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From Autobahn to Bioregion

[Above: for CRIT, Mumbai may look a mess - but the city enjoys 'high transactional capacities']

The big Audi that collected us from Istanbul airport contained nearly as many electronic control units (ECUs) as the new Airbus A380. The Audi, and similar high-end cars, will soon run on 200 million lines or more of software code. As a comparison, the avionics and onboard support systems of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner run on fewer than seven million lines.

That makes modern cars highly intelligent, right? Well maybe, and maybe not. Suppose the owner of such a two ton vehicle drives a mile down the road to collect a three hundred gram pizza for a small child’s dinner: is that a smart thing to do? And if it’s not, whose judgement is at fault: the car’s, or the driver’s?

The Audi Urban Future Award, whose jury met in Istanbul last week, explores this and other tricky questions. (Your correspondent, to declare an interest, was invited to chair this year’s jury).

As background: A few years ago, Audi’s in-house future watchers noticed an unsettling trend in visions for the future of cities : an increasing number of these visions did not contain cars. Urban future scenarios seemed to be converging around car-free solutions to problems posed by debilitating gridlock, lack of space, and air pollution.

Wondering what this trend meant for a car company such as itself, the company launched its Urban Future Initiative to establish a dialogue on the synergy of mobility, architecture and urban development; the Award invited ” the engineers of future cities: architects, urban planners, researchers” to explore new ways for cities to think – collectively, and holistically – about mobility.

The five entries in this year’s Award brought a wide range of approaches to bear on the challenge. The jury that Audi invited to judge them was correspondingly diverse: there were architects and mobility experts, of course – but they were not a majority: our number included a writer, a philosopher, a curator, a network designer, a solar power engineer, and a film maker.

This was not a concept competition. Each team was required to base its proposal on a deep investigation of each city’s context. The jury therefore needed to review several hundred pages of written material, plus video footage and other documentation, that had been prepared by each of the five design teams in advance. (Domus has posted an excellent report of the competition here.)

Most of the entries confronted the core dilemma head-on – cars, or no cars? – and some of them pulled no punches. In one distressing video on show in the exhibition a Chinese man, carrying a baby in his arms, says to camera that “its a terrible feeling to walk in the city”. In another film, this one made in Istanbul, a man tries to push a baby along a pavement in the snow; his way is blocked by trash bags on the pavement – but he can’t go round them because a line of cars is parked nose-to-tail next to him in the road. Considering that forty percent of the time we spend traveling, across all cultures, is spent walking or waiting, the challenge was stark: that the car is complicit in a wildly inequitable use of space.

The response of the Istanbul team, Superpool, was an online loyalty platform, called Park, which harnesses the power of social networks to incentivise he increased use of shared transport. Reduce the presence of parked private cars, the thinking went, and space would be freed up on Istanbul’s back streets for shared social and cultural activities.

The Shareway project, by the U.S. design team of Howeler + Yoon Architecture, proposed the reorganization and bundling of all systems of transport in a highly technical, optimized and continually flowing main artery for mobility in Boshwash region of the USA,

A remarkable set of design tools and catalogues, with the family name of Being Nicely Messy, was created by the Mumbai-based collective Crit. For Crit, mobility in the abstract has neither positive nor negative value; what matters is a city’s “transactive capacity“ - its capacity to foster valuable connections among diverse populations. In that spirit, Crit’s project set out to help different stakeholders in the city explore near-future development options collaboratively – rather than, as now, as non-communicating adversaries. http://mooove.com/urbanthink-tank

The radical concepts of ‘cloud logistics’, and buried transport infrastructure, were proposed by the Chinese design firm Node. Node’s proposal reasserted the presence and sociality of people on what are now the truck and pollution-damaged streets of the ‘World Factory’ occupying the Pearl River Delta in China.

A joyful celebration of movement for its own sake – in both physical and social ways – was celebrated in the multi-dimensional, multi-velocity Parangole concept developed by Urban Think Tank for Sao Paulo, in Brazil.

In the event, the jury selected Howeler + Yoon Architecture’s Shareway as its overall winner on the basis that it was the most thoroughly resolved response to the competition brief. The jury also acknowledged the thorough research into its social and economic context, and the fact that the core Shareway concept of “opportunity without ownership” involves both social as well as technical innovation at a system-wide level.

] Is mobility a basic need?

In reflecting afterwards on the Audi Award, my thoughts returned to the small child and her pizza. When she is old enough to drive herself, the ways we occupy our cities today will surely strike her as having been crazy. She’ll be shocked, looking back, by our greedy use of space, matter, energy, and land – just to move around. She’ll grieve at the ways our un-checked mobility damaged the biosphere, our only home.

Do the entries in the Audi Award point to a different mobility future for that small child? My conclusion: they raised some very interesting new questions, but that two assumptions made by the project as a whole will constrain their future evolution. These are first, that mobility is a universal need; and second, that mobility is a technical problem amenable to being solved by engineering means.

The proposition that mobility a fundamental human need sounds uncontroversial, but think of it this way: One could also say that locusts have a universal need for lunch. Which they do. But when locusts fulfill all their needs, the land is stripped bare – and the locusts, having eaten their last lunch, are toast.

The consensus in archeology and anthropology is that mobility, far from being an innate feature of human behaviour, is a socially negotiated activity. Individuals, households, and larger groups move around a lot – or not – depending on patterns of land tenure and their access to land, the capacity of the commons to support them (or not) and other socio-economic factors.

Mobility, in other words, is a second order ‘need’. We move as much as we have to in order to obtain food, shelter, security, and the opportunity to connect and transact with each other. The more those attributes are present in our immediate surroundings, the less we tend to move. This is why economic localisation, and sustainability, are sub-texts of the same story.

] …and are smart cities wise?

The promoters of ‘smart cities’ and ‘intelligent transportation systems’ are excited by the potential of cars to communicate with us, and with each other, in amazing new ways. They cite experiments such as Google’s auto-piloted cars, or ‘smart’ sensor-encrusted roadways, as evidence that coordinated communication will soon make car blight in cities a thing of the past.

These promises will end in costly disappointment as long as cars, and their owners, think only about themselves – and by themselves. More data for their own sake will not make a city ‘smart’ if all that computational power is misdirected. Moving less does not mean no mobility at all but, in the end, sustainability is the property of a complex social-ecological system – it is not a sub-system to be added to a machine.

Helping cities to think and act reflectively, and holistically, is more of a social than a technical challenge. The world is filled with action plans that address individual technical problems. What’s missing is a way for all the stakeholders involved to collaborate around a shared objective: the health and liveability of the city as a whole. For a city to thrive everyone, by definition, has to be involved. It is not a matter or either social or technical innovation – we need both.

Laudably, Audi’s Urban Future Award has provided a platform for the development of divergent views; the project has also enabled the development of tools to help cities think. The next step, one suggests, is to reframe or at least adjust its objective – away from the search for ways to make mobility ‘sustainable’, and towards the vitality and health of cities as living ecosystems. By acting accordingly, our focus will evolve, quite naturally, from the autobahn, to the bioregion.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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