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The ‘Lose Yourself in Melbourne’ ad was onto something: instead of being directed to the fastest or shortest route, some people might want to take a diverting detour. 'It's Easy to Lose Yourself in Melbourne', Tourism Victoria

Why we should design smart cities for getting lost

The internet has reached our cities. A smart city is optimised for efficiency, productivity and comfort.

The smart city uses intelligent transport systems. It is administered by integrated urban command centres, which analyse the omnipresent raw material of the digital era: big data. As citizens go about their everyday lives, they leave data traces everywhere, even in the sewers.

Many technology companies and city governments celebrate the new enfant terrible of smart city research: the urban scientist who finally imposes a rigorous scientific (that is, positivistic) mindset on city governance. However, Jeremy Kun confirms that:

… being quantitative doesn’t protect against bias.

Commentators such as Cat Matson, Charles Landry and Paul Mason advocate a people-centred approach to city design. In our own work, we warn that ignoring decades of research by architects, geographers, urban planners, designers and sociologists could lead to a dystopian future where humans lose agency if we mindlessly pursue convenience and efficiency.

Wall-E presents a vision of a dystopian future created by techno-scientific determinism.

Algorithmic culture of like-mindedness

Big data requires analysis by algorithms, and they in turn create filter bubbles. Corporations such as Facebook and Google deploy sophisticated algorithms to help us navigate the otherwise bloated social mediascape. The content displayed on Facebook’s news feed is selected based on a user’s profile, location, interests, online habits – what they post, share, recommend and “like”.

The popularity of social media stems from its power to create personalised spaces, walled gardens, which are tailored to individual preferences and favour content relevant to each user. Proprietary algorithms determine what is deemed relevant.

Without ethics, it is these algorithms that determine the make-up of the Facebook news feed, Google’s top search results and the recommendations on whom to follow on Twitter and what to buy on Amazon. They are optimised to prioritise content that generates more business.

As Gilad Lotan has observed:

We’re not seeing different viewpoints, but rather more of the same. A healthy democracy is contingent on having a healthy media ecosystem. As builders of these online networked spaces, how do we make sure we are optimising not only for traffic and engagement, but also an informed public? … The underlying algorithmics powering this recommendation engine help reinforce our values and bake more of the same voices into our information streams.

The diversity advantage of cities

As more and more social media platforms embrace urban environments as their playground, this algorithmic culture has important implications for cities.

People come together in cities not just for the infrastructure and convenience they provide, but for offering choice. Cities are fundamentally about possibilities, opportunities and diversity.

Jane Jacobs notes:

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

Ethan Zuckerman thinks of cities as serendipity engines:

By putting a diverse set of people and things together in a confined place, we increase the chances that we’re going to stumble onto the unexpected.

However, Zuckerman also asks:

… do cities actually work this way?

It’s a timely question for smart cities governed by big data and algorithmic analysis. How can a smart city become a serendipity engine? Can we design smart cities for getting lost?

Here are some examples of why that may not be such a bad idea.

Getting lost and getting to know strangers

Public transport journey planners are usually optimised for two factors: the fastest speed and shortest distance to get you from A to B. Yet there are opportunities beyond telematics.

Why don’t we offer the choice to go slow, to take the least polluted route to work, or the scenic way home?

Experimental prototypes such as Martin Traunmueller’s Likeways and Mark Shepard’s Serendipitor allow you to lose yourself and rediscover your city.

The Likeways app lets users choose routes that wander past restaurants, pubs, shops, museums or art galleries. Screenshot, courtesy Martin Traunmueller

In addition to a diversity of places, cities also offer a diversity of people. However, all too often we stay within our existing social networks of friendship and convenience. Eric Paulos’s Familiar Stranger Project investigated anxiety, comfort and play in public places.

Yet our ability to unlock the advantage of a city’s social diversity is still in its infancy. Early examples include co-working spaces and meet-up groups that bring diverse people together, airlines offering social seating, and design interventions such as Jokebox that foster playfulness and curiosity.

Co-working spaces aim to spark creativity and innovation by bringing diverse people together. flickr/Impact Hub, CC BY-SA

Saskia Sassen warns that the privatisation of public spaces in the city:

… has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy and rights.

This also stifles innovation, as people are lacking the kinds of “skunkworks” that foster creativity and diversity.

Deliberative democracy and the city

Besides the nascent opportunities vested in people and places, what may well be the final frontier of a truly smart (as in intelligent) city is content and discourse. Seeking to burst the filter bubbles, Eli Pariser created Upworthy:

… on a mission to change what the world pays attention to.

It curates news you should read rather than just “the news you want” to read.

Another illustrative example is Rebecca Ross’s project London is Changing. Large digital displays visualise local community voices and juxtapose diverse opinions about the impact of gentrification in London.

A digital billboard displays local community voices and diverse opinions about gentrification in London. London is Changing

To uphold a citizen’s right to the digital city and strengthen the role of cities in a deliberative democracy, cities should empower citizens to be smart. Smart cities should allow us to get lost and find new places, to meet strangers who may become new friends, and to engage in discussions with diverse others so we may form new opinions.

Alexandros Washburn observes:

In talking about the anticipational smart wonders of ‘our city’, we really mean ‘my city’. We confuse the collective with the personal.

If the collective that is civic intelligence is what makes cities smart, we need more serendipity engines. Smart cities should be open and agile and employ what Bob Dick calls “dialectical processes” and what Anna Cox calls “design friction”.

That way we may change algorithmic filters for the sagacious discovery of diversity in the city. Diversity fuels innovation, and innovation is what we need to be sustainable.

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