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

Getty
Show Hide image

The top children’s TV show conspiracy theories

From randy Postman Pat to white supremacist Smurfs, we present to you your childhood in tatters.

We can probably all agree that, these days, nothing is sacred. If you can (as a few very insistent YouTube videos have told me) pay to watch live snuff films on the dark web, there’s probably someone out there – in the thronging nest of perversions that is the internet – ready to take something special from your childhood (say, a favourite TV programme) and make it unclean.

Which is exactly what happened when an internet-spawned theory found history’s least sexual fictional character, Postman Pat, to be a stop motion sex monster. The theory goes that he has fathered a lot of children in the village school, many of whom have ginger hair; Pat is the only red head in Greendale.


Because humans are incapable of not picking at every innocent thing until it goes gangrenous, here are some other childhood-ruining fan theories.

Babar is a colonial stooge


Babar lording it over the colonies. Photo: Flickr/Vanessa

Could everyone’s favourite anthropomorphic French elephant be an apologist for centuries of Western brutality and conquest? Well, yes, obviously. According to the “Holy Hell Is Babar Problematic” theory, the fact that the titular character was born in Africa, raised and “civilised” in Paris, then sent back to Elephant Land to be king and teach all the other elephants how to be French, makes Babar about as suitable for children as a Ladybird introduction to eugenics and a Playmobil King Leopold.

For further proof that this theory isn’t “political correctness gone mad”, but actually political correctness gone quite sensible, just look at some of the (deeply un-OK) illustrations from the 1949 book Babar’s Picnic.

The Smurfs are white supremacists


A horrifying vision of ethnic uniformity. Photo: Getty

Or maybe “blue supremacists” would be more accurate. Either way, they’re racist. Possibly. It’s been pointed out that the Smurfs all wear pointy white hats. Apart from their leader, Papa Smurf (the ultimate patriarch..?), who wears a red one. Meaning these tiny munchkin thingies are (maybe, just maybe) sartorially influenced by none other than the Ku Klux Klan.

This seems tenuous at best, until you look at a few other factors in this theory brought to light by French political scientist Antoine Buéno. Buéno suggests that the dictatorial political structure of Smurf Village paired with some actually quite convincing racism (when Smurfs turn black, for example, they become barbaric and lose the power of speech), equals Nazism.

What’s more, the Smurfs’ main antagonist – a wizard called Gargamel – is not unlike an antisemitic caricature from Nazi propaganda magazine Der Stürmer. He’s dark haired, hook-nosed and obsessed with gold. Oh, and he has a cat called Azrael, which is the Hebrew name for the Angel of Death.


 

A photo posted by furkan (@furkanhaytaoglu) on


And, in case you’re not already far enough down the “Smurfs are racist” rabbit hole, just look at Smurfette and her long, blonde hair. Aryan much?

SpongeBob SquarePants is a post-nuclear mutant


Forever running from haunting memories of radioactive atrocity. Photo: Flickr/Kooroshication

According to one fan theory, this Nickelodeon classic may have more in common with The Hills Have Eyes than we think. SpongeBob, a talking sponge who lives in an underwater pineapple with a meowing snail, may well be the product of nuclear testing.

In the Forties, the US detonated two nukes in an area of the Pacific called Bikini Atoll. SpongeBob lives somewhere called Bikini Bottom. Coincidence, or an especially dark analogy for the dangers of radiation and man’s lust for destruction? Hm.

Tom and Jerry is Nazi propaganda


Skipping merrily through the Third Reich. Photo: Flickr/momokacma

Either we’re so obsessed with Nazism that we look for it (and find it…) in literally everything, or the antics of a classic cat and mouse duo really do contain coded messages about the futility of the Allies’ war with the Third Reich.

If we’re going for the latter, let’s start with the characters’ names. Tom (Tommies were British soldiers) and Jerry (Jerries were German ones). Now remember, Tom is the bad guy. In every episode, he tries to kill Jerry by any means possible, but is foiled every single time, getting blown up by sticks of dynamite and flattened by falling anvils along the way.

Tom and Jerry first aired in 1940 – the same year as the Battle of Britain. So, if the reference to slang for Brits and Germans was unintentional, it was more than a little bit unfortunate. And, according to some albeit sketchy-looking corners of the internet, this was no accident at all but a message (in that Jerry constantly outwits Tom) about superior German intelligence.

Although this may seem like the least compelling of all of these dark fan theories, it would explain why I always had a gut feeling the painfully smug Jerry was the actual baddie.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.