The rise of cameras, AI and deep learning is changing urban life. Can this benefit not only banks, tech companies and developers, asks Martijn de Waal, but also residents themselves?
In recent years, cameras with facial recognition and digital checkpoints have appeared all over our cities, along with the sensors in our mobile phones. They have given the smart city of the 21st century ‘eyes’ that can meticulously map its everyday life in between buildings and in public spaces.
In the exhibition Eyes of the City, the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture asks what this means for urban planners, architects, citizens, and policymakers. Does such a total data utopia lead to a society of control that constantly monitors its citizens to keep them in line? Does it provide a comfortable way of life for exclusively middle-class consumers with sufficient disposable income to purchase all kinds of new, personalised services? Or is it also possible to use the same technology to give all citizens more ownership over their lives, and strengthen their ‘rights’ to the city?
Modernology and the Metropolis
In the early 20th century, Japan’s cities grew rapidly in size, and architects and engineers were caught up in the euphoria surrounding innovative construction methods and new building materials. However, architect and researcher Wajiro Kon (1888-1973) took a different path, turning away from the objectively calculated blueprints for ever larger and higher structures. Instead, he preferred to concentrate on the hustle and bustle that had arisen among all these new buildings and traffic flows. He started to draw the various types of buns in women’s hairstyles and counted how often they appeared in the streetscape of Tokyo. He sketched the different types of street vendor carts and made beautiful line drawings of the various modern and traditional outfits of the city dwellers.
Architecture and urban planning had become far too much of a technical engineering discipline, according to Kon; he wanted to bring the cultural and social dimension back into urban design. What does the city look like from the perspective of its inhabitants? How is it experienced and lived in everyday life? Kon was not so much interested in economic values as in the significance that citizens attach to everyday spatial objects and practices. He called his approach ‘modernology’, and he systematically recorded everyday practices of metropolitan life.
When the City Sees Us
Kon’s work from 1927 is one of the most remarkable contributions to Eyes of the City at the 2019 Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture. The exhibition focuses on the future of the city and the question of what emerging new technologies, such as big data, artificial intelligence and deep learning, mean for the way in which architects, governments and citizens map, understand and shape urban life. What happens, asks curator Carlo Ratti, when the city itself has eyes, and architectural spaces have the ability to see? “Imagine”, says the introductory text of Eyes of the City, “that every room, street or shop in the city can recognise you and automatically respond to your presence.”
In this light, the inclusion of Kon’s work, almost a century old, in an exhibition about the future city does not seem incongruous. It is not difficult to interpret his systematic analysis of street life in Japan in the 1920s as a forerunner of today’s data science. Even though it is not certain whether Kon would agree with its often-positivistic assumptions that the world will become increasingly known and predictable as we collect more data on as many different things as possible. Today, that is the promise, after all, of countless ‘smart city’ projects that have been initiated in various parts of the world over the past decade. Energy, transport, entertainment, security – it can all be managed better, becoming more efficient and ‘tailor-made’, if only we have enough data on everyday life. The better the city can see us as inhabitants, the better urban life can be organised.
“Imagine that every room, street or shop in the city can recognise you and automatically respond to your presence.”
At the same time, it is also not hard to see Kon’s modernology as a source of inspiration for a series of examples from sociology, architecture, and the art world, among others, that foreground and collect subjective interpretations of everyday life, from Archigram in the 1960s to the locative media art of the beginning of this century. Such projects do not aim to optimise one system or another, but create a place for individual or collective experiences of citizens. These works often point to the impossibility of capturing life objectively, no matter how exact the data sets become thanks to ever-improving sensing technologies.
In this contrast, between a positivist systems-approach and the subjective experience and meaning of everyday life, lies perhaps the most important tension in Eyes of the City. If the city is able to see thanks to the implementation of all kinds of sensors, then what is the purpose of the data collected? That question is at the heart of this biennial: the curators are not so much interested in exhibiting existing projects, but in using the exhibitions as an experimental testing ground, a catalyst for new developments, and a vehicle for a social discussion about smart technology.
Factory of the World
Shenzhen, a metropolis in south China’s Pearl River Delta, just across the border from Hong Kong, is a striking location to explore this issue. In China, Shenzhen is regarded as a mythical city that anticipates the country’s future. After Deng Xiaoping opened the hitherto closed door to China in the early 1980s, the first factories that brought an era of economic growth appeared at breakneck speed in Shenzhen. It grew from a few tens of thousands of inhabitants in the early 1980s to about 15 million today. It is now home to the world’s most important electronics factories, where an estimated two-thirds of all smart phones are produced. But Shenzhen is no longer just the ‘factory of the world’ – in the slipstream of hardware production, an innovative tech scene and start-up culture has also emerged. It is now regarded as a new Silicon Valley, anticipating the future with new products and services.
At the same time, it is also a source for stories that sketch a critical picture of the future. In the last year, many journalistic accounts of the advance of artificial intelligence have featured the now infamous zebra crossings in Shenzhen that are guarded by smart cameras. If someone crosses without waiting for the green light, their name and photograph are shown on an adjacent digital billboard. Facial recognition technology quickly identifies the passer-by and publicly nails them to the pillory. It is by no means a widely used practice in Shenzhen, but the image has become iconic and has travelled all over the world. Much further advanced are the various ‘social credit’ systems under development in China, in which all kinds of consumer data are collected by private parties and local governments, to assess citizen’s financial reliability or monitor their behaviour as good citizens, among other things. A city with eyes could also be the beginning of an increasingly strictly controlled society – and that is not just a serious risk in China alone.
Jane Jacobs describes “the triumph of mathematical average,” in which a new order is created “by repression of all plans but the planners’.”
If a city has eyes, who’s looking? In this context, it is interesting to go back to the origins of Eyes of the City. The title is of course a nod to the work of Jane Jacobs, who introduced her famous adage ‘eyes on the street’ in The Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961). In doing so, she indicated that in order to create an atmosphere of trust and cohesion in a neighbourhood, it is necessary that residents and other relevant parties such as shopkeepers can keep an eye on things. In her magnum opus, she vividly describes how shopkeepers and housewives in 1950s Greenwich Village, with a mix of metropolitan distance and neighbourhood involvement, kept an eye on street life and thus contributed to a widely supported feeling of familiarity and safety.
Moving from ‘eyes on the street’ to the ‘eyes of the city’, it is not so much Jacob’s romantic image of a 1950s city district with bakers and greengrocers in their corner shops that matters; it is her more fundamental underlying criticism of totalising systems that is still relevant. In today’s smart city jargon, her ‘eyes on the street’ consists of a distributed network of city dwellers who have a high degree of agency to process data and decide whether or not to intervene on the basis of a series of often unspoken local rules and standards. In doing so, it sets them against modernist master planners who – like gods on Mount Olympus – determine exactly what functions and buildings are needed in the city. With a result, in her characteristic sharp prose, she described as “the triumph of mathematical average,” in which a new order is created “by repression of all plans but the planners’.”
Dystopia or Utopia?
Expanding on this, Eyes of the City poses the question: who actually determines what is possible in the city? Does a city create opportunities for its residents to claim ‘ownership’? Or is urban life dominated by a strict totalising system? Is a city that sees and knows everything about us a dystopian vision of a future in which we are constantly spied on by all kinds of sensors, facial recognition cameras and all of our own devices? To be controlled and ‘nudged’ in a direction that somebody once coded into an opaque algorithm that tries to organise the complex street ballet in an invisible way? Or can we organise practices around data collection in the city in a different way? Not as a totalising smart city, but more in the spirit of Wajiro Kon, paying attention to the subjective needs, desires and meanings of city dwellers themselves.
There are plenty of examples of projects that hope to contribute to a data utopia in the exhibition. There are demonstrations of new technologies that can measure and map life in the city ever more effectively. Eye-tracking glasses are shown, allowing architects to better see which elements of the built environment catch the eyes of passers-by. Drones and scanners capture important buildings or urban practices that have to make way for progress in 3D, so they can be preserved in virtual or augmented reality. Vests full of sensors accurately record physical reactions and environmental variables – how does our heart rate react to changes in environmental noise, humidity or light intensity?
“With just a push of a button, mobile shops and pop-up health centres appear. Food and drink trolleys appear exactly when people need a cappuccino or sandwich.”
Other projects show how such data streams can be used to better organise life in the city. The Autonomous Street: A Day in the Life of Future Shenzhen, by project developer Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, presents an ‘adaptive street’ that alters with the rhythm of the city. In rush hour, part of its surface changes into an extra traffic lane, but on Sunday afternoons extra benches or trees appear. This is thanks to small, self-propelled units with different elements – benches, kiosks, a basketball net, and urban greenery. “With just a push of a button, mobile shops and pop-up health centres appear,” KPF predicts. “Food and drink trolleys appear exactly when people need a cappuccino or sandwich.”
The Autonomous Street conjures an image of an orderly city where everything is neatly managed, focusing on a productive, creative urbanite who likes to live efficiently, keep healthy with a game of basketball, and be served a tailor-made cup of designer coffee. Of course, there is something to be said for such an efficient city where everything is pleasant and easy, as in one of the countless modern shopping malls with luxury brands that have appeared all over Shenzhen in recent decades. It’s no surprise that a property developer introduces such concepts for wealthy customers, but it is also a one-sided vision of urban life that raises many questions. How inclusive is such a city? Will insurance companies or the state keep track of whether we are playing enough basketball? How public are these public spaces? Is there still room to deviate from the norm?
Rights to the City
Although the overall mood at the exhibition seems to be one of optimism about the city of the future, Eyes of the City is not deaf to these and other criticisms of the smart city. For instance, the exhibition aims – according to the press material – to question facial recognition as a central technology in urban life. At the entrance, visitors can be photographed in special passport booths, after which they get personalised information at a number of kiosks in the exhibition. Participation in this set-uip is presented as a choice that visitors are allowed to make upon entry, just as we can decide to opt-out of receiving website cookies or prevent being automatically added to a mailing list. In our actual urban spaces we usually don't have that choice, says Carlo Ratti, but we should, and it’s important to stimulate that discussion. In any case, that is the rhetoric. In reality, during the opening, the kiosks didn’t work, and installation texts were invisible. Whether this was a technical defect, or because the Chinese hosts might prefer not to hold this debate as publicly as Ratti would like, remains unclear.
Other critiques of the all-seeing smart city can be viewed in full swing. A nice one in the final sections of the exhibition, entitled Resisting Technologies, opens with Rich Gold's question, “How smart does your bed have to be before you are afraid to go to sleep at night?” Studio Forage and Aline Studio together explore a number of scenarios in which an omniscient, all-knowing city imposes rules using cameras and sensors, automatically distributing fines and rewards. These include pedestrian traffic lights that jump to green faster when small children want to cross, and gives out rewards when citizens order a kale smoothie instead of a cheeseburger.
The makers of these speculative scenarios argue that no one knows whether such a future is realistic or not; the only thing they think for sure is that people are resourceful, and will do their best to hack the system, undermine it, or make it work to their advantage. Therefore, in their scenarios, there is a grumpy older man walking around who detests the children's priority for crossing streets because of traffic safety. His solution? Wearing a t-shirt printed with pictures of happy children to entice facial recognition cameras to turn the traffic light green for him.
“How smart does your bed have to be before you are afraid to go to sleep at night?”
A more fundamental alternative to such interpretations of a smart city can be found in a series of projects that come closest to the original intentions of Kon's modernology. How can we improve quality of life in the city and make it more inclusive by taking everyday life as a point of departure, and by taking the experiences of city dwellers themselves as our starting point? Can the perspective on urban life be broadened when technology helps inhabitants function as the eyes of the city? Research for Architectural Domain (RAD) proposes designing ‘toolkits’ for citizens to make their own observations and record everyday life. Together, this can lead to a multitude of perspectives, preventing the dystopia of centralised state control. Can such an approach contribute to a city that – as French philosopher Henry Lefebvre said – recognises the ‘rights to the city’ of all its citizens? For RAD it remains an open question.
An installation that comes closest to that ideal is Dalang Fever 3 by Het Nieuwe Instituut and the International New Town Institute (INTI), curated by Linda Vlassenrood. The presentation is the result of years of INTI’s involvement in the development of Dalang Neighbourhood, one of the districts on the periphery of the Shenzhen metropolis. Dalang has about half a million inhabitants, but only 10% are officially registered as residents. The rest belong to the so-called ‘floating population’ – migrants who moved from rural China to the big cities to work in one of the many factories. However, they cannot claim the rights of city dwellers – such as access to education and care – and are therefore not allowed to register as residents. Even if, in some cases, they have lived and worked there for decades, they still cannot claim rights to official housing or other facilities. While many of the projects in the exhibition tie in with Shenzhen’s image as a high-tech mecca, INTI and Het Nieuwe Instituut focus on the millions of residents who do not play a leading role in that story, but who work in factories or the service sector.
Dalang partly consists of rapidly erected factories complexes, alternated with so-called ‘urban villages’. These are pieces of land that, before the urbanisation of the Pearl River Delta in the early 1980s, belonged to local farming communities and could not simply be converted by the municipality into a development area. Initially, factories and new housing estates were built around these villages, yet in such a rapidly advancing industrial urban landscape, it became increasingly difficult to keep the farms going, and at the same time the influx of migrants quickly increased the demand for housing. As a result, residents of the urban villages started to develop their farmland themselves, building high-density housing complexes at high speed. This was not always according to the rules, but the government was happy to turn a blind eye as it was a convenient solution to the floating population problem. In urban villages they could find relatively cheap housing without officially becoming city dwellers.
In Shenzhen, there are still a few hundred such enclaves, which are only a village in name. They often consist of 10-storey concrete and brick buildings, some only separated from each other by alleys a few metres wide. On the ground floors are small shops and improvised restaurants where you can buy a bowl of noodles for a low price. However, so far the urban villages do not provide a permanent solution for the needs of the floating population. In recent decades, many have been demolished to make way for more lucrative projects such as apartment complexes and luxury shopping malls.
“A smarter society does not start with the collection of even more data or the development of better technology. A smarter society starts by collecting and understanding the questions and needs that are relevant to that society.”
The smart city solutions presented at the Shenzhen biennial will mean little to inhabitants of the urban villages. An adaptable street where cappuccino stalls appear when residents need them is nice for the rising middle class, but the floating population has other concerns – work, opaque rent increases, a shortage of public facilities, hardly any public space, and no prospect of a sustainable future. Jobs, houses, and urban villages themselves could all disappear in a flash. In any case, urban planning has never happened in these villages, and hardly any provisions have been made for the population that does not officially exist.
What can the technologies of the smart city mean here? With that question, the team of Vlassenrood and project partner Tat Lam of Impact Hub Shenzhen and social development incubator Shanzhai City, moved into the district. In a special app, local residents were asked for their views, and were able to upload photographs of the neighbourhood that illustrated the identified opportunities and problems. At the biennial, the collected insights were typographically represented using quotes from interviews and prints of the submitted photographs. Together, the subjective experiences of the inhabitants of Dalang tell a layered story about life in the district with a number of recurring themes. The lack of public space – nowhere for sports, children’s playgrounds, or even to park a motorbike, so the owner has to drag it upstairs into the apartment every day. The lack of infrastructure – packed roads, and only one bus line. The dissatisfaction with financial uncertainty – for years residents have worked in factories and contributed to the development of the area, but their situation is still precarious. Rents continue to rise according to unclear regulations, while the city wants to further develop the neighbourhood as a hotspot for fashion design. Will there still be a place for migrants, and how can they get a voice in the redevelopment of the neighbourhood?
“The question is how smart technologies can contribute to the creation of value. Not for investors and banks, but for the residents themselves.”
Such a survey may not be innovative, but in this context it is certainly revolutionary. For the first time, data collection technologies are used here to provide a forum for a hitherto voiceless group to bring their wishes and fears into the planning process. One way of doing this is by planning a design workshop around the results with a combination of Dutch designers and local urban planners and policy makers from Shenzhen.
Eyes of the Citizens
Lam sees the app he developed for Dalang Fever 3 as a start. With his companies Impact Hub Shenzhen and Shanzhai City, Lam is working on a new version using blockchain technologies to add new functionalities. Its precise operation is complex, but it boils down to these technologies enabling city dwellers and local communities to draw up so-called ‘smart contracts’. In these contracts you can, for example, stipulate that the contractor hired to construct a public facility in an informal settlement such as an urban village will only be paid once several residents have digitally confirmed that the work has indeed been delivered. “The question is how smart technologies can contribute to the creation of value,” explains Lam. “Not for investors and banks, but for the residents themselves.”
Such a collective validation system can also be used to pay factory workers’ wages, or even give them the opportunity to build something resembling a CV. One of the problems for migrants is that they cannot develop sustainable labour relations – they move from factory to factory, having to start at the bottom again and again. Lam wants to provide an app that allows fellow factory workers to evaluate each other in terms of specific skills and experiences – say a decentralised version of LinkedIn for migrant workers. This allows them to prove to new employers what kind of experience they have, giving migrant workers the opportunity to regain some of the control over their lives and the city: more ‘eyes for the citizens’ than ‘eyes of the city.’
Of course, for the time being, most of Lam’s ideas are still specualtive. The same goes for most of the work at the biennial: many exhibits take the visitor to a future smart city where traffic is never jammed, and the wishes of the citizen are fulfilled in real-time thanks to smart technology. The tools of Lam, INTI, and Het Nieuwe Instituut will also not be able to solve all the problems urban villages and their inhabitants face. Yet, Dalang Fever 3 does question the future that the biennial explores. It offers an alternative vision for the city of the future that does not start from the technology or profit opportunities of high-tech companies and project developers. Just as in the work of Wajiro Kon, everyday life is the starting point. As Vlassenrood outlined in an earlier project: “A smarter society does not start with the collection of even more data or the development of better technology. A smarter society starts by collecting and understanding the questions and needs that are relevant to that society.”
Martijn de Waal visited the opening of the eighth Shenzhen architecture biennial at the invitation of Het Nieuwe Instituut, and wrote this article on the Eyes of the City exhibition. De Waal is a lecturer in Play & Civic Media at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam and is the author of The City as Interface. How New Media are Changing the City, and, together with José van Dijck and Thomas Poell, The Platform Society. Public Values in a Connective World. He is the general chair of the Media Architecture Biennale 2020 (www.mab20.org) which takes place in November in Amsterdam and Utrecht.