Thursday, 23 June 2011

Book - Sentient City - the Intelligent Urban Environment


In a new book Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space Mark Shepard presents a discussion on the current state of the art of ubiquitous computing showcasing a range of five projects together with a series of essays around the topic of the sentient city in the sense of a responsive and 'intelligent' city. It is published by MIT Press with the Architectural League of New York.

The book grew out of an exhibition 'Towards the Sentient City' presenting a whole range of investigative projects. This was supported by the Architectural League New York. For the exhibition the curator Gregory Wessner summarised the aims as: "For many, it is a leap of the imagination to think that a microprocessor the size of your fingertip, or the mobile phone in your pocket, can meaningfully affect the shape of the room you’re sitting in, let alone a city’s skyline. At a moment when new digital technologies seem to be dematerializing more and more of the world around us (think books, CDs, photographs), what impact can they possibly have on the insistent materiality of buildings and cities?"

The book offers a range of five case studies which each have a specific focus and of course essentially build on concepts of pervasive technologies. They are:
Amphibious Architecture by the Living with Natalie Jeremijenko on visualising water quality.

Natural Fuse Haque Design+Research
Image taken from SentientCity / Project Natural Fuse - Experiment with wilting plants by intermittent/PWM water delivery.

Natural Fuse by Haque Design+Research on sourcing plants for energy. The plant in this project acts as a sort of distributor to encourage energy sharing. Energy is distributed through the plant, but only if consumers share it nicely the plant is happy and can grow letting the consumers use more energy. If they don't share the energy use kills the plant and consumers can use less energy.

'Trash Track' by the MIT on tracking trash's end-of-life journey. Using smart tags the team tracked the route of trash, from the point of deployment, a bin presumably, all the way though the cities waste management system. This is how it works: "TrashTrack uses hundreds of small, smart, location aware tags: a first step towards the deployment of smart-dust – networks of tiny locatable and addressable microeletromechanical systems. These tags are attached to different types of trash so that these items can be followed through the city’s waste management system, revealing the final journey of our everyday objects in a series of real time visualizations."

Trash Track by the MIT
Image taken from spatiallyrelevant / A track of a plastic bottle in New York City through the City's waste management system.

'Too Smart City' by Davis Jimison and Joo Yoon Paek on 'intelligent' street furniture. The street furniture is equipped with a lot of technology and robotics and set to augment the context they are acting within. They are however, programmed to surprise and interrupt and with it chalenge our expectation of what furniture should be doing. They have for example developed a bench that can trow people of or a sign that changes direction.

'Breakout!' by Anthony Townsend on the city as office. They are injecting light wight structures into the urban realm providing essential working infrastructure and with this allowing for impromptu meet-ups through social networking software.

In the second part of the book the topics around the sentient city are explored in a series of 10 essays. There is a very interesting group of people contributing with for example Saskia Sassen and Kazys Varnelis who wrote the Infrastructural City book.

The discussion around the role of ubiquitous computing in urban design and the present of a possibly sentient environment is definitely something that is going to influence the debate on cities and urban environments for the next years. This book picks up from where it experimenting stands today and leads thoughts towards how this could be substantially integrated in future practice of urban design.

Trash Track by the MIT
Image taken from archleague / Book cover showing the heat sensitivity of the colour used.


Shepard, M., 2011. Sentient City: Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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