My latest column for Dezeen addresses robotics and cities. I'd started writing this months ago, and some of the examples betray that. Still, it took me that long—usually on planes, trains but not yet autonomous automobiles—to find the time to edit it down. As usual, you can read the longer original cut below; the tighter Dezeen version is over here.
This one emerged from several conversations over the last year or two, so thanks to Matt Ward and his brilliant team and class at Goldsmiths College for helping me develop the 'shepherd, sheepdog' idea. Thanks to Noah Raford and Matt Cottam and his brilliant team at Tellart for making that manifest at Museum of the Future. Thanks also to conversations with Indy Johar, on and off-stage at MakeCity Berlin, for helping me realise the implicit slavery angle a little more directly. Thanks also to Chris Green for the conversations about drones, rooftops and more besides.
The shepherd and the sheepdog
The image of a standard-issue bus driving through a standard-issue Chinese city flitted across Twitter. Utterly unremarkable at first glance, a closer look revealed the driver was kicking back, arms outstretched above his head as the bus rolled forward by itself. The image was of a trial of self-driving buses developed by the Yutong corporation, due to be running in Chinese cities within the next few years. Perhaps the driver was day-dreaming about whether he’d have a job this time next year.
A few days later, the Singapore government announced a similar programme of autonomous buses, due to be on the city’s roads by middle of next year. A Swiss self-driving bus will also be trundling around Sion next year.
These are welcome moments amidst the ever-increasing noise around autonomous vehicles, shifting the narrative away from different forms of private car and towards the idea of on-demand, shared autonomous fleets as a form of public transport, something I’ve written about here before. (It’s also good to see some of the spotlight briefly wrestled away from California, onto a different set of cultural dynamics.)
Yutong’s grainy images also give us a clearer idea of what our brave new robot future will look like, its natural habitat being the humbly mundane, everyday urban infrastructure of buses and bins, fridges and façades, wetlands and window-cleaners. This is quite different to the previous popular imagination of robotic buses, which tended to feature placeholder characters like Johnny Taxi, the humanoid robot-driver in ‘Total Recall’ who had an unfortunate altercation with the future Governor of California.
In reality, Johnny Taxi was a ferrying red herring: the bus itself is the robot, not the surrogate ‘driver’. Robots are more like infrastructure than actors. Despite Arnie’s best efforts.
Sam Jacob’s brilliant recent article for Uncubed explores this idea of robot as infrastructure rather than character, suggesting that the logical, or illogical, conclusion of the smart city—of AI, of robotics and autonomous systems, of algorithmic governance—is that “the city itself is a distributed robot”, the implication being a subjugation to the corporate forms of governance culture that produce many of the visions around urban tech.
Jacob’s article is a necessary corrective to some of the unthinking hype around robotics, and a broadside against the lazier end of smart city theory and practice. It can be imbibed alongside a dose of the leaked video of the ‘self-parking’ Volvo that drove straight through its watching researchers, perhaps on its way to a parking space that the car briefly judged to be of greater import.
Usman Haque discussed this #epicfail at FutureEverything Singapore recently, noting that it’s shocking precisely because of this visceral depiction of trust; the people in the video simply don’t react as the car drives at pace towards them, so confident are they that the code is right.
Projects like Superflux’s Drone Aviary at the V&A also sketch out this unthinking sleepwalk into encoding urbanism into robotics, deploying autonomous drones, whose twitching physicality becomes a tangible expression of network culture.
These are all powerful critiques, to be absorbed, dwelled upon, and then … how about embodied in urban design practice? Could we explore the possibility that the ‘city as distributed robot’ has potential as well as pitfalls? Could it possibly elicit a set of heuristics, a way of foregrounding that potential, whilst actively avoiding the pitfalls in autonomous systems, using critique to more deliberately sculpt the ‘dark matter’ that directs them?
And can we use the notion of distributed robotics to elicit a design brief about cities today, as well as tomorrow?