Citizenship in a Republic of Things

I’m giving a talk today at DACAS (Data and Cities as Complex Adaptive Systems) about the future city. It’s based around a theme I’ve been strumming for a little while now: that the future city is essentially a live environment that shapes itself. Here’s a cut down version of my script:

“Today the majority of physical change in a city is down to manual interventions by us knocking structures down and building new ones. There’s lots of revolution and little evolution (sorry for the cliché).

In the future I believe that structures equipped with sensor networks (nervous system), computers (brain), and a variety of actuators (valves, switches, 3D printers, construction robots, and active materials — all making ‘limbs’), will be able to evolve much more iteratively to meet the needs of their inhabitants.

They will make both transient decisions and structural ones. Sharing resources, and creating new ones as required.

Transient decisions might include:

  • Lighting offices on one side of the building at the ground floor if the building identifies that the passageway to its side is dark and there are pedestrians
  • Venting stored heat towards an adjacent bus stop when temperatures are low
  • Releasing excess generating capacity from solar cells on the roof to a neighbour in a reciprocal arrangement.

Structural decisions might include:

  • Changing the shape of an entrance way to smooth traffic flow based on an analysis of people’s movements
  • Partitioning a meeting room based on utilisation
  • Moving entry points to place them in proximity to public transport

Each of these decisions will require an interaction with third parties. Some of those interactions, such as with planning and safety regulations, can be relatively easily codified today. But others will require a much more nuanced approach: how do you allow smart buildings with multiple owners and stakeholders to interact for everyone’s benefit?

This isn’t an answer I’m afraid, but here’s a series of areas that need to be considered.

Responsibilities: How do you key a structure into the needs of its inhabitants and those that only experience it from the outside? Those with which it has no explicit relationship but towards whom it should still behave as a ‘good’ citizen?

Resources: How do you represent to a machine the resources that it can access, both material and human? The reality is that human beings are likely to be the most adaptable functionaries for these smart buildings for some time to come, given the state of the economy. How can it both communicate to its peers the resources it can share, and carry instructions to those that support it?

Rights: How do you tell a building what it is allowed to do? Safety is a clear consideration but so are planning regulations, and perhaps most problematic of all, aesthetics. Is there a future discipline of generative design that establishes rules by which something acceptable and in keeping with building’s architecture will always be produced?

Interaction: Codifying these things only has value if it can be done in a form that allows the structures of a city to interact with each other, and with the stakeholders in their work: human citizens, government, public bodies, and private.

For this to happen we need to establish an open platform for conversation between entities. A single space for interaction with a common set of rules that everyone follows: a true internet of things.

The challenge I leave you with is a big one: how do we create this? Most of the conversations I have seen to date about the policy of the smart city has been about defining human control and interaction. We need to start thinking about policies for the new citizens of our smart cities.

The citizens of the republic of things.”

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Tom Cheesewright