Dynamic City Infrastructure

Will future cities have “less-static” infrastructure?

Perhaps one of the more enticing, futuristic notions for the city of the future is the non-intersection. This is an open and lightly structured series of pathways, in which self-driving cars can seamlessly negotiate amongst themselves while respecting pedestrians and other vehicles. The absence of traffic lights, coupled with intelligent vehicles can create a harmonious, flowing system. While this utopia may be many years away, at least in theory it should dramatically help with congestion.

In China, a train called ART (Autonomous Rapid Transport) was recently released that follows a painted line instead of a fixed metal rail system; this seems like a logical replacement to light rail transit. As well as being much less expensive to deploy (it is, conservatively 25x cheaper to put down pavement as opposed to rail and raised stations), it is more flexible and arguably also easier and cheaper to operate. If you need or want to change the ART route, you can do so with a bit of paint — not pickaxes and shovels. The complexities related to merging this system with a non-intersection can also be more easily designed and updated based on usage patterns.

These efforts seem promising. However, as I described in my last piece on Adventure Cities, unintended consequences are always introduced in our quest to make cities safer and more efficient. As planners have introduced features that favor safer roadways, fatalities have actually increased as drivers feel more in control, and no longer pay as much attention to the needs of pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders and the like. In contrast, going beyond non-intersections by also removing sidewalks and other barriers, the woonerf is becoming more commonplace. This is a shared use street with minimal markings or controls, where the assumption is that its use requires higher levels of attention from people, and therefore ends up safer than traditional streets. Furthermore, a woonerf is less expensive to build, but can also be easily reconfigured for different uses. It will also be monitored and optimized by different technologies than what would be applied to a traditional street.

Transportation is not the only part of urban life that is seeing this trend towards dynamic infrastructure; architecture and space planning is undergoing a major shift as well. When Chicago was renovating one of its police stations, the architect and the city decided on a “radical” plan: to build a police station with shops, parks, and recreation facilities integrated into a flexible community space. Instead of building walls around the “police function”, this design brings the community closer to the police in a relatable way and allows for flexible and high-value use of the public space. What used to be a special purpose bunker is now a high value shared space.

With rapid urbanization taking place in China (and many other regions), and the difficulties of doing long-range planning around expensive housing infrastructure, many architects and builders are looking at modular, reusable, configurable structures. Much of this work is constrained to low-level buildings today, but it’s not hard to imagine high rise buildings also being more configurable as well. As cities and buildings become instrumented with IoT devices, and monitoring of human movements and interactions improves (hopefully with some privacy considerations), we will learn more and more about how to improve social interactions, reduce the depression and anxiety that can build in high density cities, and start to digitize urban design in new ways that serve us better. If our buildings are “hard coded”, there is little we will be able to do to correct for mistakes and unintended consequences. For example, some research has shown that the happiest units in large condo buildings are those with the best access to common spaces, leading to more serendipity and social interactions. Imagine if that research could be used to re-layout existing buildings with more common social spaces on each floor. Today that is a dream, but in a few years, it may be completely possible.

All of the above are all examples of how “dynamic” designs can and will start to compete with traditional, static infrastructure. Dynamic thinking allows digital strategies to be applied to the physical world. With the ART train, it costs almost nothing to do A/B testing — city planners could easily route the train one way for a week, then another way for a second week, monitoring user adoption and continuing to optimize investment thereafter. The iteration times and optimization start to look more like software than infrastructure. The woonerf does not need traffic lights, static curbs to protect pedestrians or bikes, walk signals, or painted lines on roads. Intelligent software will remove the need for this infrastructure, while at the same time allowing the systems to be more configurable.

In the near future, a “room” may come with a standardized API (i.e., electrical, plumbing, heat, furniture attachment points, etc, etc.) which allows it to be used as a bedroom, an office, or a kitchen. If such an API gets widely deployed, companies can compete to provide better quality units, and innovators can attach to that API to build completely new concepts. Today buildings are bespoke; in the future, they may be assembled from components using open-sourced and standardized components (3D printing will certainly help here). The evolution of a city, in response to changing human needs and life-improving developments, can be accelerated. This is well beyond “open data” or digitizing existing systems; this requires cities, entrepreneurs and financiers to think in different ways. More like software than hardware (well, perhaps like firmware).

Through consideration of more dynamic infrastructure, smart city initiatives can ensure they go beyond simple instrumentation of existing static systems. Done properly, more configurable, testable, changeable cities will ultimately allow cities to become more “people first,” a key viewpoint that Inovia tries to bring to our technology investments. All designs have unintended consequences; if those designs are flexible and allow for testing and reconfiguration, we can iterate more quickly towards cities that work for more people.

Once we wrap our heads around the benefits of dynamic infrastructure, it’s easy to imagine use cases:

  • New self-driving train companies that reject rails and embrace ART-like approaches. These may manifest as traditional-looking trains that follow white lines, or perhaps as dockable pods that form trains (platoons) as they approach the inner city.
  • Design of intersection controls is already getting smarter, with lights that react to not only local traffic but implement a mediation plan for overall city congestion. As light electric vehicles accelerate and pedestrian friendly goals increase, are the traditional traffic lights and crosswalks already old-fashioned. Are there brand new UI’s and UX’s for intersections that should be tested today?
  • City parks that are, today, largely statically allocated and sometimes sparsely used, could be reimagined and ultimately put to better use. Perhaps a private-public partnership could be designed to maximize the use of public spaces from both a ‘fulfillment’ and ROI perspective. Concerts, dinner parties, neighborhood plays, ad-hoc gatherings, community gardens…these sorts of uses are all hamstrung by permitting requirements today, but do they need to be? With blockchain technology to track usage, new identity and reputation systems, and emerging governance systems, could public spaces meet a new form of (meritocratic) capitalism that enhance their use, and also pay for themselves?
  • As electrical storage is deployed to handle renewable energy sources, is the traditional electrical grid the right architecture, or are there advantages to building a more dynamic system? Are there advantages to having electrical storage be mobile? Will devices ask for power long before they need it so that the grid can anticipate and reconfigure usage to avoid expensive peaks? This is an old idea, but one that cities have the ability to truly execute on.
  • Housing demand changes with demographics, pricing, jobs, and myriad other factors. Cities are struggling with striking a balance between affordable and luxury housing, and builders work hard to keep multiple stakeholders happy. Instead of conceiving of buildings as predetermined monoliths, there would be advantages to having buildings more easily configured and transitioned between uses. There are also real advantages to having mixed-income configurations; the right balance between subsidized and paid might be different from the time a building is zoned to when it is occupied. Each condo can also be internally reconfigurable.
  • Zoning is highly static. Enough said.
  • Governance and citizen engagement platforms still largely exist outside the digital realm, meaning citizens have input every year or two, instead of more actively on more issues. Will futarchies and liquid democracies be tried in cities before they are used more widely? It seems likely.
  • Police, fire, and ambulance services have long had technologies to ‘change traffic lights’ to their benefit. Instead, if they can simply talk to the ‘transportation control system’, vehicles of all types, pedestrians, and any other impediments to fast service can be automatically asked to clear the way. In the opposite direction, a suspect fleeing through a city could be impeded and tracked by multiple systems — the serendipitous traffic jam from an adventure movie may end up being a valid response to a situation 🙂

Just as in software development, architecture, medicine, and almost every human endeavor, there are tradeoffs in designing generic, configurable, flexible systems versus focused and static ones. Traditionally a lot of those tradeoffs have come from the management overheads of maintaining the more dynamic systems. Now that software, artificial intelligence, blockchains, 3D printing, and other new technologies are easing those overheads, many applications will be rebalanced between fully static and fully dynamic. Cities are no exception, and we expect to see great opportunities for entrepreneurs to invent, build, deploy, and run more dynamic systems than cities have traditionally deployed. This will also allow us to overlay pro-active smart city systems which truly make the city better for people, and don’t require years (or decades) to respond to unintended design consequences.