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

Vanessa Lubach
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Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth

Fiona Mozley’s debut novel digs deep into the psycho-geology of Yorkshire. 

In the autumn of 616 or 617 AD, one of the last remaining Celtic kingdoms of ancient Britain to withstand Anglo-Saxon settlement was conquered by its Northumbrian neighbours. Elmet, which covered what is now the West Riding of Yorkshire, was referred to by Bede as “silva Elmete” (“forest of Elmet”), with its devastation verified by the Historia Brittonum, which claimed that Edwin, the king of Northumbria, “occupied Elmet and expelled Certic, king of that country”. In 1979, several years before becoming poet laureate, the Celtic obsessive Ted Hughes collaborated with the photographer Fay Godwin on Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence, a book that evoked the “spectacular desolation” of the Calder Valley where he grew up, a landscape saturated with myth and memory.

There is more than a hint of Hughes’s shamanistic unleashing of the power of language in Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s debut novel, a work of troubling beauty that has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. At once spare and ornate, Mozley’s writing digs deep into what could be termed the psycho-geology of Yorkshire, much as Alan Garner’s work does with Cheshire: the intermittent glimpses of vanished lives from centuries earlier alongside those of the present day, the trauma of past upheaval and resettlement echoing along the dark valleys.

Elmet, for all its formality and ritual style, has a modern setting but appears to inhabit a space that is outside time. Opening with a ragged account from a survivor of a savage act of destruction, the narrative moves back to the events leading up to the routing of a smallholding held by the 14-year-old Daniel and his conspicuously small family: his sister, Cathy, and their father, John, always referred to as “Daddy” or “my Daddy”.

Daddy is a giant of a man, worshipped by both children, “more vicious and more kind than any leviathan of the ocean… His music pitched above the hearing of hounds and below the trembling of trees.” Far from being carried away on a crescendo of poetic whimsy, however, the book is firmly rooted in stark realities. Daddy is a violent man, who makes his living from bare-knuckle fighting.

Having removed his children from school, he sets about building a house in a remote copse on land that he does not own. Lawless, but then so is Price, the most powerful and ruthless of the unscrupulous local landlords who dominate this ex-mining area of subsistence-level existence. The battle between Price and John is decades old, with links to the children’s vanished mother, and is as much a battle for the soul of an individual as for a plot of land. It is this agonising constriction, like one of the hunter’s bows John stretches to tautness, that Mozley emphasises.

If John is the “Robyn Hode” of legend, Cathy and Daniel are his “scrawny vagrants”, running wild in the ancient forest that surrounds their home. It is a hard life but, in Mozley’s telling, an enchanted one: rich and gamey with dark cuts of animals hunted for food, cider and roll-ups, singing till dawn and “skylarks on toast, almost whole, with mugs of hot, milky tea”. Daddy has built a fortress and a flawed paradise, in which Cathy – a mixture of Brontë-esque wilfulness (the name is surely no coincidence) and fearless warrior princess, with hair as “black as Whitby jet” and eyes “blue like the North Sea” – strives to protect her younger brother.

However, even as their precarious shelter is under siege, Daniel and Cathy are changing. Cathy is most resistant to adaptation. Like Daddy, she had “an outside sort of head”; like him, she is a loner. Daniel, though, is drawn to the world of learning and culture, as demonstrated by Vivien, an unlikely acquaintance of Daddy who gives the children informal lessons. Vivien influences Daniel in other ways, too, for this is a novel about not conforming to stereotypes, be they gendered or otherwise. Daniel’s long hair and sense of curiosity and delight in his body contrast with Cathy’s awkwardness in hers, her fatalistic awareness that as a woman she is vulnerable, a target: “We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine,” she tells him, just before the book’s violent culmination.

Brutal, bleak, ethereal, Mozley’s novel combines parable with urgent contemporary truths about dispossession and exploitation. Reading Elmet leaves the metallic taste of blood in the mouth: centuries old, yet as fresh as today. 

Elmet
Fiona Mozley
JM Originals, 320pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear