longer an anomaly; LA, indeed, became model for those contemporary cities that need to cope with the problem of scale, and how it does impact the quality of everyday life. Public transportation is on the agenda of LA mayor Garcetti, who is tackling the problem of mobility through infrastructure improvement. You can travel to Downtown by taking the Metro from Culver City, which will be soon extented to Santa Monica.

Nonetheless I don’t believe that infrastructure only can help with improving the everyday of our cities. I grew up in the fringe of a small city in southern Italy, Enna. The contrast between historical centre and suburbia was, and still it is, quite clear for the possibility of moving around. Once at the centre car is pointless – although people use it for habit. You can reach the extreme parts of the city by walking for 20 minutes max. Once out of the centre distances are still small, but car is the most used means of transportation. What is the reason? Shops. The centre is a sequence of small and medium size businesses that crowd the streets and make them alive. Daily groceries can be moved on small trolleys; you can go for shopping, taking a coffee or a drink with friends in 5- 10 minutes. The fringe is a no-place. Old style urbanism, and bad administration of public space, affected the quality of urban extensions. Cars crowds the small pedestrians looking for small spots to park the car. No many shops around. When I walk I look like a weirdo. Paradoxically I can compare this small city to LA. Completely different scales. Mobility culture quite similar.

Everyday we witness more and more problems with health, which causes have many factors; mobility is on top of the list. Our bodies have been designed to move; we need to balance the quantity of energy we feed our body with. Nonetheless the design of the streets has a tendency to detach housing with services; it makes cars the most used medium to reach even the basics – like water, milk, bread. I find quite interesting some current urban studies that look at the relationship people have with “mobile” food, i.e. food that happens on the streets. Food truck journeys have been analysed in LA and Washington DC. The geo location of Twitter data revealed that food trucks cover badly served areas. Location became the litmus paper of low service areas.  However the network of food trucks increased the presence of people on pedestrians. This article from The Guardian Cities describes the relation between mobility and diabetes. Bad quality food and time spent on cars are key factors that need to be tackled to think a solution.

Scale is not a problem that concerns the territory as whole; micro scale at the local dimension can trigger solutions. If our streets get more crowds of “stuff” – shops, grocery, cafes, etc –  which distance is perceived manageable, it would possibly make people walk. Possibility it would be a nice experient to try out.