Engineering fiction: Blade Runner’s take on Los Angeles 2019 posted recently on this blog was motivated by the release of the sequel of one of the main cult movies in the history of film. Blade Runner shows a futuristic take on cities and society, with a combination of humans and technology creating conflicts of interest between man and the resulting hybrids, called replicants (androids) in the film.
Both the film and the novel which inspired it, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?”, by Philip K. Dick, talk of the “Voight-Kampff” or empathy test. This fictional scientific/psychological test allows replicants to be detected through a test identifying emotional responses to certain stimuli.
The question we should be asking ourselves is, “how far removed from the truth is the film?” This type of debate around the regulation of Artificial Intelligence in the short and long term, with arguments both for and against, show that man is on the verge of taking decisions on the adoption and use of technology that will change the path of history.
As regards transformation of cities, it is likely that the first approach to the Smart City concept, the Smart City 1.0: technology driven (as identified by Professor Boyd Cohen in his article “ The 3 Generations of Smart Cities”), where construction of cities of the future was driven by a massive implementation of t echnology, would have led to that very dystopia which inspires novels and features in films.
Fortunately, further generations of the concept evolved, first to Smart City 2.0: Technology enabled, city-led, in this case defined by technological possibilities but with implementation based on government decisions and the top-down application of urban policies. And then there is the current approach, Smart City: 3.0: Citizen co-creation characterised by the engagement and participation of residents to achieve a co-created city.
This process is taking place in a context with a strong tendency towards digitalisation of a growing number of areas in our lives. This trend has positive effects, such as improved efficiency and optimisation of time and resources, but at times it can also create the false impression that we could, if we wished, do without the physical world and simply work with a digital, virtual reality. Nothing could be further from the truth: we cannot as yet live in Matrix.
It is hugely important and convenient to remember that at least for the time being, while we are human and wish to continue this way, we shall be irrevocably linked to the physical world, which is where all our basic functions in life take place: relationship, movement, nutrition, etc., and where we make use of all the possibilities afforded by the physical infrastructures with which our civilisation has evolved.
These infrastructures allow us to do things today of which we are barely aware, such as the daily miracle of opening a tap at home and getting drinking water, irrespective of the weather or the environment; of pressing a button and the light coming on; of using our private cars to go to school, to university or to work, on roads which are subjected to constant intense traffic, via crossings, overpasses, etc.; or using public transport such as trains, planes or the underground (that huge and undervalued network which criss-crosses our cities under the ground).
For us to be able to do all these things, which are absolutely key to urban quality of life, not only do infrastructures need to be there and need to be built, they also need to be operated and maintained. Activities to which hundreds if not thousands of people apply their knowledge, commitment, effort and dedication, to the point where at times tasks must be carried out under conditions that could compromise the safety of those implementing them.
Urban services companies are fully aware of such potential complications, and as such are constantly incorporating and building on technologies as a tool for improving safety. There are numerous examples of innovation applied to labour risk prevention for facilities maintenance workers and operators:
- Use of drones to substitute direct exposure of people to activities such as inspection of confined spaces, tall infrastructures or high voltage power lines.
- Sensorisation, IoT and data management for predictive maintenance to reduce unnecessary exposure to risk.
- Virtual reality for training in real-life contexts but in conditions of total safety, and augmented reality to aid workers in their jobs.
- Wearables and all manner of devices, linked to mobile apps, to control worker health in real time (location, vital signs, etc.).
In the case of infrastructure operation and maintenance, the challenge of guaranteeing worker safety requires open innovation, and collaboration between public institutions, utility companies, startups and businesses. To quote Cedric Price, British architect and urbanite who coined one of my favourite phrases on the use of technology and cities, “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?”.
The difference between the dystopia described in Blade Runner and improving the quality of life of the people who live and work in our cities does not depend on massive use of technology, but rather on working in a collaborative manner and asking the relevant questions in order to find appropriate technological answers.
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