Architecture: What does Big Data mean for our cities?

Size, population and the number of petrol stations can yield fascinating insights into how our cities function best - but we must remember that any self-organising system is more than the sum of its parts.

In a blog post last year, the scientist Stephen Wolfram, creator of the Mathematica software and the “computational knowledge engine” Wolfram|Alpha, suggested that the next revolution would be in “personal analytics”. He demonstrated this idea by collating and charting his life using his vast archive of personal data, including every email he had sent since 1989. In this way, he could see which years were the most busy or what times of the day he sent the most emails. His desktop calendar also revealed data about the course of an average day, while his phone records showed who he was talking to and for how long.

Wolfram’s company has already released a similar app on Facebook, so that people can chart their personal data to see everything from which friends live the highest above sea level to how networks of contacts interweave. We are, Wolfram might suggest, the sum of our information trail. Our lives have become data sets to be probed, charted and, once collated, analysed for efficiencies and savings.

In the new age of “Big Data”, does the same go for our cities? Just as Wolfram has reduced his life to packets of data, many urban thinkers now believe that the city is no longer just a place but a living field of information to be harvested.

Big claims are being made for this notion. Le Corbusier once called for the rationalisation of the city, making it a machine for living; today, many think that data, in the words of Assaf Biderman, the associate director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, will make our cities “more human”.

Urban living used to be an art. Now, it is a science, burdened with the heavy-sounding label of “quantitative urbanism”. It is preached with the moral fervour of a Victorian public health official and involves some of the biggest names in the software, consultancy and infrastructure industries: IBM, Cisco, Philips, McKinsey & Company and Booz Allen Hamilton, among others.

Yet away from the hard sell, does this quantitative approach to ourselves and our cities tell us anything? Is the accumulation of data the same as the development of knowledge?

In 2003, the British-born physicist Geoffrey West started to study the metabolism of cities and soon came up with some surprising results. West wanted to find out whether the zoological rules first devised in the 1930s by Max Kleiber – which showed how all forms of life, from a fly to an elephant, follow the same equation that combines size, energy use and life expectancy – might apply to something as large and chaotic as a city.

West and his team at the Santa Fe Institute gathered together a huge data set: measurements of scale for urban centres in the US of over 50,000 citizens; statistics on “gross metropolitan product”; crime figures; the amount of money made by petrol stations in all 50 states; patents, as well as tax returns. Then, they put it all together into one database. They also included figures from the National Bureau of Statistics of China and Eurostat and even measurements of road surfaces from across Germany, as well as the amount of copper used in overhead wiring.

Surprisingly, the results reduced the life of a city to a mathematical rule: a Kleiberesque “unified theory of urban living”. So, while we can view individual cities as having their own particular history and personality, underlying rules apply that mean they have a lot in common with each other.

Yet cities do not follow Kleiber’s law exactly – rather than slowing down as they get bigger, cities speed up: they become more productive, creative, efficient and sustainable. As West points out, if you tell him the size and population of a city, he can cal - culate its crime rate, the number of patents it produces a year, how many petrol stations it needs, how many HIV-positive people reside there. According to West, the essential characteristics of a city can be reduced to an equation. Size matters, it seems.

Other urban thinkers, meanwhile, are starting to use the mathematics of complexity in an attempt to rethink how cities work. In this method, our understanding of networks and their emergent properties allow us to see how cities might work like beehives, ant or termite hills, the flow of liquids or the neural patterns of the brain.

This new urbanism – which views the city as a combination of networks and information – does not, in the words of John Keats, unweave the rainbow but forces us to question some of our long-held assumptions: what we consider to be the ideal size for a city; how we can use the qualities of complexity to rethink how the city is organised. Often, these discussions are conducted in the esoteric language of calculus and network theory. However, this can only have an impact when it is once again translated back into the language of the city – a place made up of people.

However, it would be wrong to think that data is the story. Information is the message, not the medium, and we need to be careful that this full-throttle embrace of data does not wash away the many other ways of looking at the city.

Just as Wolfram’s personal analytics do not show us the full extent of his life story, quantitative urbanism does not give us a complete picture of the modern city with all its elements. As complexity theory tells us, one of the characteristics of a self-organ - ising system – such as a city or a beehive – is that it will always be more than the sum of its parts.

Only connect. Our cities are viewed by planners as data sets. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain