Note — Jan 30, 2022

What Does It Mean to Design Urban Technology?

Bryan Boyer has been working on the creation of a new degree program in Urban Technology at University of Michigan that combines urbanism, technology, and design. I’ve linked to some of the ‘making of’ newsletter in the past, this article gives a thorough overview of why such a program is needed and how they are going about it.

Perhaps strangely enough, I’m not linking to it for the program itself (although it looks fantastic!) but because in the process Boyer explores in very relevant and useful manner this growing intersection of ‘tech’ and the urban, especially where the discipline of architecture encounters the data layer of cities, bouncing from shearing layers, to service design, feedback loops, and more. I’d like to draw your attention especially to the section on consequences and craft, which can be a good reference even beyond design, and the one on “what matters?” which talks about essential thinking around technology, not just in cities.

Finally–and Bryan alludes to something similar in the piece–I’d like to link back to Seeing without Looking by M.R. Sauter, which I shared in last week’s issue. Both articles mention sensors that use onboard computing to “pre-process and then erase imagery, resulting in datasets that are anonymous and secure.” Sauter highlights the negative potential, and Boyer focuses on the potential of that data in feedback loops so cities can evolve in accordance to the needs of the citizens. Both writers are currently in academia, both angles are essential, and those discussions also have to happen outside of universities.

[W]hen we use the term urban technology we’re not talking about another smart home device or some autonomous dog taxi, but rather the transition of urban life from a time where computation and network connectivity are an exception to one where they are the default. […]

The work of this century is to build without fossil fuels, without systemic racism, without want. […]

[W]hen the presence of a specific technology multiplies in our current or near-future life, so too do questions about what happens next. The what that happens next is about economic, political, social, and cultural changes that are set in motion by technological development (and vice versa). […]

Want to change the world? Build the right feedback loops. Change behavior based on what you learn. Collaborate with people who know things you do not. Honor history. Embrace the possibility of change. Be human. Don’t lose sight of the mission that drives you.