The Cognitive City

By Peter Calthorpe

Peter Calthorpe is Principal and Co-Founder of Calthorpe Analytics. His 30 year practice has helped solidify a global trend towards the key principles of sustainable urban development. Peter is driven by a desire to put better information and better tools in the hands of decision makers, advocates, and organizations on the front lines of development, energy, climate, and health planning.

Mar 22, 2018 | Society, Technology | 0 comments


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For a long time, cities have been likened to bodies. Circulation, metabolism, organs, digestion, all have neat parallels. But can a city think?  Cognitive functions follow a sequence; raw perception, filtering information, identifying threats and desires, imagining alternate actions, speculating on potential outcomes and mobilizing for action. In the age of big data and cloud computing, the city can become conscious in exactly these ways.

Just released, UrbanFootprint is software that mirrors the human cognitive process for cities. Our mental path follows a typical sequence. First, we scan the environment for significant information, rapidly changing events, patterns, and correlations. Through this we are always alert to potential threats, possible pleasures, and secure environments. Perhaps unique to the human brain, we imagine possible futures. Then, if not too impulsive, we assess the impacts and outcomes of the imaged futures. Often, we prioritize the issues and consider their significance to us. If lucky we come to a productive course of action.

In so many ways city design follows the same pattern. First gathering information, then creating alternates that reflect many interest group’s interests, then analyzing the impacts and finally trying to reach consensus for action.

The city can now mimic these stages of cognition using UrbanFootprint. Much like scanning a massive set of perceptions, the software digests huge data sets and filters them for significance and insight. Out of this it highlights a city’s threats, weaknesses, and strengths. Then it helps build scenarios that bracket possible futures. Like our cognitive ability to image a future, these scenarios can be a collaborative effort that integrates many impulses. Once these possible futures are formalized the software analyzes outcomes across a wide range of concerns, just as our thought process can build a ‘pros and cons’ list. In many ways, the software allows the city to become conscious.

 

Big Data as Raw Perception

Just as a collage brings a larger order into focus from fractured pieces, UrbanFootprint allows urban designers to combine, query, and connect data in ways that creates insight and supports solutions.

The city is swimming in data just as the brain is inundated with input from our five senses. And the data it is growing at phenomenal rates. The challenge is to translate this onslaught into useful information. This involves synthesizing what are now isolated streams and distilling the data into useful information. And this information must be translated into shared insights.

Digesting data is an interactive practice that involves much more than downloading bits. It involves layering data in ways that reveal new connections, synergies and causalities – effectively reveling deeper patterns born of isolated data sets.  It involves the ability to edit and layer diverse and complex information in ways that enhance understanding a place and setting directions for the future. It also involves asking the right questions in ways that integrates many dimensions of input.

 

Alternate Plans as Visioning

Scenario planning has been used by the private sector and the military over decades for strategic planning. Scenario planning assumes that we cannot predict the future because of unforeseen events and multiple forces. Instead, it is a methodology that learns by testing different futures from a matrix of probable primary drivers. It brackets the future and reveals strategies that can adapt to differing futures or work with the largest range of outcomes.

UrbanFootprint allows planners to build scenarios and run analysis quickly so that sensitivity studies or public preconceptions can be clarified in real time. It also reveals the potential co-benefits that can enhance new coalitions and political initiatives.

But there is another reason for building urban scenarios – to be inclusive of and to test differing preferences of participants. Each stakeholder and special interest group brings their own ideal future city born of their own priorities. These special interest scenarios tend to be shaped around one preferred outcome rather than multiple advantages. Scenario planning allows all to see their idea affirmed as a potential future, analyzed across differing metrics, and then rationally compared to others. In so doing, scenario planning often reveals co-benefits and new coalitions between historically isolated interests. This is a catalyst for political change that in turn is the foundation of real change.

 

Connecting the Dots Through Analysis

Shaping the future of the city depends on consensus and coalitions; it is essentially a political act. Current practice typically involves elected officials adjudicating the interests of multiple stakeholders; neighborhood groups, developers, unions, environmentalists, and social equity advocates to name a few.  This diverse group of voices often leads to stalemate, delay, and least common denominator outcomes.

Uncovering what we call ‘co-benefits’ can uncover unseen common interests and coalitions. Comprehensive analysis across a full range of metrics can reveal win-win strategies that demonstrate there are choices that do not involve painful trade-offs. Some virtuous development patterns can solve many problems simultaneously, amplifying cost effectiveness and smoothing the political process.

UrbanFootprint can help to find and highlight such co-benefits. Positive social, environmental, and economic outcomes can converge and when they do, political progress is always enhanced.

 

Urban Futures are Humanity’s Future

Designers, planners, developers, and architects are trained to look beyond the boundaries of their project or site. The larger environment, history, culture, and economies shape the urban landscape whether for small sites, neighborhoods, districts, towns or cities. The metropolitan region is now the platform from which cities interact with the globe. As a result, every project must push beyond static jurisdictional boundaries or simple property lines to the regional context. Expanding the domain always leads to more sustainable and powerful schemes. It is essential for planning in the 21st century.

Expanding time frames as well as boundaries also enhances the intrinsic value of design. Short term, local thinking too often dominates the debate around significant developments, infrastructure, and policy initiatives – it is baked into the political process and is hard to overcome. With long term visions, life cycle economics, generational social consequences, and geological environmental impacts can come into focus as a part of our public process.

UrbanFootprint supports expanding horizons by putting local, regional, and national data at the fingertips of all the stakeholders. It allows practitioners to telescope between scales quickly and efficiently. In addition, the software provides a platform for long-term thinking by facilitating scenarios of differing time frames.

Fundamentally, the way we shape cities is a reflection of the kind of humanity we value. Urban planners and designers, together with the support of environmental policymakers, analysts, NGOs and advocates, will need to lead the way in building smart, sustainable communities. If we are to unlock political stalemate and address the urgent need to solve for city resiliency and curtail the impacts of climate change, nothing short of a complete transformation of the current urban planning process and supporting technology will do.

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