January 11, 2015

Backcasting Urban Planning and Design for Autonomous Cars and Social Robotics


Advancements in technology do not necessarily lead to improvements in society.  Social policies created in response to technology might generate social safeguards but do not always promote social benefits. While we can witness technological developments with delight, we must take a moment to ask ourselves, what kind of future are we creating?

November 15, 2014

Design to what End? Socio-technical Design in an Era of Neoliberal Capitalism

"Psychologists have said that man's neurosis comes from too much contact with other humans. This won't happen in my city." - Le Corbusier

About a week ago I was participating in a workshop with some graduate students from Parsons and they were tasked to make rough prototypes in the realm of speculative design.  Their products were to additionally embody a degree of enforced moralism within the design (see delegated morality). Moving between teams to assist students in this task, I spent some time listening to the conversations held by one team in particular who was determined to redesign the heroin syringe into a tool for recovery.  The team continually focussed on one kind of user, the addicted person seeking recovery, and did not address the array of actors within the recovery process.

I asked "So how does this benefit other stake holders, like medical professionals?"

"Like doctors?" asked one of the students.


"They already use syringes so nothing changes for them."

It was a fair answer, but I challenged her, "so what incentive is there for the doctor to use this syringe vs the traditional device? Your device will cost more and require a lot of new systems to implement. Your new device also provides feedback to the drug user to facilitate recovery, how does the doctor benefit?  In fact, medical professionals might have a problem with this."

Then I was surprised as she tilted her head at an angle and said with annoyance: 
"Why? Because it takes away jobs?"

This was not my thought at the time. I was curious if the product could also be designed to provide feedback to medical professionals so that the medical community can gain a deeper insight into addiction.  Yet I've thought much about this discussion since because I've been disturbed by the confrontational annoyance that replacing people with machines is somehow a petty criticism.

Of course people have been frequently replaced by machines within capitalist economies.  My teenage job of working a cash register has been replaced by "U-scan" kiosks in drug stores and supermarkets. Architecture firms only require one CAD designer  vs fifty draftsmen.  I once worked in an office that was staffed by 200 individuals in the 1960s and is today occupied and operated by less than 30 individuals, most of whom are fairly young and inexperienced but generate a volume of work several thousand percent higher than in previous decades.  Just the other day I witnessed a presentation on robots that can plaster walls faster, cheaper, and better than a professional plasterer. One robot can do the work of 50 men in an hour, with overall better quality and lower cost.

This trend is a direct byproduct of unfettered capitalism. Humans are secondary to the efficiency of production for the sake of maximum gain.  Thomas Pickety has found that the process of then redirecting the profit into capital, such as real estate, rather than into the human workforce accelerates wealth accumulation at the cost of social capital. Yet the efficiency of production is reliant upon the expertise of technicians, giving rise to the engineering class, and thus today we see more money in the operations of Google than in any form of business that is tactile and wherein employment is accessible at scale, such as within a chain of hardware stores.  Nearly 100 years ago this process was predicted by Thornstein Veblin, and today is codified by the likes of Peter Theil.

So where does design come into this?  Design is an opportunity to revisit the systems of production regardless of the economic framework so as to prioritize humanity within the technological landscape. It is in no way unique in this endeavor and many disciplines are pursuing this same trajectory, yet I'd argue it has constructed a lineage (perhaps in a revisionist manner) that suggests a disciplinary opportunity. In short, if designers fixed a maligned socio-economic system before, they can probably do it again.

In the era of the industrial revolution there was a movement by public health professionals, architects, and social activists for improved work conditions and higher standards of living.  Public health codes were founded and urban zoning emerged to regulate land use.  Machines were designed to be safer. These changes were much needed at a time when most streets were covered in horse manure and a single water spout infected much of London with cholera.  This transformation was embodied and institutionalized within Harvard's Landscape Architecture program for city planning, where "the first graduates were trained as designers... not policy wonks."

Jump forward to the mid-20th century and the Dutch Socio-Technical Systems approach enters the space of economic production. In the Netherlands it became clear at the time that technological development was not only shifting the composition of the workforce, but effectively undermining the long term social interests.  People do not feel good when they are no longer useful. Everyday new markets are created and others die, but most people are not agile enough to shift rapidly across markets.  In the Dutch model, similar to previous area, attention was given to both the organizational model and the technologies of production so that the participants of the socio-economic system enjoyed ownership of their own economy.  In other words, laws were made so that people would not suffer under capitalism and machines were designed so as not to marginalize people. These tools were created in the service of people, rather than people needing to adjust to the demands of these tools. In the example of the cash register becoming a "U-scan," such a device would never be implemented. In contrast, a business would be organized under law to value the employee, yet the technology would be designed to make the employee more efficient. The employee would also receive training on the technology so that the interactive human/machine relationship held a competitive advantage in the market place.

Coming back to the initial problem, in the current iteration of global neoliberal capitalism, there is no priority for humanity.  Its sprawling pervasiveness undermines the ability to transform this neoliberal condition to something more humanistic. What can be done, however, is to design technology with the interest of people. In the most direct instance, we should design products, experiences, and environments that facilitate satisfactory human living - not take away jobs - which effectively does the opposite. We do not need or desire a "machine for living" in the sense of Le Corbusier. We do not even need to design a world of human transcendentalism in the vein of Husserl or Heidegger, but rather, we can benefit from designing the earth on which we live by recognizing the internal drives of humanity as part of the earthly system.

For this to happen, a cultural shift needs to happen in the realm of technology creation. To create a technology or environment that takes jobs from people needs to be understood as a moral infraction. It is not an unfortunate externality to be ignored in favor of efficiency. In contrast, social capital must be weighed with the same gravity as financial capital and fuel efficiency.

I've heard some individuals say that "Design is the 21st century humanities," which is fine, but typically the humanities are something only accessible to particular social classes so I'm not really a fan of this sentiment. I prefer to think of Design as 21st century engineering with the potential to become 22nd century populism. We can elevate our technical sophistication to accommodate and elevate humanist principals. Of course these arguments are simply two sides of the same coin. Effectively it doesn't matter what side of the argument you prefer, it just depends on how we invest it.

October 14, 2014

Design for Mental Health on the Mars One Space Colony

Rendering of Space Colony by Mars One

The other day I read an article in which a team at MIT conducted a thorough analysis of the Mars One plan to implement a human colony on Mars in 2025. Mars One is intent to have 4 humans on Mars who will live the rest of their lives there, building out the first major human settlement. Cool stuff. Especially when you consider that Mars is the only planet in the solar system inhabited solely by robots.

The analysis focussed on all sorts of important metrics such as Oxygen creation and depletion, and the demand for spare parts. It highlighted the need for improvements in the realm of 3D printing. It discussed the payloads necessary to ship everything to Mars. It was a purely technical assessment and other human needs were outside the scope of the project. Fair.  

Then I looked at the photo of the Mars One Colony. It made my heart ache. I love adventure, danger, and cities and 600 years ago I would have totally signed up for an early expedition with Columbus or Magellan to cross the oceans into the the unknown. But I will not likely attempt to join the Mars One entourage. Why? Have you ever been confined to a physical space for extensive period of times?  It is brutal.

Over the last 10 years, I have become deeply familiar with the stress of confined living.  In my early 20s in India I became sick with malaria and had very little money.  I found a room for 80 cents (USD) per day in Varanasi, which was concrete with no windows, a mattress, and a lightbulb. Aggressively fatigued with illness, I was bedridden in darkness except to venture once a day to a cafe across the street for a bowl of Ramen.  I lived this way for a month.  It was the first step into a life of continuous confinement.

Twice I've lived in concrete windowless rooms while working in refugee camps in East Africa. For three years it was a stressful act to wander outside of my apartments in Afghanistan.  For 11 months of those three years, I was confined to my own house in Afghanistan as the security policy would not allow me to even leave the front gate to purchase bread at the bakery on the corner. In Mogadishu I can typically occupy a public space for 15-20 minutes at a time, and only in ideal conditions, otherwise I'm confined to hotel courtyards and more concrete rooms (though usually with windows). I do not like to stay for more than 2 weeks and the longest haul in Mogadishu, 30 days, is something I will never repeat again.

The Size of the World in War Zones and Refugee Camps

Working in confinement is hard on your mind and body. Not from being inside, but because you see the world outside and you cannot access it. When you cannot open your front door and take a leisurely walk down the street, then nothing else seems as beautiful or important. When you can take that walk but require several hours of advance planning and coordination of security mechanisms, the outside world feels more distant, as if you are only scratching the surface of human experience.

When I look at Mars One, I immediately think of all the months and years I have spent living within constriction. In the end, I always broke the rules to enjoy freedom. I would sneak out of the company compound. I would hire a local taxi and freely roam the city. I always go off the grid and make a point to integrate with the local community. It is this need for mobility and social interaction that drives the work I do, and arguably, is the core characteristic that distinguishes my work from others who work in challenging conditions. But on Mars, breaking the rules is not an option.  Not to mention - where would you go? So in the meanwhile, trapped in a state of social isolation (with 3 other people you will inevitably grow to hate) what do you do?

Here we might also glean something valuable from the performance artist, Tehching Hsieh. Perhaps my favorite artist in all of history, Hsieh only created 6 works between 1978 and 2000.  The first 5 works each lasted a year. In the first he lived in one room for a year. In another he lived outside for a year, then was tied by a rope within 10 feet of another person for a year, and somewhere in there he punched time clock every hour on the hour for an entire year. It is clear that each work requires stamina and commitment.

Watching the One Year Performance 1980-81 in which Hsieh punches the clock, we see the onset of fatigue and discipline impact his body. We see the commitment. But is it the physical endeavor of each piece, or is it the denial of human interaction and communication that shapes his experience? Hsieh's work starts with the smallest unit of human experience as an individual, isolated in one room, and then expanding the circle ever outward, he probes at formation of human life. His last piece lasted 13 years, during which time no one knows what he did, but was summarized by the single statement "I survived."  Today he no longer makes art, in any form, but owns a building in New York that he rents out to other artists.  If we have anything to learn from Hsieh, it is that the Mars One plan needs to be more about creating conditions for the full range of human experience while within the constraints of creating the units of human survival.

Human living, even surviving, cannot be designed as incremental components, but is the chaotic interplay of exterior and interior variables.  Heidegger called it "being in the world." But Mars is a different world.  The act of being in the world will be handicapped and reduced to being in a subworld, one shaped by the aims of the profession rather than nature.  Life will consist of watching the world outside, be it from the window of the space pod, the vizor of the space suit, or the other side of the empty oxygen tank. If I've learned anything from the mental struggles of isolation in refugee camps and war zones, and if Hsieh's work has any value for this project, we learn that a viable space colony is not an apparatus for survival, but it is a seedbed in which the conditions of satisfaction may autonomously emerge to grow and prosper. To be in the world, the world must come into formation.

Can one design for a human compatible world that will take form as act of emergence? At what point can the world formation happen independently from our directives? We create new realities with frequency (Second Life anyone?), but these are never isolated from preexisting social norms and traditions. Having spent my fair share of time as an outsider in hostile deserts, I can assert that the landscape of Mars will come to embody the existential vacuum in a very short period of time. When contained within a landscape that subjectively embodies desolation and bleakness, it is difficult to remain steadfast and not embody the same. Mars hurts.

So I only ask, for those brave and crazy adventurers who will set out to Mars, will they have the opportunity to derive joy from the world they are presently designing? For how long? Will those involved in creating this endeavor facilitate the need for mobility and tactile engagement with the outside? Will another world come into its own for engagement and will that one become accessible so that some kind of value can be co-created that gives satisfaction?

I hope so.

Mars or Afghanistan, either way, when you go off the grid, you quickly find there is nowhere to go   Photo: Afghanistan, Sipus 2014

October 5, 2014

City Planning for the Second Machine Age


Just last week the Mayor of Las Angeles announced that L.A. will be the first city ready for self-driving cars.  This is a bold statement considering that no other city has really taken a major plunge on infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, and thus we have nothing to which we can compare the actions of L.A.  The notion of Uber-like services for autonomous vehicles is fairly compelling, but we need to ask - what kind of infrastructure is appropriate or needed for this product-service system? For example, should the police be integrated into an alert system incase things go bad? To take it further, what issues should urban planners consider regarding autonomous vehicles.  What does the future city need?

Much of the technology that will shape our urban experience tomorrow  is not quite mature enough to meet general expectations - but that is why planning for it today is important.  Having the discussion from a planning perspective will reflexively shape the technological development and diffusion, giving us the opportunity to take responsibility for our lives - much like the public health movement of the industrial era. Recently, many car makers have announced plans to roll out self-driving cars in the next few years including Cadillac and BMW.  Likewise, Audi has received the first permit in California to road test self-driving vehicles.  While MIT's Technology Review last summer, we are nowhere near the point in time when fully autonomous cars will be fully functional, and we are in fact several decades away - so now is the time to discuss how to make this work.

As we shed the remnants of the industrial era and step into the second machine age, let us imagine how it will look.  Autonomous vehicles are not limited to cars.  Flying aircraft, delivery UAVs, boats, underground tunneling devices, and robots of all kinds can be expected to appear in the next few decades. A primary part of the challenge in creating these technologies is that the urban environment is highly stimulating, directing millions of cues toward a driver at a given second.  The sounds of crosswalks, the recognition of a runner nearing the corner, and the flashing lights of a tow-truck vs a police car or ambulance all provide information to a driver.  These are also the elements of urbanism that make cities exciting and interesting. Strip the city streets of its life, and yes, we can make cars that will safely drive themselves through stop and go traffic - but is that where we want to live? Dehumanized modernist vision didn't work the second time (Le Cabusier's Machine for Living?), so what kind of infrastructure and planning do we need?

I don't have all the answers, but I think about this question quite a bit.  I have a few ideas and hopefully these will inspire others to explore the ideas more deeply.  If you have anything to add, I would love to hear from you.

1. Robust GPS system.
At present there are 32 GPS satellites orbiting the earth, at 20,000 KM above sea level.  I know little about satellites, but I can't help but wonder is this a sufficient system for constant global demand.  So far so good, but can this meet the future demand if you multiple current use by 10 or 100? How might we improve such systems to refine geolocation.  Its important to realize that already a great deal of variance occurs within GPS positioning, so while you might have accuracy within a meter in New York City, your GPS points in a rural and low populated landscape might vary as much as 20 meters. Will this be sufficient when your car drives you to work?

2. Geofencing
In my last post I wrote about the idea of land use planning for drones.  Yet the concept of geofencing does not need to be limited to UAV use.  It can also be integrated into self-driving cars, water-based robotics, tunneling machines, and any other form of autonomous vehicles.  Creating this system isn't hard, but creating a system of standards for the geofencing to work across cities, states, and nations might be more challenging - which leads to the next concept.

3. MIDI for the City.
One thing that has made the internet blossom is the standardization of HTML, APIs, and data structures like JSON to allow developers to freely port one system/tool with another.  In a similar fashion, MIDI provides a set of standards for musical softwares and electronic devices to communicate.  To my knowledge there is not a set series of standards for electronic device integration at urban scale. Maybe the internet of things will be the solution, but is IPV6 sufficient to address all these billions of objects?

4. Modular Infrastructure
Many cities will generally suffer in the new economy because there is insufficient growth in Commercial, Off The Shelf (COTS) products for smart city creation. Smart Cities cost millions or billions of dollars and are dominated by companies like Cisco, Siemens, and IBM.  Rich cities will have the money to optimize and poor cities will not be able to compete.  There are a few of us (ahem), working on the design and creation of modular components, dashboards, and sensor networks that can provide municipal plug and play operation - but this market space hasn't taken off yet.  This could provide an opportunity for increased safety, reduced costs, and general improvements in urban life quality at scale but more people need to be working on this.

5. Localize Energy Policy 
Sufficient energy systems are a constant problem and a major inhibitor for technology diffusion. With the advancement of autonomous systems our energy demands are going to spike. I think some of the more interesting work in this area is within using ocean driven systems (photo at top of page). Yet we can also harness the simple but functional technologies we have today. Many regulatory energy tools exist at the national level, but perhaps city governments need to be more aggressive in local laws. What if every building permit required new construction to include a solar energy component? What if every historic reuse, preservation tax credit, or publicly funded project mandated the integration of passive energy systems? We haven't perfected passive energy, but whatever we have is only effective if policy matures.

August 18, 2014

Zoning and Urban Land Use Planning for Drones


Just prior to my last stint of working in Somalia, I purchased a small consumer drone to use as social research tool.  Unfortunately the landscape had changed drastically since my last time in Mogadishu, and it was impossible to use, in particular because I am terrible at flying the damn thing. But I have since invested many hours into piloting the UAV to explore its utility as a research tool for urban planning and design.

Last weekend, a small disaster took place when I lost the signal to the UAV. The drone drifted out of sight and crash landed.  I had no idea where. It took several hours to find (on a building rooftop, I couldn't see it, but I found its WIFI signal), and even longer to recover (24 hours). At some point on TwitterConstantine Samaras, raised a significant point:  Perhaps this situation could have been avoided if I was in a no drone zone. But what does would that look like?

Legal Framework for Drones

In the United States, airspace above 700 feet is Federally restricted.  Airspace below 30 feet is considered part of individual property rights, meaning that when you own a piece of land, you also own the 30 feet of air above it. Ownership of this airspace is occasionally able to be sold for provide through a transfer of development rights. But what about the airspace between 30 and 700 feet?  At present, the FAA has restricted the use of drones for commercial use but amateurs are free to fly.

Some cities have already taken progressive steps concerning the legality of drones. The city of Evanston Illinois has passed a 2 year ban on drone use in the city for use in warrantless surveillance. This is a good thing. Carrol county in Maryland is looking for similar legislation on the use of drones by law enforcement. There was even recently a temporary event ban during golf tournament in North Carolina.  But existing UAV zoning laws are "all or nothing" in design, they do not make use of the opportunity that drones can provide in creating new markets, improved public policy, and better design for communities.

Zoning for Drones
In general, I'm not a big fan of city zoning.  I admire its intention, to make sure that the overall quality of urban life is consistent with high standards of physical and mental health.  We do not want the aluminum factory next to the children's playground or the speedway motor park in the residential neighborhood.  We do need a legal instrument for communities to make decisions about what they want to look like and how they need to function.  Yet overall, I find my city zoning is poorly conceived.  I am highly supportive of health standards, environmental regulation and taxes, but I see zero advantage toward regulating the values of a population (such as zoning concerning bars or adult services) or the economic geography as such zoning only reinforces the values of those who hold power, not the people who constitute the community.  Likewise zoning for residential vs. commercial use tends to put more strain on the landscape, increase traffic, increase pollution, and reduce the distribution of wealth. Zoning should not hinder social mobility, yet it can and does.

Therefore, to approach zoning for drones, it is important to examine the issue from multiple points of view.  After all, the goal is to create a regulatory framework that will maximize the ratio of nuisance to utility in favor of people at large, not a particular social group or economic class.

Areas of Review:

Example UAV Questions to Consider
Is the UAV big or small? 
Loud or quiet? 
Does it have a payload or a camera? 
Is it operating according to a predefined flightpath (using GPS waypoints) or is it freely piloted?
How fast and how high is it?
Is it for commercial or amateur purposes?

Example Site Questions to Consider
Is the site of high or low pedestrian traffic?
Does the site contain socially vulnerable or critical security infrastructure (schools, power plants etc)?
Does the site consist mostly of public or privately owned property?
To what extent is the airspace already cluttered and at what density?
Is this an area of high or low diversity in land use?

Example Population Issues
Is this area a public space or private space?
Is what is the privacy expectation in this space - for example, on a beach?

To recognize the array of drone designs and use designs is to realize that an affective zoning solution is flexible to support the advantages of the UAV but with limited interference upon bystanders. Conversely, it is important to insure that UAV operation is not disruptive to the general activities of the population.  Ideally, UAV operation should be able to operate "in the background" of day-to-day life.

General Guidelines for UAV/Drone Land Use Zoning Laws
While thinking about zoning for drones, one of the first questions that comes to my mind is "what will that look like"?  After all, 2-dimensional arial map is insufficient to capture the particular sense of space that will be used and affected by a UAV.  An advantage of contemporary design and modeling is that we do not need to restrict zoning maps to a 2D surface, but can draw these maps in the air, to model them above cities and within them.  A zoning map for drones should not only take advantage of modeling the airspace, but should take into consideration the variations of time.  For example, an area that might restrict private drone use from 9-5 could lift the ban from 30-400 feet after 5pm and 400-600 feet after 10 pm.

It might seem abstract to place an imaginary 3D geometry around a building to restrict flight patterns. But for those who are already flying drones, it is no unimaginable.  Furthermore, providing the information online (such as a downloadable CAD file) for a drone operator to layer onto Google Earth or other GIS software would easily remedy the situation.  GPS and time sequencing can even be programmed into flight patterns.  It might seem abstract and hightech, but 3D mapping of airspace for drone use has few hurdles and requires no new technology.

Drone Zoning and Urban Planning Concept Location, Chicago Illinois. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Drone Zoning Concept in Chicago, Illinois. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Case Study: Urban Planning for UAVs in Chicago
To explore this idea, I have rendered a rough concept drawing of drone zoning in the parks bordering downtown Chicago.  Basing the idea off of a traditional traffic light, green areas are free-use, yellow and orange maintain various restrictions according to the time of day and day of week, while red areas are restricted at all times.

Buckingham Fountain, Chicago, Open UAV Zone. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Open Droning
The green zone is near Buckingham fountain.  This area is a wide open space, with zero infrastructure of critical value.  It should be realized that we design areas where free drone use is available so as to offset the general distribution of restrictions.  A greenspace, therefore, should permit the widest amount of flexibility and opportunity.  Likewise, in such spaces we want to reduce the likelihood of losing the drone or disrupting others in the event of an accident.  Accidents will happen, so it is best to permit a space for those accidents to happen with limited consequence.

Side-View, Zoning for Drones/UAVs in Chicago. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Limited and Restricted Drone Use
In the image above the football stadium has been recognized as a "zero public drone" area.  In this space we can imagine private licensing options for droned cameras and advertising initiatives by the stadium and partners.  However, unaffiliated individuals should not have the right to use their drone in this are.

The yellow and orange spaces represent the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, Aviary, and Observatory.  For the sake of the example, I have suggested that these properties contain their own particular rules that change according to the day, season, or event.  This is not a unreasonable regulation, given that it is common place to create zoning in a similar manner for public parking during weekdays, sporting events, and even according to the weather.

Example Drone Zoning in Chicago. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Alternative Perspective of Drone Zoning in Chicago. Sutika Sipus 2014.

Drone Zoning at Human Scale. Sutika Sipus 2014

Drone Zoning at Human Scale II. Sutika Sipus 2014.