A Humanist Approach to Smart Cities

This is an essay written for the honours-level course “Urban Infrastructure” (APG4021F) offered at the University of Cape Town’s School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics. The essay was written in 2016. Citations are provided at the bottom of the post. Please contact me should you require further information or re-use info.

The idea of Smart Cities has permeated global discourse around contemporary city design. However, its core goals of improving the lives of denizens has been obscured as technology companies seek to manipulate the term for marketing purposes. This essay argues for an alternative approach: a human-centric way of re-looking at the idea of the “smart city”, where technology and urban design can work together for the benefit of urban life.

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The Post-Truth Era

To say we’re living in a complex world would perhaps be an understatement. Complexity and contradiction are the pervading forces of contemporary society. So it would come, perhaps, as no surprise that something rather peculiar, yet also seemingly fitting, would emerge from such a unique epoch as this.

The ancient mathematician Pythagoras once said:

Reason is immortal, all else mortal.

Unfortunately, our era has somehow managed to kill rationality. In its place, we have inserted “feelings”. Welcome to the Post-Truth Era.

Post-Truth is becoming the new buzzword in the world of politics – specifically the 2016 US Presidential election. Trump’s ability to use emotive language in passing known falsehoods off as facts has been at the core of his notorious rise in popularity. The Economist has a wonderful article that examines this phenomenon from a political angle.

However, I feel that this idea of post-truth is infiltrating other parts of our society. I’m certainly not arguing for an abolishment of emotion, or for the cultivation of a generation of stone-faced, unemotional robots (although, let’s face it, robots would do a far better job at this civilisation thing than us humans have in the last few decades). But the replacement of all rational thought by pure emotionalism has brought into question our ability to think critically, to closely examine what’s being presented to us.

Rationality doesn’t sound so fun. The word feels like it’s implying you to actually use that computer-thing encased in your skull to do a bit of intellectual work. Emotion, by contrast, triggers soft ideas of pure idealism, of hope and an essentially cleaner path to seeking truth. And yes, emotion is a crucial part of what makes us human, of what defines our character and our compassion to fellow humans. So it’s perfectly fine in some, more social situations.

But when it comes to critical things that affect society – politics, but also ideas, debates, discussions around issues of epistemology, ontological arguments, education, the state of our nation – then it’s absolutely crucial that we still approach these topics from a critical, rational viewpoint. It’s inevitable that our emotional side will, to some extent, factor in our opinions and the reception of other’s opinions. The challenge comes in listening to the opposing or other view, then processing it with a critical sensibility. Or at the least, analyze it critically before passing any emotional judgements.

A lot of what’s happening in our society – both global, and in the local context (South Africa, and the global south in my case) is a direct result of irrationality overtaking our sense of judgement on multifaceted and interlinked issues. It’s when we let our emotions take control that we become vulnerable to the Thought Police (which is another issue all of its own), who will then proceed to slice and dice our very language until it resembles a form that is emotionally sensitive to every single issue affected by every human being, thus emptying it of any credibility, logic or rationality.

Post-truth operates through a series of logical fallacies that inject emotive propaganda, aimed directly at inciting one to make decisions with their heart and not their head. In our constant effort to seek truth, to understand our world and the complexities and intricacies of our society, we need to actually think first. In this era of digital noise, where we are susceptible to a swarm of emotion, of mindless chatter and the sharing of the minutiae of every person’s daily life, have we become so intellectually drained through technology that we’ve forgotten this very primal human trait?

Truth lies in the world around us.

– Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

Platform Wars are a Waste of Time

Mac vs PC. iOS vs Android. Automatic Transmission vs. Manual Transmission.

Since the dawn of technology, the platform wars have raged. The decision to use one system over another has somehow become suggestive of the character of a person. If you’re a Mac user, you’re suddenly labelled an “Apple sheep”. If you’re a diehard Windows person, then you’re associated with someone who does “real computing”, is “uncreative”, and a “numbers person.”

These labels serve no purpose other than to perpetuate a divide within technological circles, oft exploited by marketing teams to propagate one platform over another. They’ve been used to attack not just the flaws of a platform, but the people using these tools. Most frustratingly, they obscure the fact that no matter the characteristics of a particular platform, technology today has become so advanced that it is sometimes indeed indistinguishable from magic.

Here’s the thing: technological progress has been so dramatic over the past few years that it really doesn’t matter what platform you use. Especially in creative fields like design, cinema and photography: most applications are cross-platform, and the platforms themselves proffer enticing options no matter whether you’re macOS or Windows.

I grew up on Windows, and have programmed some significant (well, significant for me) projects. My prefered platform for the past 8 years has been macOS. I have very personal reasons – as many people do regarding their tools of choice to get the job done or to unwind with. These range from certain intricacies with macOS: the way applications are managed, the overall user interface, window management, the robust industrial design of Mac hardware, a trackpad that has yet to let me down and means I don’t have to always rely on an external mouse to get most design-related tasks done (and that even augments my mouse when designing on macOS). There’s also the comfort factor: I’ve grown very used to the Mac way of doing things. The list goes on, but it is indeed very specific to my own use case. The beauty is that I’ve been able to install the “best of both worlds” on my MacBook: I can experience the things I love about macOS like the Finder and the Alfred search extension, whilst simultaneously using Visual Studio on a Windows installation through VMWare to develop Windows desktop apps critical to the operation of SKKSA.

Look, we’re all entitled to our own opinions. And technology is as opinionated a field as you can get. Our lives are intricately entwined with the devices and platforms we use daily to live, to exist. So it makes sense that one becomes vehemently passionate about their platform of choice. But when that passion extends to bashing others for their choice of platform, especially without having a reasonable experience of said platform to base opinions upon, then it becomes a serious problem. In fact, it may say more about that person than their attacks and scorn of their target’s platform and by extension, the character attack associated with the choice of platform. If anything, it represents a juvenile, immature mindset; a rather closed, small-minded viewpoint of the vastness that is modern technology.

We should be excited and grateful that we have choice. More than one platform means that the developers of these tools are constantly competing to make their product better. This only benefits us, the end users.

Platform wars are a waste of time because they detract us from the beauty that is our modern, advanced systems. They detract us from actually focussing on collaborating, on creating and on using our incredible tools to help make the world a little bit better.

Utopian Illusion

“The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”

Plato, The Republic

There are many illusions that exist like a thin veil obscuring the reality of society. Political correctness is just another layer that serves as a distraction from the bleak truths we are sometimes afraid to confront. Chief amongst those illusions is the notion that freedom, equality, liberty – these ideals we hold so dear to our sacred conception of “democracy” – can bring about a utopian society where everyone’s needs are satisfied.

Utopia cannot exist because it is the product of human creation. We are a flawed species, and thus any system we invent will inherently have its problems. Like there is no ideal form of government or any singular, perfect philosophy, there can only exist the pursuit of the utopian ideal, but never any true attainment of the ideal.

Things in nature exist in duality; for there to be good, bad must exist as its counter-balance. For there to be day, there must also be night to give it meaning. It’s a sentiment best captured in the ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching:

“Everyone recognizes beauty

only because of ugliness

Everyone recognizes virtue

only because of sin”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Verse 2)

We would only seek to fool ourselves further if we were to believe in the illusion of a utopian society. Plato himself, the paragon of Western philosophy, denounced the notion that the democratic state is the apogee of government. Our society is far more complex, nuanced, multifaceted to be easily controlled by a single system.

Once we can accept these limitations, and embrace the complexity of modern society, understanding that nothing will be perfect, and nothing can be perfect, we will truly begin to move forward. The stagnation felt by many as we struggle to enter a world that is seemingly wrought with inequality, despair, hoplessness, with unfair economic systems that only further the class gaps, leads to this yearning for the antithesis of the dim present – that is, the utopian dream.

Utopia, and its sibling, perfection, are ideals to strive toward, not something we can ever truly grasp. It’s like that notion of design as being a function of infinity: it’s something that has no end to it in and of itself. It’s a system that will forever be held just beyond our grasp, as we progress towards it.

“One may look for fulfillment in this world

but his longings will never be exhausted

The only thing he ever finds

is that he himself is exhausted.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Verse 2)

Architecture + Innovation

Following what I wrote recently about the “PC takeover” of architecture, as posited by renowned Zaha Hadid Architects partner Patrik Schumacher, I’ve been further intrigued by his sentiments when Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, recently announced a revolutionary new roof system.

This kind of technology is the innovation that is sorely lacking in the profession of architecture. Technical prowess has been dismantled from the profession as the architect begins to lose focus of the core aims of the profession – utilitas, firmitas, venustas (function, structure and beauty) – aims that are as old as Vitruvius himself. These are the pillars upon which our profession is built, yet we somehow seem to forget this as we begin to take on more abstract roles as politician, social justice warrior, philosopher, bureaucrat…  

Our lofty goals of achieving social justice, of shaking the foundations of dogmatic political practices and ushering in an era of collectivism, of social coherence and aesthetic and cultural harmony through our designed environments appear as noble pursuits. And no doubt they are essential, for we are in a unique position as a practice that situates itself at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. We can balance these precarious entities through our designed intervention and intellectual prowess powered by years of pouring over precedent, theory, political studies and the philosophies that empower us as architects.

However, the technological agency that lies at the heart of our profession – the technological agency that binds the trifecta of utilitas, firmitas, venustas, is the very thing becoming rapidly marginalised in contemporary practice. We are being sidetracked by more ambiguity rather than pouring our collective talents into actually innovating the architectural technology that ultimately transforms our abstract world into the physical manifestations that form our built environments.

Musk’s development of a unique solar roofing system is exactly the kind of architectural innovation that is being “outsourced” to those outside our field. Yes, I acknowledge that as architects, we are not trained in the minutiae of such technical systems; the kind of product that Musk announced is the culmination of a variety of fields (industrial design, electrical engineering, manufacturing…). However, we are trained in the field of ideas. We should be the ones embracing and advocating for such advances. The Tesla + SolarCity roof tile system is the kind of product that is inherently architectural. It ticks all of the great Vitruvius’s boxes: it is functional (it is highly efficient at collecting solar energy and storing that in the Tesla PowerWall), it is incredibly strong – far stronger, in fact, than traditional building materials like terracotta – and it is beautiful. This last one is particularly important: in order to gain mainstream traction, aesthetics are paramount. 

The Tesla roofing system proposes, for the first time, a viable technology for taking buildings off the grid entirely. As architects, we are in the business of consumption – the very act of building requires consuming the earth in order to make space for our creations. The age of sustainable design is well and truly underway. The urgency for technical architectural innovation – the proposition, promotion and integration of imaginative technical ideas that further the environmentally-cenered design approach that will make or break this era – is sorely needed in a time when the role of architect as master of information is being challenged from within.

The Business of Aesthetics

Patrik Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, recently took to Facebook to voice his opinions on Alejandro Aravena’s Prizker award earlier this year. His formidable position in our contemporary architectural discourse, coupled with his work in the arena of parametricism as style and his collaboration with the “queen of the curve”, the late and great Dame Zaha Hadid, add a certain gravitas to his sentiments and indeed reignite the debate over architecture’s societal role:

The PC takeover of architecture is complete: Pritzker Prize mutates into a prize for humanitarian work. The role of the architect is now ‘to serve greater social and humanitarian needs’ and the new Laureate is hailed for ‘tackling the global housing crisis’ and for his concern for the underprivileged. Architecture loses its specific societal task and responsibility, architectural innovation is replaced by the demonstration of noble intentions and the discipline’s criteria of success and excellence dissolve in the vague do-good-feel-good pursuit of ‘social justice’.

– Patrik Schumacher, ZHA

Architecture as a practice has long sought to root itself within a societal discourse. And rightly so, for the artefacts it produces stand as anchors in time, reflections of the zeitgeist, and responses to various social flows – the flows of people, of money, of technology and of power.

Yet at its core, I believe, architecture holds firmly to the business of producing artefacts. For, once stripped of all the intellectual mist that surrounds a piece of architecture, the thing that remains, the concrete and brick and mortar that form the geometries so intricately laboured over by the practitioner, lies firmly within the realm of aesthetics. It is an artefact, an object that was created to appeal, at its very base level, to certain rules of beauty that have been argued over for millenia.

In pop culture, the way something looks is paramount to its success. Let’s not kid ourselves about this. The aesthetic conception is something that pervades contemporary society; it’s the veil that draws one in to whatever intellectual (or “abstract beauty”) lies behind.

Perhaps there is another debate lurking here – what is it that defines beauty? Ideas of cultural bias, of historic prejudiced views, mathematical proof and geometric arguments all play pivotal roles in discussing this. But that’s not the point of today’s post.

My argument is that, in a world that has become susceptible to politically correct language, it is very easy for discourse around architecture to become dramatically defensive and deny the unavoidable (if perhaps harsh) truth: that aesthetics is the name of our game. We should rather embrace this discourse, and begin to tamper with it: to engage in the idea of aesthetics being a crucial part of architecture, and to interrogate its various virtues and disadvantages.

Architects are not politicians. We’re not activists, nor are we philosophers. Yes, we may harbour sentiments that are shared with these other groups, but at the heart of our profession is a desire to shape worlds, through imagination and the pursuit of the creative spirit. We are ever aware of the gravitas that underscores our duty to society, yet that doesn’t mean we can’t also have a little fun too.

Superman: Modern Day Socrates

In Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill vol.2, Bill has a very interesting monologue. Perhaps the most famous monologue in the entire two-part saga.

The essence: he slices through the very nature of Superman, and argues for the idea that Clark Kent is the image Superman perceives of us, as a species, as the human race.

Here’s the speech:

(edited to remove spoilers)

As you know, l’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique.

[…]

Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.

–Bill, from “Kill Bill vol.2” (2004)