For the last eight weeks at the School, I've been teaching a class called, "Living in a Smart City", with the help of John Tolva, Director of Citizenship and Technology at IBM. We just had our mid-term presentation and I'm excited to share the progress and insights the students have made so far.
But first, a little refresher on the class.
What are Smart Cities?
The term Smart City has been bandied about for years and while not reaching saturation like, "location-based social networking", the term has certainly been around the block. Sometimes its talked about in terms of the level of ubiquitous computing available in the built environment (think lamp posts with queryable I.P. addresses), or the kinds of spaces that allow for 'read/write' capability by its citizens. But for me, I try to frame it as simply as I can:
Smart Cities are responsive, large scale environments that adapt to the usage pattern of the people that live there, and leverages data from past behaviours to forecast tomorrow's needs.
Why try to design for Smart Cities now?
This class is built around the premise that cities and corporations are rushing towards a future where data on almost every aspect of life is gathered, tracked and analyzed. Everyone is a mad dash for data. Data about our commuting habits, data about our shopping preferences, data about our social networks.
IBM, GE, Apple and Facebook already have our daily lives on file and cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco are also gathering data while slowly making it accessible to everyone. But in both cases, there is feverish gathering of data but few tangible examples of what we should do with it once we have it.
What patterns emerge from our behavioral data? What new tools, services and environments are shaped by these patterns?
But the real catalysts for this class came from two influencers: John Tolva and Adam Greenfield. John's experience and insights at IBM gave me the opportunity to connect to a sea change happening in local government right now, asking where and how public data can be used with intense scrutiny. The other influencer to my planning was Adam Greenfield. He is one of the current thought leaders in this field and was instrumental in shaping this class. He originally taught a similar class at NYU a few years ago and upon talking to him, he revealed his approach to teaching his class was to take an ever escalating series of 'situations' from small to big. This approach became the foundation for my class.
The goal of the class
My hope is that we start to use the data we have to be smarter about the data we want and by taking a class of bright young minds, can we envision how to use this data for the greater good? Simply put the goal of the class is to :
Create a future vision of Chicago, where data is used to look forward and then back—to reflect on a future that has yet to be.
The design brief: a traffic incident at an intersection.
Following a series of 'bootcamp' style design problems as warm up, the class went from tackling smart interior objects (tables, doors, windows) to smart exterior objects (lamp posts, mailbox, bus stop) to then looking at the changing landscape of smart mobile devices and apps.
In addition, each week I asked the class a series of critical 'common questions':
- What does smart mean?
- How will this affect users?
- What are the network effects?
- What is the historical context?
- What happens when it all breaks down?
With that primer out of the way, the stage was set to tackle our first major 'situation': a traffic incident at an intersection.
Choosing the intersection
Tackling a complex environment like a city intersection is no small feat, but choosing which intersection within Chicago was also tricky. Thankfully, just around the time a very handy bike crash map popped up built using readily available data by Steve Vance, a former Chicago Department of Transportation employee who is currently an urban planner and bike advocate. From his map I was able to identify a number of prime candidates for our design intervention; intersections with particularly high number of traffic incidents.
Of the many choices available, the intersection at Milwaukee/Damen/North Ave was ideal for a number of reasons. This six way intersection has one of the highest number of reported incidents in the city and it's also one of the most heavily bike trafficked thoroughfares. But best of all, it's has a well used but unimaginative public transit transfer point for bus and train—Damen on the Blue Line, plus the 56, 50 and 72 bus lines.
It's also affectionately known amongst the locals as the "Crotch". Having lived around this part of town, I can attest to that moniker.
The interruption a traffic incident has today
Today, most incidents are jarring and disruptive at best. It has a 'square wave' visual profile if you will. For those directly involved, it can be phyiscally and emotionally scarring. The negative impact ripples throughout the city, lasting hours and extending for miles.
Knowing that we can't very likely eliminate traffic incidents entirely, our collective hope is that we can minimize the negative impact they have, by smoothing the ramp up and ramp down for everyone involved.
And for our situation, we decided to stress test the system by having the class tackle a fairly serious incident—a pedestrian fatally struck by a car and a cyclist critically injured by another driver.
Using a systematic approach of user-centered observational research including interviews with bus drivers, bike messengers and police officers, the students were able to presented these factors that contribute to the congestion:
- Spontaneous u-turns by taxis and private cars
- Frequent loading and unloading from delivery trucks
- Multiple non-intuitive pedestrian crosswalks that lead to frequent jaywalkers
- Many, many poorly marked signs for all users
- Traffic accidents cause many hours of delay, congestion and confusion depending on the severity—anywhere from 2-6 six police cars and 30mins—6hrs of investigation
When visiting the site, one is immediately struck by the sense that everyone else is getting their turn to move, but you. A frantic sense of urgency pervades the area. One unexpected piece of data reports that Milwaukee Ave has the least amount of car traffic of the three streets but is consistently the most congested.
Our design response
The students were able to take apart each of these factors and design responses to each problem and in doing so, create a completely new vision of the Milwaukee/Damen/North Ave intersection with a beautiful model of their plans. And in telling their story, they divided their work into two sections, 'before the incident' and 'after the incident'.
The 'before' scenario outlined the new vision for the intersection with several ideas to lessen the pressure at the intersection itself. The 'after' scenario outlined the city's new response to the incident.
The three main anchoring concepts by the students were:
- Introduce a timed traffic light cycle for pedestrians only using a 'scramble cross walk' that lets people traverse the intersection in any direction for a period of time without fear of cars. This incentives pedestrians to wait their turn as they can now walk the most direct route to cross the span.
- Re-plan Milwaukee Ave by eliminating street parking and limit private car traffic to peak times only, in order to ease congestion. In addition, adding a parking structure onto the back of the Coyote building while physically connecting it with the Blue line to create a multi-modal transit hub. Along Milwaukee Ave new dedicated loading bays/taxi call points and bus stops help reduce the amount of spontaneous taxi u-turns, double/triple parking that snarl traffic and public transit.
- Real-time traffic incident assist: Instant deployment of real-time traffic rerouting information to an ever widening series of smart traffic lights and stop signs to redirect traffic away from incident. Plus a new "traffic TIVO" software app that records the last 30 mins of the intersection allows for police to reply remotely in high def, to rapidly assess the incident on-site. Impact to buses is minimized by policy changes to allow buses to always travel through incident areas where physically permissible, whle using onboard digital signage to alert other drivers of the situation.
Below is a video made from the Keynote presentation (12 minutes).
With about six weeks left of the semester the class will decide where to best direct their collective design efforts. There's talk of investing that time in fully fleshing out these nascent ideas. There's even talk of adding a new factor to the mix to further 'stress test' the new intersection.
While this design work may well bring about a serious discussion to rethink this particular site, my hope is that we've also created a platform whereby we derive a set of transferable design interventions that can be applied to other problmatic six-way intersections across the city.
As the semester continues, please follow along to the developments on our class tumblr blog and we'll post our latest thinking.
I'm immensely proud of all the work done so far and the professionalism with which the students have handled themselves. My thanks to the whole team for kicking ass this semester!
- George Aye (professor)
- John Tolva (co-teacher and content advisor)
- Natalie Pfister (teaching assistant)
- Chi Sun
- Dan Jick
- David Evancho
- David Hull (design lead)
- Ge Re Yaun
- Jae Won Chang
- John Lee
- Josiah Ball (design lead)
- Karl Williamson (design lead)
- Kevin Suzuki
- Kristen Campbell Hansen
- Meghan Quinn
- Samuel Matson
- Sarah X Floyd (model team lead)
- Shay Delagarza
- Siavash Khorrami
- Zach Hoffman
- Adam Greenfield
- Victor Margolin
- Daniel X. O'Neil
- Steven Vance
External mid-term critique panel
- Tim Parsons
- Felicia Ferrone
- Judd Morgenstern
- Rebecca Resman
- Steven Vance
All photographs by Josiah Ball.