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June 27, 2018
by Bill Millard
UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Some analyses of global conditions, serious ones (e.g., James Howard Kunstler’s writings) as well as sentimental ones, assume that contemporary technology and environmental sustainability are inherently at odds. Reducing humanity’s footprint on the Earth from its present destructive scale to one that might give both ecosystems and civilizations a chance of surviving climate change and other effects, such views hold, requires a renunciation of resource-intensive high tech despite its conveniences. It’s the familiar American pastoralist dichotomy: we either slide into a polluted, strife-ridden dystopia or return to the garden, living like the Amish.

Urs Gauchat, Hon. AIA, dean emeritus at New Jersey Institute of Technology and one of 32 speakers at the daylong, well-attended UN-Habitat event, The Role of Technology: Implementing the New Urban Agenda to Achieve Sustainable Development, is having none of that. Quoting the Carthaginian writer Tertullian on the burden of urbanity circa AD 200, Gauchat deconstructed the Luddite approach to resource balance by placing it in historical context. “One thing is sure,” Tertullian lamented: “the Earth is now more cultivated and developed than ever before. There is more farming with pure force, swamps are drying up, and cities are springing up on unprecedented scale. We’ve become a burden to our planet. Resources are becoming scarce, and soon nature will no longer be able to satisfy our needs.” Urbiphobic outcries, it appears, long predate modernity. Yet the human population was below 200 million in Tertullian’s day, Gauchat noted. Technology, he maintained, is the chief reason 8 billion of us can now inhabit the Earth, whether flourishing or only surviving.

UN-Habitat’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 11 on sustainable cities and communities, naturally aim to bring more people from the latter category into the former while respecting populated and natural environments alike. The hypothesis examined at this conference was how, not whether, cities and nations can guide technical advances to harmonize with the SDGs. Technology is also “the only way to run a complex organism,” Gauchat said; as smartphones, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things, last-mile delivery drones, Big Data, and other varieties of information technology (IT) increasingly define a functioning present rather than a sci-fi future, he and others asserted, cities can and must reinvent themselves as purposeful deployers of these technologies.

Understanding the effects and implications of today’s devices, algorithms, and systems, not reflexively rejecting them, is the way to derive higher performance on multiple fronts (from design advantages like cost-saving clash detection via BIM, as AIA president Carl Elefante, FAIA, observed, to more mind-bending applications of AI and robotics such as power grids that use machine learning for self-monitoring and outage prevention) and to manage, even if we can’t anticipate, their unintended consequences. A truly smart city, Dortmund’s Fritz Rettberg stressed, connects people and technology through an intelligent process for improving the quality of life; digitization is the technical enabler for increasingly complex city operations, not an end in itself.

Panelists balanced enthusiastic accounts of new possibilities with attention to risks. Business consultant David Lubin described an evolution from doing old things in new ways (e.g., predictive algorithms helping airlines warn travelers about anticipated problems, or informing the New York Fire Department’s advance recognition of high-risk buildings) to doing new things in new ways (a dating-app-style platform pairing cities’ sustainability projects with potential sources of financial support) to using information metrics to transform institutional processes and cultures as well as enhance performance (Toyota’s fabled continuous-quality-improvement method). Yet such advances can disrupt the social order, not just firms or markets. Transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft have added to urban congestion; social media amplifies disinformation and surveillance; self-driving cars are acquiring a body count; AI raises questions of accountability and control.

As robots move from their traditional applications doing “3D” tasks (too dull, dirty, or dangerous for humans) to what technologist/designer Mahesh Daas called a fourth D, delightful – his flurry of provocative facts and factoids included self-constructing buildings and a priest-bot called BlessU-2 – the robotics revolution may catch cities unprepared, transforming them as problematically in the 21st century as autos did in the 20th. Microsoft’s John Paul Farmer, while hailing Big Data’s capacity to address tough problems like street safety, dramatically drop the costs of translation, or aid the blind in daily tasks, also observed that new technologies often find uses that are far from benign (one of the first uses of cars, he noted, was in bank robbery). “An early use case that we don’t like,” he commented, “doesn’t mean the technology won’t work.”

The critical element in ensuring that new discoveries serve green and inclusive goals rather than eroding them – political will – formed the explicit topic of the final session and the implicit background of the other three. Case studies from New York, Paris, Medellín, Dortmund, Nairobi, and elsewhere indicated the many ways urban leaders have been marshaling that often-scarce resource, along with more tangible resources, to make progress toward the SDGs on local and larger scales. Guy Geier, FAIA, offered the Zero Waste Challenge, New York City Hall’s 80×50 initiative (reducing carbon emissions 80% by 2050), and AIANY’s 2017 “Anticipating the Driverless City” symposium as examples of organized efforts to apply technology and data toward managing both familiar and conjectural problems. MIT’s Sarah Williams discussed the conundrum of “data scarcity in the era of Big Data,” noting that many developing areas lack demographic, mapping, and other forms of basic information; in Africa, which The Economist has called “the continent of missing data,” fewer than half of births are officially recorded, and much knowledge remains locally siloed rather than shared. Williams’s Civic Data Design Lab has drawn on crowdsourced mobile-phone data sets and the local expertise of matatu (informal minibus) drivers to create universally accessible transport maps of Nairobi’s underexplored areas and routes; the resulting visualizations allow code developers to build navigation tools on top of Google Maps data, in a system now adopted by multiple companies and other cities. This work has directly shaped policies respecting the rights and interests of marginalized populations.

One of the most intriguing discussions, involving several speakers (particularly Jordanian senator and multidisciplinary entrepreneur Talal Abu-Ghazaleh and past AIANY president Lance Jay Brown, FAIA), elaborated on UN-Habitat regional director Zena Ali-Ahmad’s suggestion that Middle Eastern countries, often with urbanized conflict areas and displaced populations, are logical testbeds for pilot green-tech projects. Evidence-based efforts are under way to assess wartime damage and recovery, establish returnees’ rights to their houses (often in settings where legal documentation is lacking), and expand higher education, conceiving it as a fundamental human right and making it broadly available through IT. Abu-Ghazaleh is rethinking the mission of education in practical terms by launching a university that graduates inventors rather than conventional scholars. “Our Arab region is the fastest-growing urbanization process in the world,” he emphasized, and “an excellent model for what we’re trying to do globally.”

UN symposia can be exhausting, amid marginally penetrable diplomatic jargon and varying signal-to-noise ratios between presentations; it is not rare to see crowds dwindle dramatically by the end of an all-day event. Yet this one, observed Brown, proved exceptional in keeping a large conference room full right up to its conclusion, with energy levels still high by day’s end. Systematic attention to what Marion Barthelemy called “the indivisible nature of the SDGs,” combining smart cities’ economic, social, and environmental aspects – both long-term sustainability and short-term resilience, a distinction between interdependent concepts emphasized by Arup engineer Fiona Cousins — helped the discussions rise above techno-celebratory naïveté, keeping the human effects of system design firmly ahead of the temptation to build “bright shiny objects,” Cousins’s term for tech that serves no social purpose beyond its own cleverness.

Thomas Vonier of the Union of International Architects updated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famously optimistic line: “The arc of the technical universe is long, but it bends toward fitness,” conceiving that term in the Darwinian sense of adaptation for particular niches. UN-Habitat remains a unique, often underappreciated niche for detailed exchange among like-minded idealists with a keen sense of practicality.

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