Our second city

Recently I was asked by WBEZ, the Chicago NPR affiliate, to write an essay on a topic or trend from 2009 that I would like to see carried forward “from here on out”.

What I wrote was a condensation of a year of conferences and talks informed by IBM’s Smarter Cities perspective — all with a Chicago bent. It was an interesting and ultimately enjoyable exercise, whittling down a tough subject into something to be read aloud. I’m grateful to NPR for the opportunity and their collaborative editing.

Here’s the link to the transcript and audio on NPR. The actual broadcast, I’m told, will be during All Things Considered on 1/1/2010. Pretty sure the broadcast is Chicago-only.

Here is the original essay, which gives a little more context to my screed.

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This past year offered Chicagoans some unique opportunities to consider our collective identity as a city. We looked forward, dreaming of how we might remake the urban space to host the world and its Olympians in 2016. We looked backward, celebrating Burnham’s 100-year-old vision for what the city might become and, perhaps more interestingly, what it never did become. These two events both asked Chicagoans to imagine a city that did not exist, to grapple with a series of what-ifs about the built environment.

And yet, there’s another city — equally intangible — being built even as we move on from the Olympic decision and unrealized bold plans. It is a literal second city, built right atop our architecture of buildings, streets, and sewers. This is the city of data — every bit as complex and vital as our physical infrastructure, but as seemingly unreal (and unrealized) as the what-might-have-beens of Burnham’s Plan and Chicago 2016.

But what is a city of data and why should Chicago care about being one?

IT research firm Gartner notes that by the end 2012, 20% of the (non-video) data on the Internet will originate not from humans but from sensors in the environment. If your eyes just glazed over, let’s look at this from a different angle: if Gartner is right, for every four text messages that a pedestrian sends, the sidewalk she is walking on while doing so is also sending an equivalent amount of data. The city itself is becoming part of the Internet.

This is happening already. The city is increasingly instrumented; nearly everything today can be monitored, measured, and sensed. There are billions of processors embedded in everything from structural girders to running shoes. Millions of radio frequency identification tags turn inanimate objects into addressable resources. The city is immersed in a environment of data continuously built and rebuilt from the lived experiences of its occupants. And yet, this information architecture is hardly planned, much less dreamt about, or celebrated.

Consider the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway, what Burnham envisioned as a grand pedestrian-friendly concourse leading westward towards a towering civic center and eastward to the lakefront. This was never built, of course. (The circle interchange is our civic center, alas.) And yet there’s another built world, equally intangible, an infrastructure of data, overlaid on this intersection.

  • Three students surf the web thanks to an open WIFI cloud that leaks out of a local hotel lobby.
  • Several GPS units in cars all update with detail about the intersection as they approach.
  • Sensors embedded in the water main below the street register a blockage.
  • Closed-circuit cameras in three different shops capture the same window shopper as he moves down Michigan towards Randolph.
  • An exhausted cyclist’s bike computer uploads his location and energy expenditure as he stops to use his iPhone to log into a Zipcar waiting to take him home.
  • The city 311 database is populated with 7 different service requests from the surrounding area, coming from phone and e-mail.
  • Taxis criss-cross the intersection as their fare data trails are logged locally and broadcast to dispatch.
  • Four different people tweet from different perspectives on the same news crawl that moves across a building’s frontage.
  • A bus stops to pick up passengers and bathes them in the glow of the full-color video screen running along its side.
  • RFID chips on pallets loaded into building docks beneath the street respond to transducers in the receivers’ doorways.

And on and on. The examples are commonplace, but together they form an infrastructure — or superstructure — a second set of interactions, invisible or barely visible, atop the interactions that we plan for and currently build for. Proprietary, public, local, remote — all manner of data continuously permeates the streetscape. And yet we scarcely think of how it plays a part in the city that we’re building, the city that we want to become.

We don’t dwell on physical city infrastructure much either — unless we’re momentarily captivated by an architectural facade or, more commonly, inconvenienced by some lapse in the expected service. And yet. We’re the city that defines architectural styles for the world, that elevates an urban planner to local celebrity, that engages in a heated debate about the merits of remaking ourselves for the Olympics. From here on out why should we not apply such passion to the next wave of digital infrastructure? It is a decision not to be made lightly or as a thought exercise: how we design our city of information is as vital to quality of life as streets, schools, and job opportunity.

Dan Hill, a leading urban designer in matters digital, notes that we often think of the information landscape like street furniture and road signs, as adornment or a supplement to the physical environment. But fissures in a city’s data infrastructure are as consequential as potholes. They are structural failings of a city at the most basic level, in a way that a busted piece of street art would never be.

Think of cell phone outages — “dark zones” — as potholes in the urban information landscape. Or consider GPS brownouts, such as cause error in bus-tracking when the CTA enters the satellite-blocking skyscraper canyon of the Loop. But these examples are minor compared to the real issue before us: how do we proactively build a city of information that is inclusionary, robust but flexible, and reflective of a city’s unique character?

Our built structures — physical and digital — are manifestations of the patterns of human life in a city. They encode our desires, our needs, and our hopes. In some cases the permanence of the built environment inhibits or works at cross-purposes to these goals. (Think of expressways as barriers to the way people move about neighborhoods.)

We have a unique opportunity to ensure that our digital infrastructure avoids the mistakes of our physical infrastructure, to make Chicago the envy not just of building architects but of information architects.

I suggest two ways to start. To engage in a dialogue about this new built environment — such as we did collectively this summer — our city planners and citizenry need to be at least as conversant with the language of information architecture as we are, at a basic level, about physical architecture. Call it an aesthetics of data. This is as much a matter of becoming aware of what’s happening around us, of figuring out the most elegant ways of making the unseen felt, of thinking of our urban spaces as I described the interactions at Michigan and Congress.

Second, we need to recognize that, while the power of information is the power to connect, every linkage made represents a connection not made or, at worst, a disconnection. (Think again of the unintended effects of expressways on neighborhood mobility.) Our plan for a networked urbanism should seek above all to be maximally enfranchising, lowering barriers to commerce and community.
We must take up this mantle and be active participants in the design of this networked urbanism. We must make our voice heard. From educating our elected representatives about the opportunities before us, to encouraging our youth — who increasingly live in a world of data — to think critically about their role in the urban fabric, we must embrace this challenge with the same passion embodied in our historical tradition of remarkable plans for Chicago.

[This essay is cross-posted at the Building a Smarter Planet blog.]