Designing the Future
When we think about our role in designing the cities of the future, it would be easy to get carried away with the possibilities open to us, thanks to rapid technological advances, and to never stop and ask ourselves whether we’re actually making these cities a better place to live. As we experiment with smart cities and look ahead to future generations, what would it look like to design around humans and the lived human experience?
This human-centered design places the everyday experience of the average citizen at the forefront, while balancing that with efficiency and environmental impact – both factors that will protect and bolster this experience for future generations. This approach therefore designs alternative futures that are shaped by actual, real-life needs and opportunities.
We live in exciting times: the speed of technological change and innovation, and the pace with which we are able to move from ideation to prototyping to reality, is only increasing – especially with the rise of 3D printing and fabrication labs. Whereas the temptation might be to keep pushing these boundaries purely for the sake of technological progress, achievement and performance, human-centered design looks at how we can use this to our advantage. Following the process of modeling ideas, concepts and possible scenarios, measuring, evaluating iterating and refining, we can ask more questions about how to make the smart cities of the future more humane and livable. What are the real problems to solve? And what are some of the plausible scenarios that builders of cities of the future should be prepared for?
Real World Problem-Solving
Many of the problems of large, over-crowded cities are already clear, whether it’s the challenges of an aging population, the issue of pollution and waste, the question of how best to support the safe and efficient movement of people around the city, promoting a healthy and productive relationship with technology, or the general health and wellbeing of the population – both physical and mental…the list goes on. So there are plenty of opportunities for smart cities to address these challenges and experiment with potential solutions.
The idea is that data is constantly being gathered and analyzed so that the environment and infrastructure of the city can adapt, in real-time, to the use and behaviors of its citizens. When it comes to transportation, for example, smart sensors can gauge the usage of roads and sidewalks by pedestrians, motorists, cyclists, and other vehicles and can make dynamic adjustments to traffic lanes. Rather than city planners having to anticipate in advance how best to configure the road layout, this smart infrastructure can be responsive throughout the day and adapt over time as conditions and behaviors change. This means more efficient movement of people and vehicles around the city, resulting in fewer traffic jams and delays, and safer travel. This is a great example of how to embrace the potential of technology to enhance the lives of citizens, while also allowing for the flexibility and spontaneity of real-life human experience.
These responsive street environments aren’t just about travel and transport, either. The same principles can be applied to public spaces around the city, allowing for changes of use, special circumstances or events, so that shared spaces can be enjoyed safely and effectively by all.
While it makes sense to start by looking around us at the problems that already need solving, designing better futures also means looking ahead, anticipating possibilities, and being prepared. Already, in popular culture, there’s no shortage of ‘predictions’ about how our societies and cultures might evolve, and the role that technology might play – and they all fall somewhere on the spectrum from excitement and possibility, to fear and doom.
Look at films like Person of Interest, Minority Report and The Matrix, for example, that play out certain technological achievements to their extremes and explore the possible fallout of taking things too far. In Minority Report, we see the dangers of using technology to stop terrible crimes before they happen by arresting people before they have actually committed any offence. Preventing crime and protecting people seems like a positive use of technological advances, but it raises some serious ethical questions about convicting people based on their thoughts and intentions, rather than their actions. It also relies heavily on the infallibility of technology and AI, which is a questionable road to go down.
Similarly, will there be a point in the future when we can ‘learn’ and digest knowledge by taking a pill? Can we view our brains purely as computers and find ways to optimize their processing power? In all of these things, the question is whether the dangers outweigh the advantages.
This is where human-centered design can help to keep us in check. A technocentric approach might say, “Let’s see what we can do!”, whereas a human-centered approach would ask, “How is this going to help us and make our lives better?”
Human-centered design considers the pros and cons of things like sensors, constant monitoring and data gathering, predicting behaviors, and the introduction of AI into all areas of our lives – telling us what to eat, when to exercise, where to travel, what to buy, and driving our behaviors. Along with the positives of a responsive and optimized urban environment, is there a danger of falling into a Big Brother state, where we sacrifice our privacy and autonomy? More generally, there is also the question of whether, in “designing our own future” and leaving little or no room for spontaneity, randomness or chance, we’re playing god by trying to have too much control over ourselves and our environment.
In fact, if technological progress, performance and optimization is our end goal, this marks a shift in humanity away from the natural, creative and spiritual aspects of what it is to be human. We have always worshipped something, whether it was nature, spirits, gods or kings, but if we’re entering an age where technology is the ‘god’ we idolize and pursue at all costs, where is this heading? Where do morals and ethics fit into this worldview, for example?
Practically speaking, if we view smart mega-cities as the pinnacle of civilization, this is going to cause us problems in terms of overcrowding, affordability and sustainability as more and more people clamor to live in these optimized environments. And what happens to the people who don’t have access to the same level of technology and infrastructure? There is a very real possibility that, getting carried away with our super smart, fully optimized mega-cities, we would neglect many of the human experiences, problems, inequalities and opportunities that exist now and in the future.
Similarly, as ambitious innovators and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis pursue the possibility of popularized space travel and a multi-planetary future, the human-centered approach stops to ask what the consequences of this might be – both positive and negative. Of course this would open the door to vastly more space and resources, and is an answer to the sustainability of humankind, but what could it mean for our unity as a species? How do we make decisions about sovereignty? How are resources shared out? Is space travel available to everyone or just to those who can afford it? If we damage this planet beyond repair, what happens to those who are left behind? Certainly, there is a risk of significant division and inequality, and wider environmental damage. It might be a hugely exciting prospect, and it may well be a feasible reality, but are we just doing it because we can? Above all, the human-centered approach looks at what these ventures will mean for us as individuals and as a species, rather than being blinded by the technological feat in itself.
Embracing the Potential
Human-centered design is not about resisting the digital age or putting the brakes on technological advances. It’s not about pitting humans against robots but about understanding AI within the context of what it means for us as humans, and the role it can play in making the world a better place for everyone. It’s easy to buy into dystopian visions that are all doom and gloom: future generations of dull automatons who are glued to a screen and can’t think for themselves, mindlessly scrolling Netflix and only opening the front door to collect their latest Amazon delivery; 3-year-olds hooked to their digital babysitter – the iPad – like it’s cocaine; robots that have taken over every area of our lives. But this fear of technology and AI is unhelpful – the future doesn’t have to look like this!
The human-centered approach says that we can use technological progress to enhance our lives, while not letting it become our driving force and ultimate goal. AI-driven machines can now perform complex functions, such as learning, computation, data analysis, facial recognition – and much more – and while some find this hugely exciting, it makes others extremely nervous, prompting visions of rigged elections and killer robots. But if we let go of the idea of AI machines as some kind of sinister nemesis, just waiting for their chance to take control, we can embrace this technology as just another appliance or computer that makes our lives easier and frees us up to do more of the things that make us human – to think, learn, dream and create. When we look at AI like this, it’s no more threatening than the dishwasher!
As we embrace the role of technology and AI, rather than evolving into dull, mechanical consumers, we are freed up to be more human and develop our human consciousness. We are becoming increasingly conscious of things like waste and pollution, energy and inequality, and there is so much positive potential for the role of technological advances in these areas. The perfect marriage of creativity and technology, AI is nothing but a robotic machine that has the ability to think intelligently and creatively, and to translate these thoughts autonomously in a wide variety of human applications and endeavors. Rather than being something that we should be afraid of or back away from, AI is actually leading the way in changing life on earth for the better.
So what does this look like?
Enhanced Automation & Efficiency: AI-driven robots for plants of all sizes can perform intensive human labor and backbreaking tasks easily, without the need for human intervention. This cuts operational and manpower costs for the plant, as well as boosting efficiency (because robots can be completely consistent, and they don’t need breaks!). At the same time, it frees up a whole human workforce to take on other roles and pursue other creative endeavors.
AI-driven robots can perform intensive human labor and backbreaking tasks easily
No More Mundane Tasks: As we embrace AI into our daily lives and into our workforce, rather than making humans obsolete this simply liberates us to do the things that we love, and the things that we’re best at. Machines excel in taking care of repetitive and tedious work, and this suits us just fine! Why would we want to cling on to these dull and menial tasks when we could pursue something more personal, creative and fulfilling? For example, as the banking sector has welcomed technological advances we have already seen how this has made daily banking quicker and easier, giving us time and space to focus on the more creative and interpersonal aspects of our lives.
Eliminating Human Error: Robots and machines are more reliable than humans because they can be programmed to perform certain tasks repetitively and consistently. In engineering, manufacturing, construction, power plants, and other large automated operations, this means a higher level of precision, accuracy, consistency and safety. There is also a lot to be said for the use of technology and AI in medical diagnoses, removing subjectivity from the equation and analyzing a vast amount of accumulated data, rather than relying on the medical knowledge of one or two individuals on a given day. Few would argue that eliminating human error in this way is a bad thing.
Advanced Weather and Climate Forecasting: Advances in AI and its enviable computational power have led to the emergence of supercomputers, which are able to observe and analyze increasingly complex data. As data scientists and climate scientists collaborate, embracing the potential of intensive computing and deep-learning networks, we are able to bridge the gap between data and understanding and gain a much richer insight into what’s happening to our climate and our environment.
Faster Disaster Response: Algorithms can detect vulnerabilities and help us to anticipate natural disasters before they strike so that we can give timely warnings, get organized, and minimize damage and loss of life. It is likely that deep-learning will also soon be integrated into disaster simulations, helping us to develop the best response strategies.
So the incorporation of AI into our daily lives helps free us from the responsibilities that we do not want or need, and expands our potential in every area of our development and evolution. Of course, we cannot let superior intelligence blindly control us (particularly when it comes to the use of AI by the military, for example), but not employing its benefits for our advantage would be an equally ignorant thing to do.
Designing Futures that Work
The bottom line is that we should fully explore the positive potential of technology and AI in our lives, and its capacity to solve problems and open up new opportunities, while keeping our focus on what this means for us as humans. When we talk about “optimization”, our goal should always be to enhance our humanness: our cities, our environments, our societies and our homes should be optimized for human experience, empowering us to live well, to learn and grow, to evolve and to create. If we use machines and robots to do what they do best, it releases and empowers us to do more of the things that make us human.
Let’s pick up the mantle laid down by such visionaries as R. Buckminster Fuller, who dedicated his work and his innovations to making the world function and perform for the benefit of every person, and all of humankind. As a “comprehensive participatory design scientist”, Fuller focused on solving global problems, spanning everything from education and poverty to energy and transportation, and his approach continues to influence and inspire many of today’s scientists, architects, engineers, designers and artists who will play their part in shaping the world of tomorrow.
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