Smart cities
Smart cities

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Smart cities

3.1.1 The future of lighting

In the following audio, Lorraine talks to Rory Hyde, Curator of Contemporary Architecture and Urbanism at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, about his work on smart cities. Street lighting has always been a form of social control, but the future of street lighting may not be lamp-posts. Rory shares details of a Future Design exhibition he’s currently developing.

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LORRAINE
Hi Rory – thanks for joining us today. Please could you tell us a bit about your role at the V & A and how you got involved in smart cities?
RORY
Yeah, my title here is Curator of Contemporary Architecture and Urbanism and I'm sitting in part of the Design Architecture and Digital Department at the V & A. So we’re a collecting department so we’re working on the national collection of architecture and urbanism and as part of that part of our research looks into smart cities of course, a hugely important development in understanding our cities and how citizens are hosted and managed and what opportunities they can have through digital technologies and where that intersects with public space.
LORRAINE
Thanks Rory. So I read your article which was in the Guardian - ‘The sci-fi future of lamp-posts’ – I was really interested in that topic. So how do you think the development of street lighting has changed how people use cities over time?
RORY
Yeah, what drew me to write that article really was discovering in our collection – in our medieval and renaissance galleries – a very old form of street lighting from Italy from the sixteenth century so around 1550. And it’s a very primitive kind of metal cage if you like where they would coil up ropes soaked in oil, set it on fire and then it would be attached to a wall outside a palace for instance and as far as we know that’s the first example of street lighting for public spaces. So in about five hundred years what's really changed was kind of the question that I was trying to ask through that, through that article. And really the underlying question is who are these technologies for and what purposes do they serve.
So already from that first example it was about providing safety and security outside a palace but also about yeah kind of extending the private space into the public space in front of that building. But really street lighting begins around 1700 when a more efficient form of gas lighting is developed and then that’s adopted widely across Europe in the eighteenth century and then of course with gas and electric it just kind of builds and builds. And really yeah we’re at this point now where obviously street lighting is becoming both a kind of cost or a burden on councils and one figure I’ve discovered suggested that up to seventy per cent of a city’s electricity use is directed toward street lighting so of course cities are trying to find ways of doing that much cheaper but also they're asking well you know what other purposes can we have? What are the social effects of street lighting and perhaps what are the effects of some of the tactics that we’re using to save money on lighting.
So I guess one of the great breakthroughs more recently in the last few decades of course is LED lighting – extremely low heat, extremely low energy and cities can save a lot of power by switching to LEDs. But also the rise of smart lighting so once we combine lighting with systems like sensors, which can detect movement, so a light might be very dimmed when no one is walking near it and then it can go much brighter when people are walking under it. It seems to make perfectly sensible sense. But even more than that we can start to combine other sorts of sensors like sensors that can pick up data. They might look at the signal coming out of your mobile phone or the type of traffic that’s going across off a data network. And what can we learn then about our citizens from information like this that we are kind of scooping up from the air and I think these types of developments pose, yeah they offer opportunities for you know being very specific and customisable and responding to people’s needs. But they also open up a tricky field of privacy and questions about data security, particularly I think in a public space where it’s very difficult to get users’ or pedestrians’ consent as to what’s happening with their data or who’s using it and for what purposes.
LORRAINE
Okay. That’s really fascinating. It’s really fascinating to hear about how street lighting developed over time and how you think these new forms of smart street lighting are impacting on people. I’ve got a couple of questions. So thinking back to the past, did street lighting, the changes in street lighting, in those early centuries have an impact on how people lived their lives perhaps for example in terms of crime or the way they, the activities they did?
RORY
Yeah so, I mean one of the really obvious things which street lighting obviously meant was the kind of extension of the day. There’s a great quote from the editor of Tatler writing in 1710 where he says ‘the lighting of London has thrown business and pleasure into the hours of rest and by that means made the natural night half as long as it should be’. So there’s these kinds of complaints which suggest that now walking around in the evenings you needed to, well, be well dressed, you needed to present yourself for the public face. And of course what that means is that the more well wealthy classes or the bourgeoisie or the elites could safely walk around in the streets in the evening because of this street lighting. So that was a great benefit to them but it also kind of co-opted that part of the evening from the other classes and for the wealthy. So there is a sort of strange transfer that happens there and that’s yeah both on that literal level as in they can now walk around the streets but also perhaps there’s an interesting example in Craig Koslofsky’s book Evening’s Empire, where he describes now that the rich can walk out into the night and they can go out to parties and what not their servants and their carriage drivers also have to work out into the evening and wait for them to finish their parties or whatever. So again it extends those days of work for the servant class in a different way not just because they’re not sort of as welcome in this evening.
LORRAINE
Okay. That’s really interesting isn't it there's some form of like infrastructure lighting just completely changes lives in terms of how we live home life and work life as well. So yeah it’s really interesting to think now when with smart cities this idea of more data availability and very much managing our street lights and controlling when they're on and off and the kind of lamp post collecting data – think about what sort of impact that will have on our lives. In your research have you seen anything in particular about people’s concerns about those areas?
RORY
One of the examples is not so much street lighting but a few years ago here in London there was a bit of an outcry over these smart bins and these were rubbish bins which again were scooping up information and kind of discreetly or without alerting themselves to what they’re actually doing picking up data from people’s phones and using it for reasons that weren’t transparent. So that’s sort of one area where we’ve already seen it in action although not with a lamp post so much but with a bin and I guess there’s more distant promises in smart lighting which I do get more excited about rather than more anxious about.
I’m going to meet the Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde who has been working with the State University of New York to really combine luciferin which is a compound that’s found in fire flies and jelly fish which can light up – to combine that DNA with the DNA of trees for instance and they’ve got a working prototype, a tiny little plant which will glow in the dark. So that’s the kind of exciting potential breakthrough for street lighting where instead of having individual lights on their own poles we might simply be able to grow our street lights and have glowing trees down boulevards. So you can imagine there’s a whole sort of romantic aspect to lighting as well which changes the way people think about cities, they write about cities and the experience of cities and potentially something like this could really transform the way we understand public space and the kind of romance of the city if you like.
LORRAINE
So, actually when we think of the future and we think about new technologies coming through with things like smart cities but actually things won't stay the same as they always were. We won't necessarily have street columns but there's new technologies that provide new really interesting ways of lighting our cities. But it’s nice that you … actually it’s not about how we use urban space, how citizens interact with their urban environment and so I guess in designing smart cities it’s kind of design and involving systems as crucial. Have you from your experience seen that previously smart cities was perhaps more a discipline of engineering and technology and design architecture people getting more involved now – do you see that?
RORY
Yeah, that’s, I mean I think that’s really good point. I mean again to come back to this question who were these technologies for, I think is something we really need to continually ask ourselves. And in some of the smart cities work that we've seen you know of course big companies, IBM, CISCO now increasingly Facebook, Google are building cities with their, well, building technologies for cities with their interests in mind and I think really we need to be, yeah, protective of that and cautious about what these companies are offering and to build in the needs of the citizen in there, the needs of public space and the needs of the individual. And the best way to do that is to work directly with communities, to build up a kind of a knowledge within the public about what smart cities are for and how we can use them in a way that they encourage the best things about cities today.
LORRAINE
Yer, great, I think these companies set out with good intentions. I mean thinking back to the kind of smart street lighting I can see a lot of benefits of being able to control your street lighting and maybe dim it at certain times and focus light when perhaps there is an accident or an incident on the streets. But it is thinking about people’s concerns as well, about what data is being collected and how it impacts their lives so it’s very interesting that as you say actually the key to designing effective smart city is to work with people early on to help involve them and help them use the design for the future kind of infrastructure for our cities but also to …. Things to work together so that people begin to understand how people use the kind of urban space.
RORY
Yeah that’s right. I mean – I think to come back to your original question definitely that trajectory which you describe, one which starts with technologists, engineers, infrastructure specialists and then increasingly includes designers, architects perhaps even social scientists and even more so the public themselves can help to yes co-create these systems and I think that’s that then points towards questions about you know can we build an open platform or a system which people can contribute to and use as a sort of infrastructure in which to build their own systems on top of or do these systems need to be proprietary and enclosed. And I think given that we’re talking about pubic space and public data and really information that’s derived from people embedded into the city looking towards a system, a smart system, which we can all kind of use together or co-create will mean a much more democratic outcome for these types of technologies.
LORRAINE
Yes, it’s interesting that you pick up on this idea of a kind of open innovation platform, so cities not getting tied in to one supplier but working, being able to work with lots of different systems, lots of different companies and organisations that might bring different ideas and approaches to how cities develop as smart cities. So you touched on some of the really interesting projects that you’re working on. Do you have any future projects in particular coming up that in this area which might be of interest to our listeners?
RORY
Yes so the next project that we’re working on which is still a little way off and we’re just getting started on it well it’s working title ‘Future design’ – so it’s a big exhibition about, well, the future, everything, design, cities, bio-tech, energy, entertainment, you name it. And of course a big section of that we will be looking at smart cities so at the moment yeah we are going to investigate various designers and companies and to see what they're working on at the moment. One of them who has been in touch with us is a guy called Carlo Ratti who is working out of MIT Senseable City Lab in Boston and one of their projects which was developed a few years ago now around 2009 – it’s called the Copenhagen Wheel which is an electric bike wheel which can be attached to any existing bike.
But it’s also got a kind of social network that’s part of the app, which sits on your phone that goes along with this bike. So rather than just providing energy and helping you get up a hill it also might alert you when you’re cycling past a friend or when you’re gonna encounter another colleague or perhaps – I dunno – somebody to avoid – who knows? So we are also seeing these types of smart technologies being embedded into bicycles and then Kutsuplus is a project we’re looking at which is in Helsinki. Again this is kind of like uber but for public transport for buses.
So it’s a development initiative being run by the government in Helsinki um and really you can click your app wherever you are and a bus service, which doesn’t have a defined route, will kind of adapt its path to come and pick you up from any corner effectively. So again we’re seeing more technologies which I guess can be considered more generous or more publicly facing or more giving citizens a bit more control than perhaps some of the more private initiatives that perhaps have been leading this sector so far. So they're the ones that we get really excited about.
LORRAINE
Okay, so they sound very fun and engaging technologies as well so very much I guess some of the more big kind of top down and more kind of technology companies … But these are more kind of bottom up and involving I guess both kind of technologies that citizens and artists and kind of creating things that are fun as well as serving a purpose in the city so that sounds really fascinating. I think you mentioned an exhibition so when will that be open to the public?
RORY
Yeah so the exhibition will open in April 2017 so still a little way out and of course being an exhibition about the future we’re trying not to – we’re trying to leave a few gaps in – in the objects which we hope - which we will show, objects or technologies which will kind of shape our experience of the future or which point towards the kind of future that we’re building today. So yer, keep an eye out and come back and see us in a couple of years!
LORRAINE
Okay. Great. Well thanks very much Rory. That’s been really fascinating to hear about how you got involved in smart cities and all the different projects and organisations you're working with. So thanks very much for joining us today
RORY
Thanks very much for having me. Thank you.
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Rory trained as an architect, and has worked with Volume magazine, MVRDV, Al Manakh (Archis / AMO), the NAi, Viktor & Rolf, Mediamatic and BKK. He is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the University of Melbourne, and author of Future Practice: Conversations from the Edge of Architecture, awarded the AIA prize for architecture in the media.

Read Rory’s Guardian article ‘The sci-fi future of lamp-posts’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] (Hyde, 2014).

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