Sensors, people & the Smart City

In 2014 friend and I entered the Park to Pacific competition to design a parklet (i.e. a pocket park or very small green space) for a street in Sydney. We called our proposal Coogee Community Cultivation. The development of our idea is telling of how thinking has evolved in terms of how technology is, or can be, used to improve our lives. It is worth reflecting upon the impact this has in how projects are conceptualised, designed and even experienced.

Clovelly Road - Fern Street (source: Google Earth)
Clovelly Road – Fern Street (source: Google Earth)

The project brief was to improve a section of Clovelly Road in Sydney (Google Maps) This was to use the now classic idea (how quickly the novel becomes the mainstream) of designing a quick tactical public realm intervention in the form of hollowed out container with elements such as seating, green and even potentially housing a business (a cafe for you and me). The origin for the idea coming from the Better Block movement and the impetus from grass roots community group that is Park to Pacific, which its steering committee heavily influenced by urbanists. This is the very essence of tactical urbanism in which small bottom up interventions are meant to lead to long lasting change for our urban environments.

For us this project could lead to a greater intersect than just that of community action and small physical interventions or beautification strategies. It could be about the nexus of the natural environment, technology and peoples awareness of how we change our world.

The Golden Wattle is a hyper local tree specie that has seen its habitat severely reduced because of the expansion of Sydney’s suburbs. It is now a severally threatened specie that has been displaced by human habitation.

Acacia Terminalis or Golden Wattle
Acacia Terminalis or Golden Wattle

What if we increase the awareness of the local community to the plight and severe alteration of the natural ecosystems that the expansion of a large city like Sydney inevitably causes? Could this prove to be a ‘seed’ for a more meaningful way for the local community to interact with each other?

To drive the message home we decided that tending and caring for the seedlings of the Golden Wattle would be a better and more symbolic intervention than just providing a straightforward parklet. To help this community engagement taking place we decided that people need to know about the Golden Wattle and the health of the those planted in the container. As a result we specified a set of soil sensors (e.g. soil moisture, sunlight, soil nutrients) connect to a small computer, in this case a Rasberry Pi, to gather crucial data which then could be broadcast to the internet via adjacent business WiFis. This information could be a mixture of educational content about the wattle and real-time data about its/their health.

Technology infrastructure diagram
Technology infrastructure diagram

The idea is that the plants themselves ‘ask’ for care and attention, for example when the sensor data interpreted via the built-in computer detect that the soil moisture levels are low and that watering is in order. This will get picked up by the local Twitter followers of the project account and it will drive them to action.

The health of the plants can also be observed in person through simple LED indicators on the outside of the planter further communicating the message of natural growth and change to any passer-by, socially networked or not.

Clovelly Road parklet - visualisation
Clovelly Road parklet – visualisation

Eventually, once individual wattles have grown enough, they can taken by community members and be planted in their private gardens thus spreading this endangered specie throughout its old habitat before humans displaced it.

But is this proposal a further intrusion of the digital into the simple beauty of our analogue experiences in parks: contemplating, resting, talking with others, reflecting, nature play, etc. ? Does this risk being an extension of the Smart City concept that is sweeping the urban planning and ICT (Information & Communication Technology) world?

The Smart City concept is an ambiguous, nebulous concept that is also very ambitious in its scope. It is defined by the European Commission as:

A smart city is a place where the traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital and telecommunication technologies, for the benefit of its inhabitants and businesses (source: http://ec.europa.eu/digital-agenda/en/smart-cities)

But many critics have pointed out that this concept has been driven by the global ICT powerhouses like IBM, Cisco, Software AG in search of the ever growing and profitable municipal service contracts such as waste, lighting, etc. It is not so much an urban planning concept as a technological and business development idea.

The world renown architect Rem Koolhas clearly articulates the risks of the smart city ideal in this article. In some ways the concept is akin to an ideology, one that is about efficiently meeting the demand and supply in our cities. It could also lead to an excise intrusion of surveillance and monitoring in our already exposed lives further reducing our right to privacy. Worse still the data thus obtained can be used to arrive to ‘inevitable’ conclusions and final decisions allowing politicians to forefeit their democratic duty and hide behind big data.

But there are humanising elements brought to the fore because of this familiarity with technology. These are the possibility to easily connect with like minded people from anywhere and everywhere, the lowering of barriers to sharing and organising in complex ways. We aspire the ‘cultivate’ (pun intended) this emergent and resilient alternative to big business using similar tools but with a different intent.

online_community_core

This is the digital, human and naturals worlds interacting in meaningful ways. It is a web, a network of caring.

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