Helping robots find their way in the city

Many approaches to developing cities as automated environments, whether this be for robotics, for augmented reality or ubiquitous computing tend to take as their premise the addition of items, generally computing devices, to the environment. Thus, for example, RFID chips can be embedded in buildings and objects which could (and indeed in some cases, already do) communicate with each other and with mobile devices to form networks to enable all kinds of location-based services, mobile commerce and of course, surveillance.

But for robots in the city, such a complex network of communication is not strictly necessary. Cities already contain many relatively stable points by which such artificial entities can orient themselves, however not all of them are obvious. One recent Japanese paper, mentioned in Boing Boing, advocates the use of manhole covers, which tend to be static, metallic, quite distinctive and relatively long-lasting – all useful qualities in establishing location. The shape of manhole covers could be recorded and used as location-finding data with no need for embedded chips and the like.

It isn’t mentioned in the article, but I wonder whether such data could also be used for other inhabitants of the city with limited sensory capabilities: impaired humans? Could one equip people with devices that read the same data and use this to help sensorially-impaired people to navigate the city more effectively? On the less positive side, I also wonder whether such data would prove to be highly desirable information for use in urban warfare…

Rio favelas hit by flooding

One of the things I noted this time last year when I visited Rio de Janeiro was the perilous situation of the poorest areas of informal housing, the favelas or morros when it comes to flooding and landslides. Just in the last 24 hours, huge amounts of rain has caused land and debris slides that have killed around 100 in the state according to the BBC, and in particular 13 people have been killed in Morro dos Prazeres, a favela I visited with my colleague Paola, according to The Guardian*. The centre of the city is deep in water. My thoughts are with all the people I met last year in Rio, and all the communities affected by this disaster.

The City as Battlesuit

A really stimulating article by Matt Jones over at Future Metro, my new favourite site, which I have only just discovered thanks to David Barnard-Wills. This manages to combine several of my interests: urban futures, surveillance, security, ubicomp, SF and comics, into one tasty package – I’ll have to check out Matt’s own blog too.

Kabukicho Renaissance?

Kabukicho is a place that is hard to love. A seedy, crime-infested dive full of ‘massage parlours’, ‘aesthetic salons’, ‘image bars’ and other thinly-disguised forms of brothel. Tokyo has had red-light disticts since the Edo period, of course, and the Yoshiwara was only the most famous. Shinjuku was always one of them, and since the failure of the threatre initiative that gave the neighbourhood its name, Kabukicho has been the best known. Kabukicho is interesting though for many reasons. It had a radical political and cultural history in the 60s and 70s. It was the epicentre of changes that occurred in organised crime in the 80s and 90s, with Chinese gangs replacing the Yakuza as the biggest ‘threat’. And it is now the centre of efforts by the Shinjuku authorities to clean up its image, with the Kabukicho Renaissance policy, and the new Town Manager, and by Tokyo police to crack down on illegal immigration.

Planning and protest in central Tokyo

Tokyo is a constantly changing stew of styles and forms, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is just ‘organic’ change. The capital of Japan is a playground for capital, local and global, and there isn’t much in the way of planning law or practice to stop the developers doing exactly what they want. It’s worth reading Andre Sorensen’s The Making of Urban Japan for a good account in English of why this is.

Inasmuch as the traditional morphology of machi (neighbourhoods) survive, it is largely due to either the unfashionable character of the area putting off developers, temporary lulls in the property market, or the sheer stubbornness of residents in refusing to being intimidated into selling land or putting up with the serial replication of blocks of manshon (typical 5+ storey apartment complexes). Strong property rights and small traditional plots do at least mean that it is more difficult to put together the land in what is called tochi kukaku seiri (land readjusment) to make really large developments which, as a result, tends to be restricted to whole sites that come on the market through things like the privatisation of Japan Railways (although some private developers like Mori Building Co. have managed private massive land readjustment projects like Roppongi Hills that I have researched on previous visits).

Of course the building regulations that do exist tend to favour development too, as they regard any old building as inherently unsafe (because of susceptibility to fire and earthquake) and it is thus very difficult, for example, to get traditional wooden houses repaired let alone new ones built. In addition, since the Edo period regulations have sought to open fire-breaks in the urban structure and increase the width of roads and alleyways – and again, the traditional and wonderfully characterful narrow roji (lanes) are very difficult to maintain as any new building has to be set back to newer road standards. This in turn tends to make the backstreets more accessible to faster-moving traffic and thus gradually dehuamanize and desocialize these places.

So communities have a lot to contend with and, despite the 196os environmental movements and machizukuri (community development) and the 1980s craze for ‘amenity’ (which included the promulgation of a ‘sunlight ordinance’ that was supposed to stop the construction of taller buildings that would block out the sun from neighbouring plots), the developers continue to try to squeeze in unwanted and inappropriately massive structures wherever they can.

We came across this small example of a local neighbourhood campaign to stop a new manshon being built at the edge of the historic (but much damaged) Yanaka district. It might not loo very exciting but you add these developments up all over the city and it goes a long way to explaining why Tokyo is gradually losing the remaining historic and social character that makes it a surprisingly human place to live, despite its size…