Anthony Townsend: Image of the (Smart) City

Anthony Townsend sees the future of cities and it is very big, very complex, and very connected. He’ll talk about his vision and his new book Smart Cities at Xlab 2013: Experience + Interaction in Public Space, October 24 in New York.

Townsend is Research Director, Technology Horizons for the non-profit Institute for the Future and a Senior Research Fellow with New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management. He speaks frequently around the world on the smart city industry, government service innovation, and technology innovation systems. His new book, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia (Norton, October 2013), explores the rise of smart cities and the players shaping them, placing the current hype about the future of technology-enhanced cities in a broad historical context.

Xlab 2013, SEGD’s design and technology event, will focus on how urban spaces are being shaped by digital communications, immersive experience design, and enabling information retrieval in the built environment.

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Townsend took a few minutes this week to speak with SEGD about augmented reality, sprites and pixies, and Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City.

You’re an urban planner whose research focuses on the impact of technology on public spaces. How did you become interested in this topic?
I earned a degree in urban studies from Rutgers University in 1996 but was working for a local dial-up ISP at the time. I got very interested in the emerging geography of the Internet, the growing possibilities for telecommuting and e-commerce, and the impacts that might have on land use and mobility. Around that time, the now-defunct Congressional Office of Technology Assessment issued a landmark report looking at how technology, including telecommunications, was rewriting the metropolitan landscape in the United States. I realized I was onto something big.

What is the "next big technology thing" that will affect cities and urban spaces?
That's just the thing—there is no one big thing. But if you had to pin me down, I'd say it’s cellular networks. We’re about halfway through a process of lighting cities for mass mobile communications that began in the 1940s. By the time we’re done, the result will be—like the wiring of the planet for electricity—a complete transformation of what it means to be urban.

What is one key trend that people who design immersive environments or help people navigate public spaces should know about?
Augmented reality—what Google Glass is—is something that has to be reckoned with. People are going to use this technology to add to, but also remove from, their own visual image of the built environment. The knee-jerk reaction is to say it will put this group out of business, but I think it could drive a lot of innovation and let you think more expansively about what you do and what the built environment's role in navigation is. For starters, we're all going to have to go back and re-read Kevin Lynch's The Image of the City and understand what these technologies mean for that way of seeing the world.

How do you see signage, wayfinding, and similar visual communications evolving as part of the Internet of Things?
I imagine a world of useful, happy little digital sprites and pixies: objects everywhere telling you what they are, what they do, what's nearby, etc.

As we adapt to rapidly changing technology in urban/public spaces, what will stay the same?
Very, very hard to say, but I think people will still want to be in control. The backlash we are seeing now around information overload and multi-tasking is not going to go away. It will get a lot worse, and people will want choices. Ditto for sensing, tracking, and surveillance.

What are some of the most interesting ways that you’re seeing technology embedded in physical spaces?
Frankly, I'm underwhelmed at this point. I have been tracking this since the mid-90s and I really expected us to be farther along at this point—entire city districts with facades of programmable displays—Times Square everywhere. But I think the built environment really changes so much more slowly than the digital one.

In what ways are public spaces being designed to leverage/celebrate human behavior?
I think what's interesting about who's designing public spaces is that ad-hoc groups of citizens are appropriating them for their purposes, regardless of the designer's or manager's intent. Look at Tahrir Square, Gezi, Zuccotti Park. As designer Dan Hill has said, these uprisings are driven by "social media and the piazza." I think designers need to study these experiences closely to unpack the ways that people defined problems and crafted solutions quickly using both ancient mechanisms and a rich array of new digital technologies.

Tell us a bit about your new book Smart Cities. How will it resonate with people who create visual communications in the built world?
Smart Cities is basically a political economy of the new urban landscape, looking into aspirations and actions of the key stakeholders: big tech companies, start-ups and civic hackers, city government, and citizens themselves. I think it will give them a road map of the economic, infrastructural, and social winds that are blowing through cities as we introduce a complex array of new technologies without a whole lot of consideration. There's going to be a lot of work to do cleaning up the mess and making sense of the cities of the future, which are going to be very, very large and extremely complex.

Read NPR’s story on Smart Cities.

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Xlab will be held at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. The museum's ultra-modern interiors and media-saturated space, designed by Brooklyn-based LEESER Architecture, will set the stage for conversations on interaction in public space.

Xlab 2013 is sponsored by Daktronics (Presenting Sponsor), Arsenal Media, Electrosonic, the ISA Sign Expo, and Unified Field.

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