The following is excerpted from "Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia" by Anthony M. Townsend. Copyright © 2013 by Anthony M. Townsend. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Interested in contributing to Architizer? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Throughout history, the construction of great gathering spaces has always pushed the limits of technology. The Crystal Palace—a vast, soaring structure of iron and glass built in London’s Hyde Park—was no exception. The brainchild of Joseph Paxton, a master gardener and architect of greenhouses, the Crystal Palace was a stage for one of the most celebrated international expos of all time, the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was the architectural expression of Victorian England’s fast-growing industrial might.
But with industrial-scale architecture came industrial-scale management challenges. As new materials and advances in structural engineering permitted the construction of ever-larger buildings in the 19th century, it became more and more difficult to manage the growing flows of people, air, water, and waste that coursed through them each day. With all its glass, the Crystal Palace was, by Paxton’s design, a massive greenhouse. Without proper ventilation, the building would have simply cooked the 90,000 visitors its vast expanses could hold.
With the invention of modern air-conditioning still a half century in the future, Paxton desperately needed a way to boost the building’s own natural ventilation. His solution was a system of louvered vents that ran along the building’s eaves, which could be opened to release rising hot air and draw in cooler air through the many ground-level entrances. Mechanical rods and levers were fastened into place linking the controls for multiple vents in 300-foot clusters, greatly reducing the labor involved in opening and closing them.
Manned by a small team of attendants from the Royal Sappers and Miners, the British military’s engineering corps, the vents were adjusted every two hours based on readings from 14 thermostats placed throughout the structure. While far from automatic, the Crystal Palace’s ventilation system showed how mechanical controls and sensors could work together to dynamically reconfigure an entire, massive building in response to changes in the environment. Paxton’s contraption was a harbinger of the automation revolution that would transform the buildings and cities we live in over the coming decades.
More than a century later, at the dawn of the computer age, a design for a very different kind of gathering space spurred another bold leap into building automation. Howard Gilman was the heir to a paper-making fortune, but his true avocation was philanthropist and patron of the arts. Gilman lavished his family fortune on a variety of causes, supporting trailblazers in dance, photography, and wildlife preservation. In 1976, he began making plans to establish a creative retreat for his network of do-gooders to gather and contemplate a better world. To bring his vision to life, Gilman engaged the English architect Cedric Price.
Price taught at the school of London’s Architectural Association, which in the 1960s had spawned the avant-garde Archigram group. In a series of pamphlets, Archigram’s members published a variety of hypothetical designs that took new technologies and pushed them to the edge of plausibility. Ron Herron’s “Walking City” (1964), the most famous, illustrated a plan for football-shaped buildings propelled by a set of eight insect-like robotic legs. Archigram’s fanciful designs were but the latest expression of a long line of architects who were obsessed with movement and the potential of machines to merge with buildings and make them come to life. As American architectural critic Michael Sorkin notes, “The group was squarely a part of a historic British movement visible in a line of engineered structures running through the Crystal Palace, the Dreadnought, the Firth Bridge, the Sopwith Camel, and the E-Type Jag.”
Ron Herron's "Walking City"; photo via
For the retreat, to be built at White Oak Plantation, the bucolic family estate on Florida’s St. Mary’s River, Gilman’s design brief was concise but challenging, calling for “A building which will not contradict, but enhance, the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere; has to be accessible to the public as well as to private guests; has to create a feeling of seclusion conducive to creative impulses, yet … accommodate audiences; has to respect the wildness of the environment while accommodating a grand piano; has to respect the continuity of the history of the place while being innovative.”
Price’s response to this set of contradictory demands was “Generator.” Less of a building, Generator was more a set of building blocks, 150 stackable 12-foot cubes, “all of which could be moved by mobile crane as desired by users to support whatever activities they had in mind, whether public or private, serious or banal,” according to architectural historian Molly Steenson.
Study model for Cedric Price's Generator Project, White Oak, Florida. Photo via moma.org
A full-scale on-site mock-up of the Generator Project in White Oak, Florida. Photo via moma.org
But Price worried that people might not take up the challenge of rearranging the building often enough. In the spirit of Archigram’s robotic fantasies, Price called on the husband-and-wife team of John and Julia Frazer, architects with deep computer programming expertise, to write software that would do so automatically. The “perpetual architect” program the Frazers created was designed to eliminate boredom. It would sense the layout of the modules and reassemble them overnight into a new pattern to provoke, delight, and otherwise stimulate the retreat-goers. “In the event of the site not being re-organized or changed for some time the computer starts generating unsolicited plans and improvements. In a sense the building can be described as being literally ‘intelligent,’” they told Price in a letter. It “should have a mind of its own.”
Generator was never built, as concerns about the cost of maintaining the building came to light and Gilman struggled with his younger brother Chris over control of the family fortune. Yet it was an important early vision of how a building—and by extension entire cities—might be transformed by their coming integration with computers. By combining digital sensing, networking, intelligence, and robotics, Price and the Frazers had invented what architect Royston Landau described as “a computerized leisure facility, which not only could be formed and reformed but, through its interaction with users, could learn, remember and develop an intelligent awareness of their needs.”
Economic shocks have an uncanny ability to distill impractical but promising new technologies into commercial successes. Just as Generator was prodding architects to think about computers as architectural materials, the oil embargoes of the 1970s spurred a more prosaic, yet more widespread interest in building automation. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, energy management systems began appearing in new constructions—simple controls that could adjust heating and cooling controls on a pre-programmed schedule. But as energy costs collapsed in the 1990s, interest in building automation waned, almost as quickly as America’s interest in compact, fuel-efficient cars.
Today, high energy costs are back, but the urgency of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the driving force behind a new surge of investment in building automation. Price’s and Frazer’s vision of intelligent structures that would adapt to uplift the soul has devolved into something more mundane. The blueprints for smart buildings today co-opt automation merely to sustain the human body on a low-carbon diet. High architectural art has become a tool for cost--cutting and environmental compliance.
This new commercial reality is on display at yet another great gathering space, the Songdo Convensia Convention Center, the hub of a vast new city in South Korea. Rising atop 1,500 acres of landfill reclaimed from the shallows of the Yellow Sea, Songdo International Business District seeks to scale building automation up to an entire city, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds.
Songo Convensia Convention Center, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates
Convensia’s own soaring metal trusses evoke those of the Crystal Palace a century and a half earlier. Overhead they bear the weight of three long, peaked roof sections that enclose one of the largest column--free spans in Asia, according to the building’s official website. But behind the scenes, Convensia’s true homage to Paxton lies in the control systems that govern every aspect of building function. Here, everything is connected, everything is automated.
Upon entering the building, conventioneers pick up their ID badges, embedded with a “u-chip” (for “ubiquitous” computing), a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag that functions as a wireless bar code. To enter the exhibition hall, one swipes the card across a reader mounted atop each turnstile, much like entering a subway station. It’s a familiar move for Korean city dwellers. For over a decade, they have used local tech giant LG’s rechargeable T-money cards not just to board buses and subways, but to pay for taxis and convenience--store purchases as well.
Step outside and the street springs to life as a less patient, more proactive set of automated technologies takes over. Songdo is the world’s largest experiment in urban automation, with millions of sensors deployed in its roads, electrical grids, water and waste systems to precisely track, respond to, and even predict the flow of people and material. According to CEO John Chambers of Cisco Systems, which committed $47 million in 2009 to build out the city’s digital nervous system, it is a place that will “run on information.” Plans call for cameras that detect the presence of pedestrians at night in order to save energy safely by automatically extinguishing street lighting on empty blocks. Passing automobiles with RFID-equipped license plates will be scanned, just the way conventioneers are at Convensia’s main gate, to create a real-time map of vehicle movements and, over time, the ability to predict future traffic patterns based on the trove of past measurements. A smart electricity grid will communicate with home appliances, perhaps anticipating the evening drawdown of juice as tens of thousands of programmable rice cookers count down to dinnertime.
Just above the northern horizon, a line of wide-body jets stretches out over the water, on final approach into the massive Incheon International Airport, which opened in March 2001. The airport is to Songdo what New York’s harbor or Chicago’s railyards once were. As John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay explain in their 2011 book, Aerotropolis, Songdo was originally conceived as “a weapon for fighting trade wars.” The plan was to entice multinationals to set up Asian operations at Songdo, where they would be able to reach any of East Asia’s boomtowns quickly by air. It was to be a special economic zone, with lower taxes and less regulation, inspired by those created in Shenzhen and Shanghai in the 1980s by premier Deng Xiaoping, which kick-started China’s economic rise.
But in an odd twist of fate, Songdo now aspires to be a model for China instead. The site itself is deeply symbolic. Viewed from the sky, its street grid forms an arrow aimed straight at the heart of coastal China. It is a kind of neoliberal feng shui diagram, drawing energy from the rapidly urbanizing nation just over the western horizon.
Massive in its own right, Songdo is merely a test bed for the technology and business models that will underpin the construction of pop-up megacities across Asia. South Korea is fertile ground for rethinking the future. It’s an anxious place inhabited by driven people, where the phrase pali pali is a ubiquitous incantation. Hearing it spoken so often, the foreign ear easily assumes that it is local parlance for “yes” or “please.” But it really means “hurry, hurry.” It’s the verbal expression of the Koreans’ approach to most everything, especially city building. No country has industrialized and urbanized as quickly and as thoroughly as Korea did during the second half of the 20th century. In 1953 the country lay in ruins, split in two by a civil war that claimed millions of lives. The citizens of Seoul began rebuilding from near-total destruction. Between 1950 and 1975, the city’s population doubled approximately every nine years, growing from just over 1 million people in 1950 to almost 7 million people in 1975. But by the 1990s, according to a report by the Seoul Development Institute, the city’s urban-planning think tank, “one could say that Seoul was no longer an independent city but was rather the central city of a rapidly expanding metropolitan region of 20 million.” To call Songdo a new “city” is ill conceived—it is merely Seoul’s newest and farthest-flung satellite town.
But for all its promise, it was clear during a visit in the fall of 2009 that pali pali urgency was in short supply at Songdo’s technology department. From the observation deck of the soon-to-be-completed Northeast Asia Trade Tower—at 1,000 feet above the coast, it is Korea’s tallest building—Songdo looks like any of dozens of new towns that have mushroomed on the outskirts of Seoul since the 1980s. Row upon row of identical apartment towers march off to the north and east, bearing oddly Western-sounding luxury brand names like “Hillmark” and “Worldstate.” From my perch, the “smart” face of Songdo was just as invisible as it was on the ground. For now, Songdo’s potential lies mostly in the somewhat distant future. The real magic of a fully networked and automated city won’t be seen until designers start writing code to program truly novel behaviors for entire buildings and neighborhoods. Thinking back to the original problem that faced Paxton as he sketched the Crystal Palace, how could a fully automated city respond to weather automatically as a system, and do it in ways that both reduced the use of energy and created a more delightful, human experience?
Imagine a late summer afternoon in Songdo a few years from now. Instead of thousands of individuals opening shades and adjusting thermostats, the entire city reacts to the setting sun in synchrony. Like desert plants, which open their stomata only at night to minimize water loss, Songdo’s smart buildings might order millions of remotely controlled motors to open windows and blinds to catch the evening sea breeze. Air conditioners and lighting are throttled back. Fresh air and the golden rays of the fading sun fill the city’s chambers.
This kind of city-scale performance will one day fulfill the potential of building automation. Life in smart cities will be defined by these dynamic, adaptive systems that respond in real time to changing conditions at the very small and very large scale simultaneously. They will fulfill the Frazers’ dream of a building that learns from and adapts to us—their moves will be scripted by insights drawn from torrents of sensed data.
And as smart cities come to know us, they also will come to understand themselves. Deep in the core of Songdo, data centers chock full of CPUs scan the millions upon millions of sensor readings, looking for larger patterns. As this big data accumulates over time, the city’s managers will begin to understand its daily rhythms and program new rules about how to direct traffic and power, how to dispatch elevators, how to heat and cool most efficiently and comfortably, and how all of these different actions and movements influence each other. At the very least, they will automate all of the physical systems of the city. At the very best, they will engineer entirely new ways for us to thrive.
The infrastructure is being laid, but the ideas and software that will choreograph it will require years, if not decades, of research and development in test beds like Songdo.
Dr. Anthony Townsend is Research Director at the Institute for the Future and Senior Research Fellow at New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation. His first book, "Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for A New Utopia" is published by W.W. Norton & Co. You can follow him on Twitter @anthonymobile.
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