Bring research to the streets, not to cities without people
” It is likely you have heard about this project of building a new city from scratch to test new urban technologies, but no people will be living there. In fact, we first heard about it some months ago (M. Fernandez wrote some paragraphs linking this with his memories from Dead cities and other tales, by Mike Davis, in which he depicts the construction of a german town in Utah to test the destruction potential of city centres aerial bombing). Now it seems there is a second wave of public relations campaign to celebrate the development of this site in Nuevo Mexico conceived as a test bed for companies and researchers of new technological solutions to be deployed in cities. I can even remember how in a forum promoting open innovation for urban contexts this project was mentioned as the latest breakthrough of the discourse of smart cities, when actually it implies how top-down research approaches can even pretend to be the last idea in the rrom.
Now we know more details about what kind of technologies will be tested and what kind of R&D activities are targeted in this Center for Innovation Testing and Evaluation (CITE):
The Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation (CITE) will be the first of its kind, in scale and scope, fully integrated test, evaluation and certification facility dedicated to enabling and facilitating the commercialization of new and emerging technologies.
CITE will be modeled after a mid-sized modern American city, integrating real-world urban and suburban environments along with all the typical working infrastructure elements that make up today’s cities. This will provide customers the unique opportunity to test and evaluate technologies in conditions that most closely simulate real-world applications.
Driven by holding Pegasus, this fake city will provide a testing platform for certain technologies that may be tested in an aseptic context without any interference from citizens, users, setbacks or unexpected events. Considering this limited research framework, it becomes clear that only a number of technologies being tested here make some sense (if any): intelligent transportation systems, alternative energy generation, smart grids, telecommunications infrastructure, security and surveillance, etc… But technologies that affect urban life go far beyond those outlined. But even these ones, which have a large component of “hard” infrastructure, seemingly passive, necessarily will depend on the use made of them. We might think that may need tests before use to adjust and analyze issues and operational design. However, should not we anticipate the most the stage of “exit to the street”? A ethodological framework very far from living labs, for example, looking for, roughly, to bring conceptualization and design phases to real conditions in which users of these technologies are the protagonists.
The facilities try to match the average condition of a medium-size city as the ideal setting to test technologies that are intended to be deployed afterwards in cities (in fact, its design has sought to replicate the city of Rock Hill in Carolina South), using CITE as an urban laboratory to simulate scenarios and collect test data in an environment of zero interaction with users. Possibly, aseptic laboratory conditions in an apparent urban context (actually, think, naming this a city is just a claim for what is just a stage) may have some utility for researchers and companies that want to implement these technologies with preliminary tests on the ground, but the relevance of these tests, it seems, will be very limited as far as they not face real conditions of use.
But, we know, even the more passive technology (infrastructures, for example) will not make sense without introducing, as soon as possible, real conditions. This is another symbol of how not to understand urban innovation. Let´s better concentrate on other approaches such as living labs, user experience or any other that helps us to take citizens from the begining to conceptualise, test, improve and own technologies. Let´s better concentrate on trying to make technologies make sense in the everyday life in cities, taking first steps of research to the streets. I am sure it will be a more suitable and succesful strategy to conduct urban research and technology deployment. It is clear there are certain issues on research related to urban infrastructure and services that needs run tests in out-of-context environments, but it is also clear that functionalities and user experience (think of mobility or even energy grinds) are crucial to understand how these technologies will better serve and work in cities. More efforts should be put on this side if we want to succeed in taking the best from technology to live in better cities.”
Access the original article by Manu Fernandez here.