Mobile Cities: Innovative Urbanism with Mobile Technologies

“The city experience is a web of connected networks and multi layered threaded paths that condition us to the emotional state of the city space. In essence, the city fabric is a giant multi-user multi-data sphere. To take part you really have to put something back in, that’s like life. In this case, to take part you have to input data so others ‘may’ see the output of the data response.”


– Fabian Neuhaus, The Emergent City, Urban Tick, 11 May 2010

Smarter Cities and Innovative Urbanism

Carlo Rotti and Anthony Townsend, in their essay “Smarter Cities” (Scientific American, September 2011), describes how many countries have invested in a vast network of digital technologies that “blanket our cities” with a networked infrastructure. They cite that IBM is forecasting a $10 billion investment in support of broadband and wireless telecommunications network by 2015. The emergent “smart city” as an urban platform augmented with additional layers of information supported with internet connectivity is profiled more visibly with individual mobile interconnectivity. How so? Michael Saylor describes from his book The Mobile Wave that “in 2009, mobile Internet devices began outselling personal computers, 450 million to 306 million.” Clearly, this surge in demand for smartphones and mobile devices like tablets is associated with a great demand for portability regarding Internet access.
At the intersection of a vast networked urban infrastructure supporting the internet and mobile connectivity, there are many opportunities for urban planners, businesses, architects, city policymakers, and residents to approach urban design, particularly as it applies towards mobile technology. New prototypes for the hardware as a platform for transmitting communications data across mobile networks are also starting to emerge.
One example is Canadian author Douglas Coupland’s innovative design for an urban utility structure designed to provide both wifi and wireless traffic data. The V-Pole – “V” as in “Vancouver” where Coupland resides – was unveiled at the New Cities Summit in Paris, France, earlier this year in May 2012. Coupland shared the announcement with Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson at the New Cities Summit. Mayor Robertson explained, “An idea like the V-Pole will drive the pace of innovation and spark creative partnerships between cities and utilities. Integrating smart technologies in street poles can make cities more efficient while delivering better services to citizens.”
The example of the V-Pole is probably better suited for cities, especially in high-density urban areas like Vancouver. The low-impact design contains a reduced-wattage device inside it, which also uses an open source wireless technology called lightRadioTM.  As a multi-purpose utility pole, the V-Pole offers an array of services that include wifi and mobile wireless, LED street lighting, electric vehicle charging, and serve as an electronic neighborhood community board.
The concept is getting traction. Canadian telecommunications provider Telus announced in June this past year that it has launched a $1 million (CAN) project to produce 3 “monopoles” for Vancouver’s West End. Inspired by Coupland’s V-Pole model, the monopoles will deliver both wireless service and to allow residents to charge their electric vehicles.
By contrast, a different project proposal called Urbanflow Helsinki backed by Nordkapp and Urbanscale envisions a network of digital kiosks offering map and geolocation information. Locals and visitors to Helsinki could interact with Urbanflow street map to plot travel routes through the city, and to access a real-time “ambient data” layer for traffic density and air quality, for example. Although the idea of Urbanflow as a screen designed as a portal to a city’s operating system, the features and services it offers could just as easily scale to a mobile smartphone application. The advantage the V-Pole has, in comparison, is the recognition of the ubiquity of smartphones and wireless mobile devices in the hands of individuals who want wireless access to information without waiting in line for it.
Urban Design
The trends in urban design with a mobile emphasis are varied, and many  organizations, academics, technologists and other individuals are exploring emerging technologies and data platforms available. The lab approach to urban design can offer innovative solutions for transportation and transit infrastructure, locality and mapping, a pulse on social experience and interaction, and other possibilities.
Researchers and developers from YOUrban, a research project initiative from Norway’s Institute of Design at Oslo School of Architecture and Design, piloted an experimental mobile application called Streetscape. Organized through a collaborative effort between YOUrban and Tøyenkontoret, an art and urbanism studio, the GPS-based mobile app was designed to draw connections between social and locative media using explorative mapping techniques. Presented at the Local and Mobile Conference earlier this past March at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh, Streetscape models an example of urban mapping inquiries through mobile and locative media technologies. YOUrban is planning for a Streetscape 2.0 version.
In another case, BMW Guggenheim Labs organized a small study in New York City in 2011 inviting participants to record responses using mobile devices in city neighborhoods to gauge how urban areas affect mood. BMW Guggenheim Labs is a mobile lab operating in New York, Berlin, and soon to open next month in Mumbai. The New York study wanted to explore the psychology of urban space and how inhabitants emote a response to a physical setting through mobile technology. Contributing writer Colin Ellard underscores the study’s focus which is “to take digital tools for crowdsourcing urban design to the next level, we need to be in the middle of the mess and not floating above the city.” (The city in the palm of your hand: Mobile Technology and crowdsourcing as tools for urban design, January 13, 2012, BMW Guggenheim Lab | LAB log).
Crowdsourcing Data and Urban Prototyping
Crowdsourcing data has a particular resonance in urban design and urban planning. The ubiquity of mobile devices and smartphones allows for leveraging information so readily from anywhere. At the World Cities Summit held biennially in Singapore since its inception in 2008 and emphasizes finding innovative solutions towards urban sustainability at the international conference, some of the participating projects explored how crowdsourcing data and citizen mapping can contribute to urban prototyping. The presentation The Citizen, The Cloud & The Smart City stresses these connections, adding that “data and the ability to act on it is what makes a city more intelligent: the more we know the more we can manage.”
Several compelling examples of how crowdsourced data and information contribute to smarter and safer cities through mobile technologies were identified in their presentation. San Francisco’s Bike Accident Tracker allows for cyclists to self-report road safety problems and to improve bike safety policy. A platform for crisismapping in Haiti called Open Street Map launched shortly after the earthquake in 2010 which compiled data from satellite imagery and crowdsourced information from mobile phones to recreate the urban data layer for city street maps and to locate displaced people in Port-au-Prince and Carrefour. Similarly, Japan’s Fukushima earthquake and nuclear accident in 2011 used a similar platforms for crowdsourcing information about radiation levels, detection, and geotagging the spread of it from Fukushima.
Inspired by the design and practicality of these applications, more than 200 engineers, designers and developers participated in an UP Singapore event in late June in the run-up to the World Cities Summit. The event offered a contest challenge to produce an urban prototyping application eligible for the Most Innovative Idea Award, a S$250,000 cash prize earmarked for further development of the project. Some ideas submitted included mobile platforms to address the needs for Singapore’s aging population, and another was a geolocation app designed to capture data visualizations that represent Singapore’s mobile network data. The prizewinner went towards a mobile application called ClimateRight designed to crowdsource climate conditions in air-conditioned office towers.
These examples illustrate how innovative mobile technologies can help shape urban design. Cities are platforms for change, and in the urban context that Fabian Neuhaus describes in his article The Emergent City he is focusing on how the flow of data shapes the urban experience.  As he describes one project focusing on data visualization in the city called Soundcities, he explains, “The changing data is what affects what you see and experience. . . The social space is opened up into a real time flow space, a new virtualized data space emerges.”
Images: Urbanflow Helsinki project, courtesy Ryan Gottfried, ryangottfried.com; V-Pole Rendering 02, Martin Tessler/Matthew Bulford, courtesy Meet the V-Pole, v-pole.com; The city in the palm of your hand: Mobile technology and crowdsourcing as tools for urban design, courtesy BMW Guggenheim Lab, LAB log, bmwguggenheimlab.org; Streetscape – an experimental app for urban mapping, courtesy YOUrban.no; screen shots of ClimateRight mobile application, courtesy Orangebrush, orangebrush.net.



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