Interview Dr. Antoine Picon: Technology redefining space, 13.10.2017,3:45 PM  | École des Ponts, Université Paris-Es in Paris

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left: The technological building of the École des Ponts (designed by Chaix et Morel) ©Maycon Sedrez
right: Professor Picon talking with students after an inspiring lecture. ©Maycon Sedrez

Dr. Antoine Picon kindly met with Maycon Sedrez for a talk about future and smart cities at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (Université Paris-Est), where he is a researcher. Prof. Picon is the G Ware Travelstead Professor of the History of Architecture and Technology at Harvard Graduate School of Design and president of the Foundation Le Corbusier. His latest publications reflect on the architecture and the urban design evolution by digital culture.

Technological advances for cities

Maycon Sedrez: Recently, we have observed the proliferation of interfaces and services being created for citizens, plus the wireless communication helping to extend these functionalities. How might these interfaces change the experience of urban space and urban design as we know them?

Antoine Picon: For me, behind this proliferation, there are probably two or three major evolutions. One is definitely geolocation, which enables us to know in real time where billions of objects, people and vehicles are, or where they are moving. It is a deep evolution. Second, because we can “geolocalize” things, we can also hybridize the digital and the physical, which is often referred to as “augmented reality”. A third factor lies in these wonderful mobile terminals that we call smartphones. I think these technologies do play a very decisive role. Because of them, we are going to live more and more in augmented reality and we are becoming different. We are both here and somewhere else, browsing on the web and so on. I think it changes the very nature of the urban experience, which is becoming seamlessly physical and digital. In terms of urban design, it is very unclear where we are going. So far, I think we still very much believe that putting screens on façades or using our cellphone with augmented or virtual reality is all that we can do. I think we can probably go further and redefine, for instance, what it means to be inside and outside. At some point, we will need to ask more than the question of the design – almost the epistemological foundation of the design. What is the inside and outside? What is the relation between connected and disconnected? What does it means to be present when you can be on Skype? Perhaps tomorrow you can be using holograms. We have to go to a deeper level.

MS:  In the early 1990´s, we had the idea of virtual worlds disconnecting people from each other and from reality. And now, for instance, the ingenious game PokemonGo reconnects people with public spaces. Do you think that this duality might create new territories or territorialities, both virtual and physical?

AP: I think that there is a very strong spatial turn in the digital because of the geolocation and the augmented reality. The digital is increasingly linked with the physical, as if in some ways the digital is multiplying and intensifying the physical. I think this is what is happening. Don´t forget that the age of smart technology is also the age of soaring real estate prices. Actually, the square foot in big cities is much more expensive then the terabyte – we should always remember that. In the 1990´s, we believed that the physical and the digital were far apart. You had the digital city of Amsterdam, and there, the physical and the digital were parallel. I think today is no longer parallel, it is intertwined.

Smart cities/smart citizens

MS: Cities in general already produce a massive amount of waste, and digital citizens are producing even more tech-waste because of constant and fast upgrading. Which directions can cities take to be more sustainable regarding waste (digital and physical) and energy consumption (cooling servers, for instance)? Is there a direction to deal with this issue in a sustainable way?

AP: There is no miracle to be expected. Whatever we do, the digital needs energy. The cloud consumes more energy now then the entire civil aviation. Your iPhone or Samsung consumes as much energy as a fridge. So that is the reality. There are some considerations. First, not everything should be connected with everything. We actually have to choose what we connect. We talk very often about the internet of objects, but in fact we should remain cautious about a lot of things before connecting. When you connect, you use a chip, a sensor, the energy, rare materials, and so on – so we have to be aware of that. For example, Google search on a smartphone consumes the energy of a light bulb for a few seconds. This means we shouldn´t Google the latest thing we have in mind. All that converges, for me, toward a true economy of the digital. This means that we have to be aware, both individually and collectively, that the digital is not for free – that its reign is not paradise. The digital has an ecological imprint, and we have to be cautious about that in some way. We have to behave in a slightly sober way in terms of the use of digital. That is very far from what we have right now. I think that the tech industry has sold us the digital as this limitless thing. It is not true – it has limits, it is costly, there is energy consumption, and there is e-waste. We need to know that we have to use it but in a measured way.

MS: Infrastructure is a key point on future and smart cities, on the other hand the accessibility to infrastructure might create technological gentrification. How should we deal with inequalities regarding the technology? Do you recognize any project trying to shift this situation?

AP: We have a number of cases. The smart is not necessarily seen as synonymous with high-tech or developed countries. Medellin is often given as an example, but you have interesting things happening in Mumbai and other places. African cities are using smartphones to know where to sell their vegetables in the cities. We have examples on how to think up alternative ways to use digital technologies. We have to be aware that in central Paris or Manhattan you can put whatever you want, this is always going to be justified and profitable. But, we have also to imagine that in suburbs it might be different. We have to invent alternative models of smart cities – not only central Amsterdam or central London, or Singapore. We have to find other ways to be smart – instead of the intensification of these flows of international capitalism.

MS: You gave some examples of smart cities. What other cities do you know that can be considered smart or smarter? What is smart about them?

AP: There is really a very long list with very different characteristics. We see different strategies, clearly Singapore is very top-down about the technological control, the efficiency and so on. Paris is trying to be a smart city in a more collaborative and cooperative way. European cities are much more insisting today on the citizen dimension compared to Asian cities. The city of Rennes in France has a very dense cartographic tool to enable citizen participation. Every city chooses its own path. It is more what is happening these days. You have these nuances. My tip is to say that pretty much every city is becoming smart these days. I don´t want to do a ranking of smart cities. The most urgent task is to recognize that there are various strategies.

Open Source and Open Data

MS: The city of São Paulo, for example, has made the digital technical information about the city available for download. Who should control/owns the digital information produced by digital cities?

AP: I didn´t have this position a few years ago, but I am more and more persuaded that we actually need to reaffirm the place of public authorities – the political authorities in particular. In some ways I am increasingly thinking that cities should retain the ownership of vital data, and they should open it to people in order to create a market place. Or, they can delegate the marketplace to some companies. The smart has been too much promoted as an opportunity for start-ups, big companies, etc. The smart should become about reaffirming the prerogative of public good. Perhaps the smart should be understood as a way to regain certain political control. I do think that ownership should remain public in the end. The only way to do that is if we create a new type of relationship between politics and citizens. How can we mediate, or how can we consult about a project with people in new ways using digital tools? This is becoming a central issue, because it will reinforce both democracy and the political authorities that make the democracy possible.

MS: How can we enable citizens to become co-producers of the city, informing and giving feedback?

A lot of people have been experimenting with the idea of crowd-sourcing. Copenhagen did a couple of experiments – many cities are doing this. For the environmental situation or the traffic, for instance, the app Waze is partially open to user input. However, one thing which is going to be a problem is the difference between the certified information and the information that just comes from a bottom-up crowdsourcing kind of structure. This is an issue. I think we tend to forget that the information is qualified in diverse ways – you have reliable and non-reliable information, and official and non-official information, with all kinds of nuances. We tend to forget that information is just one massive category, there are a lot of sub categories and differences.

The role of urban designers

MS: According to your book (Smart Cities), the ICT and the sustainable development are at the convergence point. What changes does this provokes in the teaching of urban designers?

AP: I think we are very far from that, clearly. Honestly, in architecture and urban design schools these days, you still have on one corner the digital people and on another corner the environmental people. We now need to make these topics convergent to understand that being digital it is not only the frenzy of being connected. It is, for example, to be able to efficiently track materials and the energy embedded in materials, to be doing a true environmental monitoring, and also how do we manage natural resources in the city. Because cities have grown, they very often include very large natural zones. How do we manage that? A range of new problems arises, which I think it has been long neglected. Actually, I do think we need to make a tremendous effort on education to bring together these two components, which are still very much apart from each other.

MS: Is there a way to explain this to students to make it clear for them that this is something that should be analyzed and studied in a different way?

AP: I think what is complicated these days is that there is a firm tendency to believe that the technology is necessarily bad – that the real problem is due to politics and emancipatory politics. First of all, we need to convince students that to deal with technologies is to do politics. There is the politics of technology which is not doomed to be capitalist politics, there are alternatives, and we need to use technology when we deal with the city. When we do infrastructure, when we do digital platforms, we do politics. To me, this is a very important point. We have to make people to understand that there is no such thing as a pure technological problem. When we talk about the technology, we talk about the social and the political. Second, probably to try more forcefully to make people reflect on technologies and environment as not separated areas. How the environmental and the digital converge today? That kind of thought. But, we are still at the beginning of the itinerary – we haven´t got there yet.

Fiction and reality

MS: A big topic on smart cities is the issue of surveillance and privacy. I believe this should be discussed in a multidisciplinary context. Which level and disciplines should be involved in this discussion? What are the opportunities that we miss because of these undebated and misunderstood issues?

AP: Personally, I think we need more people around the table for the conversation. Definitely political science, which is already there. And, for example, anthropology. What does it mean to be moving constantly under the eye of a camera? We need, in some ways, economists. What is the economics of surveillance, and so on? I think that the real issue is our passive attitude towards surveillance. We think about resisting surveillance. What if surveillance is part of the project and we know that we cannot escape surveillance in this world for any motive? Moreover, that we actually have to choose which type of surveillance and for what reason. We need to be more pro-active, which would mean actually really bringing designers to the table, where they have not been. I wrote the book Smart Cities as an incentive to designers to come to the discussion, and tell them: if you don´t do anything this is going to be done without you, and it should be done with you. Typically, surveillance is something designers should work with. And not only about denunciation, but accepting that this is a dimension of the country and the urban life. Designers can decide about the design and how to integrate surveillance to the project.

MS: Another point you touch on in your book, which is interesting for me, is that some ideas of future cities come from the cinema. It seems that is not stemming from urban designers or architects, but directly from the cinema culture. There are many contemporary films with fantastic visions, for example Black Mirror, Ghost in the Shell and recently Blade Runner 2049. They find a way to apply the technology. It seems to me that urban designers are running to follow these concepts. What is your opinion?

AP: I don´t think it is dramatic for architecture to be running after cinema, because urban designers do real things – material things. One thing is to describe the city that you just have a glimpse at in a film, another is actually to build it. Urban designers are, in the end, supposed to get things built. I think coming after is something which is not necessarily bad. Reality is sometimes less daring then what you just glimpse at in a film – this is not so much a problem for me. What is more annoying is that they don´t really develop a reflection on those dimensions. The real problem with designers is still very much that these dimensions are either seen as a tech gadget or a threatening reality, but not something we should integrate like bricks, walkways, etc., in our thinking of the city.

MS:  This is a crucial moment of transition for more technological, smarter cities.  Although many cities are and will be far behind these advances, I don´t believe that some cities will ever reach this level of advancement. What is the consequence of this huge transformation in some cities and others still behind not having resources to actually build something similar and provide quality services to its citizens?

AP: There are inequalities, but there were inequalities with other systems like the electrical grid. We need to imagine that the smart may very well be the new urban technology revolution, so it is not going to be used at the same level everywhere. There are going to be differences, inequalities. I don´t believe some cities will remain apart from it. In every city, people have smartphones, and cities will find their own trajectories. I think the smart is easy to implement. The most costly thing is still the physical construction, for instance, a metro and a sewer system is much more expensive. I see the smart as a possibility to have more agile technologies and to be applicable to the informal. One big challenge is evidently the informal urbanism, which is pretty much everywhere – the vast and growing type of urbanism. How to we provide the minimum amenities in terms of technology? The smart is maybe a possibility. But, can the classic technology be sustainable?

MS: What are your final thoughts on Future Cities?

AP: We need to avoid being prisoners of the pure technological vision. I was initially a historian, and I wrote this book trying to put the smart back into the history of city. My intention is not make the ‘smart’ the brand new thing which is going to abolish everything else, but, put it in its right place – in the flow of changing conditions that characterize urban history. Second, the smart is a design problem. As much, for me, in the future is going to be an aesthetic problem then a purely technological problem – it is a design question.

MS: Thank you prof. Antoine.