Towards more conscious cities – and residents

Yesterday I went to the Conscious Cities conference, organised by the Museum of Architecture and The Cube London. It was an event that sat at the confluence of technology, neuroscience, architecture and urbanism. I was obviously more familiar with some topics more than others, but being a firm believer in pushing the edges of learning thought it was a day I’d find useful, and I wasn’t mistaken.

I’m going to use this post more for bookmarking, maybe some of you will find these links useful too.

First, a lot of links from MIT’s Senseable City project (Emma Greer from Carlo Ratti Associati in Italy, who are affiliated with the project, took us through a lot of their work):

Hubcab uses taxicab travel data to assess the impact of transportation on society and the environment.

Trash/Track used location-aware tags in trash in Seattle to follow the journey of these discarded items around the world, to understand the ‘removal chain’ around the world.

Cloud Cast creates personal water vapour clouds over individuals as they walk through. This was part of an installation in the UAE, an otherwise very arid region, so it was to experiment with an efficient cooling mechanism in those climates. Emma mentioned an interesting anecdote in the Q&A: that they borrowed a neighbouring stall’s perfume samples to include in the ‘cloud’ and people really seemed to like it as opposed to being sprayed with vapour alone – could be something to do with the local culture, where perfumes are used a lot (from my limited experience in the region, this is true!)

Digital Water Pavilion used water as an architectural element, as that was part of the brief. For an expo in Zaragoza, Spain, they created interactive digitally-controlled water curtains on the front of a building – which, as you’d imagine, parted as it sensed someone approaching.

If I absolutely had to pick one project of Carlo Ratti Associati that I liked above all, it would have to be the Future Food District which was an actual installation at the Milan Expo in 2015. It saw millions of people interacting with a prototype of the supermarket of the future, with 1500 products displayed on interactive tables, and information visible on suspended screens that look a bit like the ones out of Minority Report. I was heartened to hear them also speak about the community aspect of it: “In a way, it is like a return to the old marketplace, where producers and consumers of food saw each other and had actual interactions.” To be fair this is all digitally mediated, but the intent at least is there. I’ve been doing a bit of work on the future of retail thanks to my day job, and all retail clients should look at this work to get a sense of how their industry could be disrupted thanks to technology, not too far in the future.

Philip Tidd from the architecture and design firm Gensler mentioned their Placemaking app Poppy Seed, which allows us to learn about a city based on how the buildings around it make us feel.

Introducing PoppySeed from Jack C. Newell on Vimeo.

Academic and researcher Itai Palti published a Manifesto for Conscious Cities in the Guardian last year and spoke about the project that came out of it, notably the launch of the Journal for Urban Design and Mental Health this year, the first issue of which was recently published. Watch this short video for more and check out Conscious Cities.

Ruairi Glynn’s ‘Balls’ project was an array of 42 lights robotically engineered to rise and fall in the atrium of Arup’s London office in response to building activity. Also check out the work of Bartlett’s Interactive Architecture Lab, which Ruairi is affiliated with.

Similar to Poppy Seed, Neil Davidson spoke about the Urban Mind project, which aims to measure what people feel about city living in the moment, by asking a series of questions throughout the day. The project started last March and ends this month, so they will have a year’s worth of real-time data collected to analyse. If you’d like to participate, you still have time – download the app here. Apparently people from all over the world are taking part!

The theme of mental wellbeing in urban environments was strong during the first part of the day, and smart cities will play their role in this going forward. Juliette Morgan, the Head of Property at Tech City UK and Partner at Cushman & Wakefield, spoke about the importance of allowing artists, poets and philosophers to comment on advances in areas such as urban policy. She also spoke about the need for investors and real estate developers to consciously back architecture projects which gave people a sense of well-being and were thoughtfully designed, as opposed to a primary focus on maximizing floor space only.

A lot of lessons there, and I’m sure I’ll refer to some of these projects a few times in the coming years.

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