Systems/Layers CPH: a writeup
last week I organised and ran a walkshop on network urbanism here in Copenhagen.
This was the description:
…a slow and considered walk through a reasonably dense and built-up section of the city, looking for evidence of the networked digital in the physical urban environment, and vice versa.
More specifically, we looked for:
- Places where information is being collected by the network.
- Places where networked information is being displayed.
- Places where networked information is being acted upon, either by people directly, or by physical systems that affect the choices people have available to them.
In the end, we were a about 15 people, slowly walking the streets of Copenhagen, meeting at Sankt Hans Torv in Norrebro (top left of the map, above), and walking across the lakes towards Norreport Station, before looping back to debrief and discuss at Plan B. If you saw a group of people earnestly studying a metal cabinet or staring up at a building, with cameras pointed at something seemingly nonexistent – that was us.
These are some quickly jotted down thoughts and some of what we saw and talked about.
“It’s all normal”
One thing that struck me was that individually, very few of the things we saw and discussed were all that interesting or felt revolutionary. To me, at least, it was more the fact that at the end of our near two hour long walk, we had not once had a lack of things to point out. And almost all of it was normal; individually, usually not worth a second glance, but as a whole an impressive array of technology with both huge impacts and even greater potential (both positive and frightening).
The Future is Now – and we never noticed
Added to that was the number of things that I introduced as “imagine if, in the near future…” which, it turned out, somebody in the group had seen implemented, had worked on, or in a couple of cases, had as part of their normal existence.
Imagine if the entry systems to your apartment were networked, and they could be opened or you could be individually blocked remotely. Oh wait – one person could open their doors using their mobile, and another had a key with an integrated RFID chip that could be disabled by the building administrator. All introduced benignly, of course – “in case of theft”, for example – but the possibilities are clear. There’s a definite inflexibility to systems like that, removing the possibility of discussion, and encouraging bureaucratic implementation of rules – “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do”. Ultimately, of course, it’s hard to argue with a computer. Computer said no, indeed.
We kicked off at the first stop on our route: a brand new and fully automated parking facility, still in the testing phase. Cars are driven into a small building onto a platform, where the driver leaves it – the platform then descends underground, leaving the car on a shelf along a couple of hundred others. For a starting point, there was a complete overload of the networked digital: multiple security cameras; kiosks; RFID authentication; payment systems; space/full indicators; automated entry and exits. and on, and on. By complete fluke, a car entered the facility just as we arrived, and we watched in awe as it descended into the abyss – it turned out that this was a test, and the driver was one of the people running it, and he was happy to stop and chat with us, answering our many questions. An unexpected bonus!
Lots of the connected things we saw (entry systems, CCTV cameras, various displays) seemed to function on their own, nominally closed, networks, constrained within a building or area. But increasingly, it’s cheaper to simply route stuff over the internet, and we spoke a bit about the opportunities and dangers that might bring, especially with the knowledge that any security or encryption can be broken.
Bus stops and bicycle counters
Some of the bus stops in Copenhagen have counters indicating when the next bus is due, but we couldn’t quite figure out if this was based on the timetable; most recently reported location (it’s two stops away, which is about 4 minutes…); or real time data reflecting traffic, delays, etc. What we were all sure of was that a 4 did not equate perfectly to 4 minutes in the real world!
One of Copenhagen’s most famous attributes is its cycle culture, with the bridge we walked over being one of the busiest cycle lanes in the world. About 15000 bikes go over it every day – in each direction. We know this because there’s a counter and display at one end, counting every day, and a yearly total. It’s great fun standing near it and watching cyclists go past, checking what number they are, and also to find the sensor embedded in the asphalt of the cycle lane and figure out how to manually trigger it (it involves hopping, mimicking two wheels passing over in quick succession).
Physical, fallbacks, information shadows
During our walk were looking for elements the networked digital, but most of the things we saw were bits physical evidence: boxes, cases, sensors, devices, out on the street. A lot of those had numbers, codes, or barcodes on them, presumably to link that particular physical object to a database somewhere – linking it to its information shadow. It was interesting that there were often two or more on a single device: Parking ticket machine 6712 was in area code 3310, for instance – different IDs for different purposes, perhaps in different databases at different companies. In this case: Siemens made (and serviced?) the device; the local authority had them installed and enforced the parking; a third party was in charge of the mobile service that ran on top of the ticket machines).
We also had an interesting discussion about the very physical plaques around the city, many of which predate the existence of computerized databases, but were also forms or evidence of information shadows. Some identified infrastructure (there’s a water pipe here, 0.8m down, with these details…), while some included a code for looking up elsewhere, such as the metal plates with a code which was neither the address/house number, nor the postcode. One argument was that things like this would become obsolete, as location data becomes ubiquitous via mobile devices – surely, a handheld device can know what types of pipe are where? But equally, there is something timeless and failsafe about a cast metal plaque attached to a wall. Technology inevitably fails; physical things do not. (at least they fail differently, I’d say). Fallbacks are useful.
We stood gawking at an Electric Vehicle charging station (one of the rather handsome Better Place ones by NewDealDesign) with an attached electric car, which was installed as part of a pilot programme in Copenhagen. While many cars are networked and digital in many ways as it is, a system like this makes it that much more explicit: there’s authentication when you charge, when you start the car, while driving. It “updates”. Conceivably, it can also be turned off. Why would there not be a ‘kill switch’? (see: Prius brakes, 2010). But who gets to control it? Better Place? the car manufacturer? the police? the government? Your partner?
There was some interesting back and forth about trusting people or trusting “the system” – which do you check more: the change handed to you by a cashier, or the notes dispensed by an ATM? We were split about 50/50, but interestingly, all of us trusted one or the other – but rarely both.
Flow and Priorities
Traffic lights have long been considered as part of a system rather than individually, sometimes even dynamically adjusting to real time traffic data. I remember as a kid having my mind blown when somebody explained the concept of a green wave to me. But we also considered the large cabinet near the intersection which apparently contains the relay switches used to control the lights, and can also take control if the network connection fails for some reason and revert to timers. (interesting aside: apparently you used to be able to pre-empt the changing of the lights by listening to the clicking of the relays switching before the lights themselves changed). Along some streets in Copenhagen, the green waves are calculated for cyclists rather than cars, and can be overridden by the approach of an ambulance or police car. Perhaps buses and public transport should get preferential treatment; maybe more environmentally friendly cars should have priority, too? Why not be able to pay to increase your ratio of green lights? Perhaps specific brands of car should find all lights at green, if they strike a deal with the city? Where does it start feeling uncomfortable?
Bookending with overload
The last major point of interest was around Norreport Station, a relatively major transport hub where the Metro, S trains, Intercity trains, and buses all converge on one messy island between lanes of traffic. As well as multiple indicators of imminent arrivals (of all the different systems, on lots of different screens), there were maps (geographic and stylized system ones), a taxi rank with hyper-connected taxis always in attendance, and a complex traffic junction.
There was also a set of embedded lights in the cycle lane (below), which flashed in some sort of sync with passing cycles and the upcoming traffic lights. We couldn’t quite figure out the system, but it did something most times a bike passed (or we hopped and danced nearby), but seemed to vary depending on what the light ahead did.
There was more, of course. The roofs bristled with mobile phone masts and TV aerials. The main streets were carefully kept an eye on by a patchwork of carefully placed cameras of various sorts. Wind-sensors ensured awnings weren’t blown down – but could they also be utilized for hyper-local weather reports? They could be aided and abetted by the rain sensor we spotted up high on a building…
We finished the walk and took over a corner in the cafe/bar Plan B with various micro-brewery beers, where we discussed what we had seen, argued over some of the implication, scribbled on a couple of large maps, and darted off on countless tangents. We veered from the arcanely technical to the more abstract and philosophical, and covered a lot of ground. For me personally, though, this part had the most potential and perhaps failed to live up to it – we had less of a plan, had thought about it less than the walk itself, and thus lacked much of a structure or framework to lead the discussions. While it may have lacked some focus, it was nonetheless a great way to round off the walkshop.
We ended just as the sun was making it’s way towards the horizon, in that slow Scandinavian summer way.
Thanks a lot to Ulrik and Jesper, who helped plan and run the walkshop – it wouldn’t have been the same without their perspectives and knowledge of local culture and quirks. Also a huge debt of gratitude to Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim of Do Projects, firstly for developing the walkshop model in the first place, then, when I inquired if there might be one in Copenhagen any time soon, suggesting that I run one instead, and finally for all their support in the run up to the walk itself.
Also, of course, many thanks to all the people who came along and joined us in sharing and discussing networked urbanism last week.