May 4, 2010
by Bill Millard

(Continued from above)

Multiple topical panels reinforced a common theme of data-intensive pragmatism. An example is the public-domain data policy described by Christopher Dempsey, the director of innovation for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), treating transit information like weather forecasts, not trade secrets or state property, and making it freely available to third-party developers large and small. Within one hour after MassDOT released five pilot bus schedules, Dempsey reported, someone had added them to Google Earth; in a week someone had developed a widget delivering arrival times to people’s desktops; and by a month someone had built countdown signage at no cost to the DOT. (The MTA has recently taken a similar step for NYC transit apps.) Entrepreneurs and enthusiasts will reliably develop useful tools in an open-source climate, it appears, provided the raw material of research remains simple, accessible, and non-proprietary.

Other highlighted projects, ranging from Zipcar and the NYC Department of Transportation’s traffic studies, to the Port Authority’s advanced freight-control systems and breakthroughs in “radical housing” by Common Ground, the Rose Companies, NYCHA, and activist/theorist Jerilyn Perine, offered wide variations on the Assembly’s unifying theme: that the challenges of urban density call for connectivity, bottom-up idea generation, an across-the-board end to organizational siloing, and, in many areas, the pervasion of urban space by technology.

Yet the more information that is generated through social media and other new tools, the more planners and other citizens will be able to evaluate a controversial argument raised during the morning plenary by RPA’s Director of the Center for Urban Innovation Julia Vitullo-Martin. She held that “the most important technological principle for cities is that George Orwell was wrong.” Contrary to Peter Huber’s claim, in Orwell’s Revenge, “that technology would increase the authoritarian power of government,” she said, “in fact what’s happened, as we all know, is the opposite: increasing electronic technology [increases] devolution, democratization, and decentralization.” Many also know that grappling with Orwell is a risky endeavor; it may be an understatement to note that, regardless of the effects of proliferating CCTV cameras on London crime, an untroubled acceptance of universal-surveillance conditions was far from unanimous on the panel or around the room.

The Assembly also put a few of the internal contradictions of futurist urbanism in plain sight, in the form of a Tesla plug-in roadster and model charging equipment. While it may be an undeniable part of the future’s resource-management solution, and a lovely bit of eye candy, most attendees were too engaged in conversation to ogle over the car. In this crowd, networking and idea-swapping were the real draw.

Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in OCULUS, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, and other publications.

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