Portugal plans ‘smart’ eco-city

Paul Raven @ 12-10-2010

OK, so ‘smart’ is a persistently misused word in the modern context (my smartphone isn’t smart; damn thing can’t hold a decent conversation for more than a minute or two), but nonetheless: the northern end of Portugal will, if all goes to plan, play host to a designed and networked ecological city, wired to the gills with sensors and systems to control the consumption of energy and water. Unsurprisingly (and in keeping with the general trends in ecological product marketing) it has a stupid smug pun of a name:

Like other sustainable cities, PlanIT Valley will treat its own water and tap renewable energy. Buildings will also have plant-covered roofs, which will reduce local temperature through evapotranspiration, as well as absorbing rainwater and pollutants.

Yet that is where the similarities with other eco-cities end, according to its makers Living PlanIT based in Paredes. For a start, PlanIT Valley will be built closer to existing transport links than the likes of Masdar. More significantly, its “brain” will use data collected from a network of sensors akin to a nervous system to control the city’s power generation, water and waste treatment (see “Brains and nervous system”). It’s a kind of “urban metabolism”, says Steven Lewis, chief executive of Living PlanIT.

While this network of sensors sounds expensive, the cost of installing it will be offset by using more efficient building techniques.

Rather more utopian and blue-sky than the Cisco city-in-a-box, then, which – one presumes – focusses more closely on the infrastructural bang for the buck required in the rowing economies of Asia than on touchy-feely eco-gubbins; one suspects some sort of mid-point between the two might be an ideal worth aiming for.

While PlanIT Valley is obviously a well-meaning project, the designed city doesn’t have a wonderful history of successes, at least not here in the UK; anyone who has ever visited Milton Keynes will know what I’m trying to say here. As pointed out in the article above, it’s all very well to build a technological marvel of an urban space, but all bets are off until people move in and actually start building a community there… and as even the most casual student of utopias will be aware, it’s usually the people that cause the problems rather than the buildings that house them.

[ Why, yes, I am feeling rather pessimistic today – how did you guess? ]


The Galactic Area Network

Paul Raven @ 29-06-2010

The wonderfully named John Learned of the University of Hawaii theorises that alien intelligences could use Cepheid variable stars as nodes on a sort of intragalactic communications network [via @spacearcheology, who retweeted @swadeshine]:

Jolting the star with a kick of energy – possibly by shooting it with a beam of high-energy particles called neutrinos – could advance the pulsation by causing its core to heat up and expand, they say.

That could shorten its brightness cycle – just as an electric stimulus to a human heart at the right time can advance a heartbeat. The normal and shortened cycles could be used to encode binary “0”s and “1”s.

The team says information could thus be shuttled around our galaxy’s network of 500 or so Cepheids – and out as far as the Virgo cluster of galaxies.

Because a civilisation capable of such engineering feats would be sure to turn them to the task of… er, using stars as Morse keys. This guy has made exactly the mistake that Sam Vaknin was on about.


Cisco’s City-in-a-Box for the Asian expansion

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2010

Most urban environments have accreted gradually over decades and centuries, but the changing economies of the Far East demand modern city infrastructure for millions of people where none existed before, and fast. Enter Cisco Systems, the network hardware people, and their new ‘product’: an off-the-shelf city suitable for a million fully-wired inhabitants [via @BLDGBLOG].

Delegations of Chinese government officials looking to purchase their own cities of the future are descending on New Songdo City, a soon-to-be-completed metropolis about the size of downtown Boston that serves as a showroom model for what is expected to be the first of many assembly-line cities. In addition to state-of-the-art information technology, Songdo will emit just one-third of the greenhouse gases of a typical city of similar size.

[…]

It’s easy to see why Cisco is intoxicated with the possibilities: According to a study by investment bank CIBC World Markets, governments are expected to spend $35 trillion in public works projects during the next 20 years. In Songdo alone, Cisco sold 20,000 units of its advanced video conferencing system called Telepresence – a billion-dollar order – almost before the ink had dried on the contract, said developer Stan Gale, the chief visionary of the project.

“Everything will be connected – buildings, cars, energy – everything,” said Wim Elfrink, Cisco’s Bangalore-based chief globalization officer. “This is the tipping point. When we start building cities with technology in the infrastructure, it’s beyond my imagination what that will enable.”

Environmental efficiency and digital infrastructure can only be good things to include in a from-scratch city, but one can’t help but wonder if these places will suffer from the same coldness and lack of character that Brutalist urban planning scattered across Europe in the post-war years. The designed environment is an old, old concept in architecture, but it’s one that has never really delivered on its utopian promises.

But given the migrant magnetism of urban areas in Asia (and the Global South, as well, where Cisco’s cities may well find another place to call home), we can expect a rapid accretion of undesigned and emergent occupation and use to crop up in the interstices, in the spaces in between. How long will that take? How successfully will the designed city (and its ecosystem of law enforcement and local government) resist (or embrace) such end-user hacking? Lots of fresh data for psychogeographers coming down the pipeline…


Joe Robot vs. the Volcano: the spiderbots of Mount St Helens

Paul Raven @ 12-08-2009

Mount St Helens shrouded in cloudIn order to keep a close eye on Mount St. Helens, the NASA JPL people have built and deployed a bunch of networked “spiderbots” which negotiate a peer-to-peer network between each other in order to pass data back to base.

Fifteen spiderbots, so-named because of the three spindly arms protruding from their suitcase-sized steel bodies, were lowered from a helicopter to spots inside the crater and around the rim of Mount St Helens, an active volcano in the US state of Washington, in July.

Each has a seismometer for detecting earthquakes, an infrared sensor to detect heat from volcanic explosions, a sensor to detect ash clouds, and a global positioning system to sense the ground bulging and pinpoint the exact location of seismic activity.

Once in place, the bots reached out to each other to form what is known as a mesh network. “It’s similar to the internet,” says Steve Chien, the principal scientist for autonomous systems at JPL. “You just lay them out, and they figure out the best way to route the data.”

Smart idea: install a remote monitoring system and instruct it to drop you a line with any problems… up to and including any problems with the system itself as well as the volcano, one assumes.

Obviously the expense means that this sort of system is currently only of use in high-risk and high-budget applications, but it’s no great mental stretch – given the rapid advances of networking technology – to imagine entire states or countries blanketed with similar monitoring frameworks.

Then make the data public, bolt on an API and distribute something like the SETI@home software, and everyone with some spare processor cycles can help keep an eye on geological instabilities. Similar systems (or perhaps even the same devices) could be used to provide communications infrastructure in the aftermath of a disaster, too. [image by christmaswithak]