Dispatch — Feb 17, 2022

Conscientious Urban Technology

An interview with Bryan Boyer

One of the first groups I remember following online included Bryan Boyer and Ben Brown. They eventually co-founded Deepleap (1999), a web app before some websites were called web apps. Over the years, Boyer also studied architecture, co-founded The Helsinki Design Lab (which I’ve mentioned time and again in print and pixels), co-founded an architecture practice, and co-founded a coworking space in New York. He’s now the founding Director of the Urban Technology program at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and documented the program’s creation in an excellent weekly newsletter.

On the side, Boyer also made (idea, design, electronics, software) The Very Slow Movie Player and Lullablock, a “Pink Noise Machine for Baby Fred and Other Tiny Humans.”

Mentioning these projects is not just an intro or meant to flatter his ego but because it helps frame why I’m presenting this interview about the program. I’m always paying attention to busy intersections of domains and generalists, which the program and Boyer perfectly represent. Whether interested in these specific fields or not, one can always glean helpful lessons from these crossovers and hybrid characters.

Let’s also mention that this is one of the interviews conducted for issue 25 of Offscreen magazine. Since the timing of an eventual next issue is up in the air, I’ll be publishing these interviews through Sentiers.

[Patrick] What is urban technology, and why is such a degree needed?

[Bryan] It’s a four-year bachelor of science in urban technology. We know almost innately that the digital layer of cities has a growing effect on how we experience everyday life. That might mean digital coordination helps your bus network run more efficiently and makes it easier for users to find the bus and meet it on time. But it also means the use of digital tools in the context of policing, for instance, where there are very real and problematic questions of privacy and pervasive surveillance. The new degree responds to this convergence of brick and mortar with the digital.

One way to consider it is to ask ourselves, who are the people who should be working at that intersection? Who are the best-prepared people to accomplish that work? In today’s world, we have computer scientists, some of whom care about cities and gravitate towards related work. We also have urban planners, architects, and other ‘traditional’ professions that physically shape the city, and some have started to think about how they can employ technology to do that. There’s a convergence of these two long-standing fields, and our degree program helps them meet in the middle.

When two fields start intersecting like this, intermediaries can be helpful to translate between them. Would that be one way of seeing future graduates?

The language of translator or bridge or connector resonates personally. I think it’s an artefact of growing up in a world where computer folks and city folks were entirely different categories. But my hope for our students is that they don’t know there’s a difference. They don’t know you can work in urban environments without applying computational tools. And they also don’t know that you can work on computation without thinking about urban consequences.

For example, you can listen to whatever music you want on Spotify, and unless you turn it up insanely loud, it’s not going to ruin the day of your neighbours. Those are your choices with your software, and they have individual consequences and no collective consequences. Whereas with a ride-hailing app, like Uber or Lyft, you might get some convenience out of it, but your city, collectively, bears the cost of increased congestion, air pollution, and slower access to school or hospitals.

Those are collective consequences born by people who don’t necessarily have the app or might not even have a smartphone or even know that the app exists. That requires a different way of thinking about how we conceptualise, design, and plan applications that connect individual choices to collective impacts.

This marriage of technology and the urban fabric feels related to the smart city, a vision often obsessed with technology. But technology has always been part of cities, hasn’t it?

Although that attitude is fading, the smart cities movement has generally been technocratic, top-down, and obsessed with efficiency rather than any other potential outcomes or goals. Many smart cities were simply businesses selling to governments, where you’d have large technology companies going to places like Rio and selling them the dream of a technical utopia. A vision, by the way, that looks a lot like Cybersyn, a computerised decision support system that the Chilean government tried to build in the ’70s to help the management of the national economy—or prior generations of technical utopias. Now there’s a much broader range of businesses and services primarily targeting consumers, and that’s a significant shift.

If you look for real smart city success stories, there aren’t many, and they aren’t very widely known. But if we look at what has happened in consumer-driven businesses that have had urban consequences, you have Airbnb, Uber and Lyft, and you have a longer tail of companies that have grown immensely and rapidly. That reflects a shift in how we think about who the customer is and the users are.

In our view of urban technology, we don’t care about technology for its own sake, but we recognise that technology has always been how we scale what we do as humans. In particular, it’s a way of scaling the care that we exhibit for each other. How do we maintain an interest in a very high level of care and concern for our families, the people close to us, our neighbours, those we share the city with while also thinking about how we can still operate at scale?

Take Detroit, which has a population of 700,000, or New York, with 10 million people in the metro area, or take an even larger global metropolis; how do you make those kinds of environments operate? From a community perspective, the models we have rely on interpersonal negotiations and work well at the scale of 40 people, but what about 40 million? That’s one of the things we’re interested in in the program: how do we build technology or conceptualise a conscientious technology but don’t give up on the need to serve, be helpful, and truly enable the population on this planet?

Your writing points out that scaling technology differs from scaling ‘city-making.’ You emphasise that in city-making, ‘greater scale can create new qualities.’ What exactly do you mean by that?

When we think about scale in a technical context, we know that Facebook wants to have more and more users and provide the same quality of experience to all of them, which means they’ll be adding more servers on the backend. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but that’s what it boils down to, more resources to make the machine work for more people.

As a city grows, or as a neighbourhood gets larger and larger, things start to change in very qualitative ways. Here’s a basic example:

  • A village of a thousand people probably doesn’t have public transit.
  • A city of a hundred thousand maybe has limited public transit.
  • A city of 10 million should have an excellent one.

The mobility question starts to change quite dramatically.

Those are almost opposing ideas of what scale is. In today’s ‘disciplinary map,’ that means we have to choose: are we going to take the computational notion of scale and force it onto cities, or do we do the opposite and take the urban idea of scale and try to force that on technology? That might be an exciting exercise but may prove counterproductive. Instead, I think we have to find some way to navigate or combine the best of both sides to ask different questions about scale.

I’m genuinely ‘neutrally curious’ about finding the opportunities that might be in decentralised or federated models that don’t rely on a large entity like Facebook or Google or Sidewalk Labs or whomever, while not relying on individuals either. From a city perspective, you’d have co-ops or block clubs or civil society groups in that in-between space. What’s the equivalent from a computational perspective? It’s starting to look like it might be the crypto space in general. The governance discussions within the crypto world provide some fascinating ideas about various organisational models, like federations. There are tons of reasons to be critical of crypto. Nevertheless, I’m very interested in this subset, in the possibilities of something between traditional large scale institutional governance and tiny tribal governance systems.

Applying the notion of urban scale to technology reminds me of the current online trend of people looking for smaller communities, private groups, chat platforms and taking a step back from the well-known social networks.

That’s what a neighbourhood is, right? You have a relationship with people within your neighbourhood, which is different from your relationship with people across town, which is also different from people in other cities. And you maintain all of those relationships at the same time. The partial decentralisation happening online right now is exciting; it can look like a return to an earlier era. When I started my career in technology, things happened on text-based messaging systems like IRC. They involved a lot more DIY, which was apparent in the expression of the various servers and the bots that people created for themselves. There was a unique culture in each of those servers, which was quite compelling. There are hints of a similar shift happening in online communities now.

I also like the idea of the city coin, a blockchain version of local currencies, which were used between shops and local citizens for centuries and are now enjoying a renaissance. I’m tracking a specific coin right now, and interestingly that community is in stealth mode. It’s a community group, not a company, not a startup, but they have decided together that they don’t want to go public yet. It’s a group of folks who want to create a coin for their city, contrary to the Miami coin that seems oriented towards money-making. It looks like a genuine attempt by a group of citizens to figure out how they can use this crypto-based mechanism to push back against gentrification and support things in their neighbourhood, like more public art and less trash on the street.

In settings like this, I try to challenge myself to keep an open mind. I have some real concerns about the various potential impacts, especially the environmental aspect. Yet, at the same time, it is also a genuinely intriguing mix of technical means and social goals.

As we’ve learned in recent years, the unintended consequences of technology can have outsized impacts on society. What makes you hopeful that more localised applications in the context of our cities can avoid these mistakes?

It starts with accountability. For example, the urbanist Anthony Townsend and I worked on a project last year for the Minderoo Foundation in Australia, looking at the logistics of local deliveries, including robotic last-mile deliveries. There’s excitement from the industry. You can go to San Francisco or the city of Ann Arbor here in Michigan and see a little robot moving down the sidewalk, delivering one burrito at a time to people’s homes. Conceptually that’s interesting in some regards, but there are also a lot of potential downsides if those robots become common. It won’t be as exciting when sidewalks turn into lanes for robots, and all the failures of existing highways reemerge, like congestion, accidents, maintenance disruptions, et cetera.

Is there an alternative where community groups, co-ops, or governments can take control instead of larger venture-backed companies owning these technologies? Our response to this problem was a project called ‘The Most Important Mile,’ which included three scenarios:

  • A food co-op.
  • A neighbourhood-based mutual-aid delivery system.
  • A logistics platform jointly owned by the Australian government and the post office.

One of the things that fundamentally change in each of those cases is accountability, if you don’t like the way that something works and it’s locally owned, you go to the local owner or owners, and you have that conversation. They are a part of your community, which means they are more accountable to you and you to them; it’s a proper relationship in that sense. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Uber’s rollout, for instance. As they scaled globally, they tried to treat every city precisely the same, but communities are all different, and things went awry in many places.

There is a world where Uber, or alternatives to them, are willing to have those conversations. However, it’s still nowhere near the same flexibility or cultural closeness you would have with your local delivery co-op or your local businesses. That’s the primary way I see the question of impact in this universe of urban technology.

Historically, the products of smaller local alternatives have often been less user-friendly or lacked features that we’ve come to expect from the likes of Uber or Doordash. Would you say that’s still the case?

We now know what’s possible from a technical standpoint. Yet, we don’t like the resulting trade-offs because a particular and narrow type of entity drives most of that technology, namely venture-backed companies, usually based on the west coast of the United States. Some of the technical challenges have now been cracked. Projects like OpenStreetMap, which for a long time offered only a fraction of the quality of Google Maps, are now at parity. It’s possible to locally and collaboratively build open tools and fill the community’s needs. Projects that were previously almost exclusively possible through a market-driven approach can now follow different values. The question, then, is what are the right things to build?

In many cities around the world, here in Detroit being a prime example, getting fast delivery would be immensely useful for people who need something at the last minute. If you ask a startup in San Francisco, they’ll tell you the solution is a robot riding on the sidewalk. If you ask that same delivery question to somebody in Berlin or the Netherlands, they will likely say that the answer is a network of courier bikes.

I’m genuinely interested in those types of robots, how those technologies have a physical presence in the city, and what that might mean for our streets, sidewalks, buildings, and public spaces. However, there is also an infrastructural opportunity in both answers to our delivery question, a layer of technology that helps it operate efficiently. Now shared infrastructure has become an option. CoopCycle, for example, is an international federation of bike delivery co-ops, and they share a technical platform that enables them to do their work more effectively, each in their locality.

The pervasive gathering and sharing of, sometimes very private, data has consequences that we are only slowly beginning to understand. What are the crucial considerations when collecting and using that sort of data in the local, urban context?

It’s one of the core questions. We live in a world with ever more abundant data and increasingly common algorithmic decision-making. We know those systems are imperfect and create plenty of opportunities for harm, so how do we navigate that? How do we protect people from potential harm?

On the other hand, the world we live in is already imperfect; our education system is failing people daily, roads are congested and dangerous, and justice is not equally applied; how do we change that? How do we learn to do things better if we’re so cautious about harm that we are afraid to try new things? It’s impossible to learn how to do things better without feedback loops connecting hypothesis and action to outcomes and, one hopes, insights about what has worked and what has not. That’s what I’m most hopeful about in the context of increasing data in cities, the possibility of new feedback loops.

For instance, the citizen science movement is doing great work to demonstrate the environmental affects of highways and other carbon-intensive infrastructure on local communities. The group JustAir here in Michigan is an example of that, working to collect “the data we need to craft the future we want.” That’s a powerful way of using data creation and representation for the good of the community by making the connection between air pollution and the health of residents clear. It’s an example of how to use data to advocate correcting adverse outcomes of decisions made decades ago while making these moments visible, which is critical in making them actionable. But that’s only half the way there; to have a real effect on the measurement, feedback loops need to be there from the beginning, not just applied after the fact.

We also need to be better at using data to inform present and future decisions. There’s a disappointingly small amount of data about the built environment readily available to the architects, engineers, and all disciplines involved in creating buildings and cities. Why doesn’t every CAD (Computer-Aided Design) tool have a preview mode where you can easily and quickly see how your design performs? It’s possible to imagine a ‘preview mode’ on topics like heat gain, wind patterns, and other physical characteristics.

Still, of course, many of the aspirations and claims that designers make are about the human experience, not just physical performance. If you ask me to design a university building that enhances the connection between students from different majors, I would have many ideas on how to do this. However, the kind of social mixing requested is not easy to measure; there’s no reliable way to make an evidence-based design. Thus it’s not an easy thing to prototype. This lack of data is another case where accepting the status quo comes with serious downsides—specifically, so many important decisions about the design of buildings, streets, sidewalks, and public spaces are made based on less evidence than your average website. It’s not easy, but figuring out how to build more robust feedback loops between design decisions and urban outcomes is one of the major projects of the next decade or two.

A quick way to make significant changes here is to adopt more human-centred design techniques in the built environment; this is happening slowly, but I don’t think that’s the solution per se. I think it’s reasonable to expect that we make critical urban decisions based on a mix of significant, quantitative data and behavioural and experiential evidence. There has been enough advocating for the importance of big and thick data, now we need better, more accessible tools and practices to gather and interpret these “evidence streams.”

But isn’t data always imperfect and incomplete in an urban setting?

I’d say, ‘yes and.‘ One thing that makes working in cities so challenging is that it’s exceedingly difficult, and sometimes impossible, to isolate the variables—my colleagues in urban planning have lots of statistical methods to help here. Still, cities are continuously evolving, so the underlying physical or social conditions have almost certainly changed by the time you spend years studying a particular phenomenon.

Because of the nature of the ‘wicked’ challenges now faced by societies worldwide—and almost all urban challenges are wicked—there is no state of perfect understanding. We cannot wait for a 100% confident assessment of the situation before taking action of some kind. And beyond the impossibility of ever truly ‘knowing’ a wicked challenge, there’s the fact that acting changes the situation, so our students have to be comfortable in a continuous cycle of understanding and acting, learning and doing. That is not a license to “move fast and break things,” but it has to be somewhere between that sentiment and “wait and see.” The private sector cannot be the primary experimenter; that’s essential. So much of the tech discourse is about shedding regulation to let companies innovate and disrupt. Well, I don’t want the school system, or the bus network disrupted, thank you very much, but I do want them to steadily and constantly improve.

In the urban technology program, I downplay the word entrepreneurship and instead use the phrase “bias towards action.” I do that because generally, people think of entrepreneurship as a private sector commercial activity, but there are many ways to be proactive; as a neighbour, as somebody who’s part of a civil society group, an activist, a civil servant, a politician, or, yes, as a businessperson.

With a bias towards action, we have to study and understand what’s going on in the systems we participate in while also remembering that we can’t wait for perfect knowledge. We must create ways to see feedback loops that inform what we do next while being incredibly thoughtful about how we conceptualise and mitigate the harm that can come from the misuse of data. The design of experiments or approaches to prototyping is hugely important here, and what works for consumer-facing apps often does not work for core urban systems.

Questions of participation and governance are critical in urban settings, as you can see in many examples, including the collapse of Sidewalk Toronto. Had they formed a legitimate and early partnership with the City or the Library, or some other public body to hold their proposed Data Trust, would the project have been allowed to continue? One of my observations from watching that process was that there’s vital work needed to develop new approaches to conceptualising, discussing, debating, and mitigating risk in urban prototypes. For the same reason, our students need to be able to swim in a transdisciplinary pond that mixes design, law, and policy.

What about open data? Should cities open up as much data as possible? Who owns it?

Absolutely. I think what’s happened in open data with the civic tech movement has been transformative. We also know that it’s a challenge for many cities to manage the data and create data portals, and many of them have relied on employing private sector services, but the ownership of the data has to be public. And remember that there are many different ways to think about publicness. Sometimes the city collectively owns that data. There are also opportunities for a library or some other public institution to be an appropriate partner, and sometimes it might be an NGO. It’s another space where we need more experimentation.

Or what about stewardship instead of ownership? How you operationalise that is an exciting question; what would be the different boundaries, behaviours, and risks for each category? That’s the type of thing that we have to be discussing rather than “data, yes or no?” Because it’s just unrealistic to pretend that data will not become increasingly present as things are increasingly digitised.

You’ve written that we can see worries resulting from hacking as revelators of spaces of opportunity. I find that fascinating. Can you expand on that view?

The starting point is a thought experiment that I call the magic vacuum. When I see something that I disagree with but is observable as a behaviour or situation in the world, I imagine a vacuum sucking out malice, negligence, ill intent, evil. Then I wonder, why is this happening? Why are we observing these outcomes?

There is currently a quite monocultural digital life, especially compared to the digital world that we came up with in the late nineties and early two-thousands, when individuals created the web. We had our websites and our hodgepodge content management systems, which we’d built for ourselves. Because of that, the web felt more like a city with different neighbourhoods where there was diversity and experimentation. You could take an idea and reprogram it and make it different.

I try to remind myself of this framing of hacking and spaces of opportunity and hopefully engrain it in the community growing around the Urban Technology program; when you see something you dislike, it could also be an interesting idea if it were different. And then how would it be different? That question provides a vast range of ways to rethink something.

In that way, we can keep open the possibility of rewriting our world. That can be done in a literal sense, changing the source code that powers the device, or done in a societal sense by changing the laws and structures we participate in as citizens. Those have to happen at the same time. I think it’s unquestionable that the digital layer of cities is here to stay. The digital orchestration or use of digital communications and services in cities is probably not going away. We can’t isolate the technology from the institutions; we have to think about how those work together. Over the past twenty years, there’s been quite a dramatic change, and we need to start seeing similar experimentations on the governance side.

A growing number of designers are considering the place their designs take in the future, seeing it as something they can plan, orchestrate, and which might reverberate for a long time. How important is this kind of perspective?

Maybe the question is, which future? Design is a conversation with the future, but you choose which version you’re trying to design toward, by being intentional about a preferred destination. Let’s imagine a timescale, designing standard widgets on one end and more speculative, fictional pieces on the other. Strategic design is a way of being in between those two timeframes, which means creating something that is recognisable in the status quo and has the seeds or the possibility of a different future. One example of that from my work in Finland was the Open Kitchen project, where we created what looked like a food entrepreneurship bootcamp. It was a way for people to learn how to become street food entrepreneurs in a city with a growing food scene. The folks who were part of that program got an educational program, and that’s all they needed or wanted. But in fact, we were a design and innovation team embedded inside the government, not a bootcamp.

We found that governance around food was well-intentioned but also created a very high degree of friction, making it quite difficult for folks like our entrepreneurs to execute and do anything different. We built a learning opportunity for the entrepreneurs and used it as a forum for conversations with people in city hall and various regulatory bodies. We wanted to invite a reflection on a different way of regulating the kiosks on the sidewalks, questions of food safety, and all the related issues that we had discovered through our research.

For me, that kind of middle space continues to be the next frontier, the next area where more focus is needed. It’s a way of being thoughtfully experimental while in real conversation around what an experiment would imagine differently.

The degree explicitly aims to develop a transdisciplinary approach. Why did you choose the word “transdisciplinary” instead of “multi” or “interdisciplinary”?

I think there’s a prevalence of generalists, people who have moved between different careers, and it’s a reflection of our macro-historical moment. Don’t get me wrong, the silos of the industrial society are still here, but they have melted to some extent. So you have people trying to understand how to exist in that murkiness where society’s traditional roles and duties are no longer applicable.

Who are the folks who do it? The ones willing to try it out and not get hung up by the fact that their degree or their formal training isn’t what they expected. Then, the question of transdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary or interdisciplinary connects back to earlier in the conversation, the urbanist and technologist perspectives. I don’t want either one of those to “win the future of the city,” we have to find a way to operate in a space between them.

A multi-disciplinary community can be really powerful, but it doesn’t always create a genuine collaboration; often, you have a bunch of different perspectives, but you’re not creating something new together. We’ve adopted the term transdisciplinary because part of the work we’re doing with the degree program is to genuinely find a way to exist in a space between technology and urbanism. There’s this excellent expression from my friend Chelsea Mauldin, who runs the Public Policy Lab in New York. She told me one day that we should aspire to have graduates who are “smooth-talking radicals.” I believe she meant that students should understand the status quo, analyse and articulate why it’s failing, and follow that up not by proposing a slightly different version of that status quo but by presenting a radically different future they would like to inhabit.

That ability of the designer to imagine an alternative is hugely important. A democratic society has to be about choosing between legitimate options, and designers should be in the role of manifesting, visualising and expressing those legitimate alternatives. And I’d emphasise legitimate because it means that we have to think about the systems of value that flow through those ideas, whether financial value, relational or social capital, et cetera. In the end, lack of imagination is only a tiny part of why we don’t see more change; the more significant aspect is the friction between the status quo and those alternative futures. We need to understand those sources of friction in great detail and be articulate and convincing when discussing why they are causing friction and why they can be different.