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Contemplating the City of the Future

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Since 1995, the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis has studied urban environments as living laboratories to inform city planning and policy. The results have taken on a life of their own.

Contemplating the City of the Future

CASA's 'Smart Gnomes' are part of an Internet of Things (IoT) research project called 'Tales in the Park', in which smart objects are deployed throughout the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to explore visitors’ thoughts and expectations surrounding IoT technology.

Credit: Emma Todd

As urbanisation has accelerated over the past few decades, cities – as dense, diverse, ever-changing clusters of humanity – have become both living laboratories and the source of some of humanity’s greatest problems.

The Bartlett’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) was established in 1995 in response to both these factors. It has since used the urban environment as a site for experimentation, modelling and testing, and leveraged these insights to offer solutions to problems of resource management, planning and policy in cities.

Over the past 24 years, some of its most significant works have been in contemplating the city of the future. Sir Alan Wilson, Professor of Urban and Regional Systems at CASA, chaired a group that produced dozens of essays and reports between 2014 and 2016 for the UK government, covering subjects ranging from water and infrastructure to culture and mobility. Meanwhile, the Urban Dynamics Lab, led by Dean of The Bartlett Alan Penn, is striving to create a stronger base of data and evidence for regional policy-making.

Crowdsourcing was becoming very big around the turn of the millennium and online maps were also beginning to happen – we all soaked up what was happening together.

Professor Mike Batty

Mapping out practical solutions

Then there are the solutions. QUANT, an online platform, takes patterns of population density, employment and travel across the UK, and allows you to run simulations to see how they shift with changes in things like transport infrastructure. The Bike Share Map, developed by Senior Research Associate in the UCL Geography Department Oliver O’Brien, when he was at CASA from 2010–2014, shows docking stations for bike-share systems in more 300 cities around the world.

O’Brien is also a contributor to OpenStreetMap, one of the most significant projects to emerge from The Bartlett stable. OpenStreetMap is a citizen-driven, open-source initiative started by UCL Physics undergraduate Steve Coast who was a systems administrator at CASA and the Space Syntax Laboratory in the early 2000s.

“Steve got involved in what we were doing because he was interested in fractals and so was I,” says CASA Professor Mike Batty. “Crowdsourcing was becoming very big around the turn of the millennium and online maps were also beginning to happen – we all soaked up what was happening together. Steve had all kinds of ideas – he was the classic drop out, leaving to pursue OpenStreetMap, which he evolved during that time, before he finished his degree.”

OpenStreetMap has now been running for 14 years. In a 2014 blog post, Professor of GIScience at UCL Muki Haklay, who was a PHD student at CASA when OpenStreetMap was in its nascent stages, described it as more than a map – it’s also a database of crowd-sourced information and an operating system, for uses and applications that go far beyond navigation.

But more than riding the trajectory of technological development, CASA’s work has sought to be a voice in shaping its impact on our lives and cities.

For example, Tales Of Things and Electronic Memory (TOTEM) was one of the earliest projects to address the Internet of Things, the increasing connection via the world wide web of everything from large-scale urban sensors to devices in the home.

The team behind the project pointed out that, as newer objects become incorporated into the digital world, older ones that have only historic or emotional value may get left out. Working with other universities, it launched a website in 2010 that allows people to share images of their treasured objects, bringing a softer, more human dimension to the rapid changes sweeping the globe.

It has trialled the system at a branch of charity shop Oxfam, and is working with other teams at UCL with a view on deploying it in specific residential developments and in museums via new app Qrator, which allows people to provide their own interpretation of curated collections.

Other initiatives have sprung from the project’s success, including Tales of the Park, for which smart items in such innocuous forms as garden gnomes were scattered across the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London, to ‘guide’ people around the site, testing the boundaries of our comfort with connected objects.

Ultimately, this body of knowledge has fed into CASA and UCL’s work with tech company Intel, with which it has tested smart city technology in Stratford – including software for low-power batteries and methods for processing large amounts of data – in a drive to make sure that smart cities and the social transformations that come with them are as safe and effective as they can possibly be.

The Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis is an interdisciplinary research institute focusing on the science of cities, applying it to city planning, policy and architecture in the pursuit of making our cities better places to live in. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more:

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