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Walking the networks of Denver

Cross-posted at Medium.

Years ago, when I was just moving into the world of urban technology, I stumbled upon the urban “walkshop” format developed by Adam Greenfield and Nurri Kim (refined and expanded by Mayo Nissen). These walking tours were collaborative, lightly-structured investigations of surveillance and communications machinery sprinkled throughout various cities. Though these walkshops pre-dated what some now call the Internet of Things, there was plenty to look at, especially as cameras trained on the public way proliferated.

Sometime later I helped curate the City of Big Data exhibit at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Being primarily a touring organization, CAF staged a few walking explorations of the collection, transport, and effects of data throughout the city. I was not involved in the development of this tour, though the idea of an “architecture” tour that took as its subject the hiding-in-plain sight constellation of objects, poles, wires, sensors, and cameras that shape a city’s daily life was never far from my mind.

And so it was that yesterday I led a tour of about 20 people during the Denver Architecture Foundation’s Doors Open Denver, our city’s annual two-day invitation to explore architecture and spaces normally off-limits to the general public. Called Networks of Denver: Evolution of a Smart City, the tour was obviously an outgrowth of my work with CityFi. Less obvious – at least to the folks who took the tour, I hope – is that I still feel like a newcomer to Denver; my naïveté about how things work here still feels like license to be aggressively curious. So we set out for 75 minutes to find evidence of digital technology in our physical, urban surroundings.

Why do this? Who cares about unseen boxes and invisible wireless fields? The easy answer to the second question is: a surprising number of folks, with varied backgrounds, most of whom had participated in other, more traditional architecture tours during the weekend. (I suspect we could have filled another tour had I offered it twice.)

Back to the why: my sense is that as more and more urban technology crowds onto our streets it has become increasingly difficult to miss. A few years ago you might never have noticed distributed cellular antennas festooning decaying rooftop water tanks, but today the streetscape is cluttered with many more devices much closer to the sidewalk and roadway. Add to that an increasing awareness amongst the general public that technology is changing the way we use cities: red light cameras flash in our faces leaving us to wonder if we’re driving the car it caught; dockless scooters zip us around then lay in ugly piles on curbs; pay-by-cell options mean never having to run out to feed the meter.

This networked machinery shapes our urban lives. Like brick-and-mortar architecture, the shaping is subtle, often unrealized consciously. Maybe we were given more time to transit the crosswalk because an elderly man was slowly crossing opposite us and a pedestrian video analytics system gave him more time to make it. Maybe you don’t want to picnic in the park because you know the LTE connection there is spotty. Maybe an environmental sensor whose video array is pointed straight up at the sky has informed your hyperlocal weather app which advises you to jump on the bus rather than walk because it knows your few blocks are about to get a sunshower.

With the able assistance of Emily Silverman and Mike Finochio from the City and County of Denver, we were able to look at some things truly inaccessible to the public, including the inside of a traffic signal control cabinet and the city’s traffic management command center. The latter was especially interesting since it is the main terminus of the information being generated from many of the technologies we saw in the field. These included, but were not limited to:

  • traffic signal phase and timing controllers
  • signal malfunction monitoring units
  • two different models of vehicle-to-infrastructure radios (DSRC)
  • pan-tilt-zoom traffic cameras
  • parking analytics cameras
  • pedestrian video analytics cameras
  • video and bluetooth-based queue sensors
  • emergency vehicle pre-emption radios
  • crosswalk analytics sensors
  • LTE-enabled parking meters
  • WiFi mesh public safety surveillance cameras (“HALO”)
  • pavement boxes (electric + fiber)
  • distributed antenna systems for cellular (LTE)
  • ambient light sensors on street lights
  • public electric, dockless scooters
  • public docked and dockless bikes
  • surveillance cameras on private property

Our discussion of the potential ways that augmented reality could affect the urban realm, for good and for ill, was greatly aided by a five-year-old art/information installation along 14th Street, one of the main corridors we explored. Called the 14th Street Overlay this project has installed antique-looking optical instruments and QR code-enabled placards along the street that attempt to superimpose historical images in situ. How will we behave on sidewalks when we can call up these images on our own devices registered and overlain seemlessly on the physical world? How will that change our sense of place?

We ended our tour looking at two newer and larger installations: a Verizon 5G pole and an information (er, “transit amenity”) kiosk. The thick, towering 5G pole and the number of them required by Verizon and their competitors to blanket the city have lately been a source of some public concern. There was much discussion about the city’s role in making sure such infrastructure blends in to the built environment, either by combining their radios into existing street furniture or requiring that multiple carriers share a common host.

The kiosk was a bit of a disappointment as it is clearly a giant piece of outdoor advertising first, “amenity” second. The public transit information offered is static (i.e., a schedule rather than real-time tracking) and non-interactive. And yet the unit takes up an enormous amount of space on the sidewalk. Apparently most of the inside of the monolith is empty. Most agreed this was a wasted opportunity to do something truly useful in our public way.

I consider the day a success, as I do the version of the tour I gave to my CU grad student class the evening before. Many of the topics that our exploration prompted were about issues of public versus private control and data (observability versus surveillance), how such instrumented intersections could lead to a real-time urban design, ethical concerns about what happens during the transition phase from unconnected to connected vehicles (“is it wrong to provide information to a subset of motorists?”), and how far the city should go to help the private sector test their wares.

This was only the beginning of the conversation. It’s difficult to unsee all this machinery once you know where it is and what it does. I encourage you to go exploring in your city.

If you’re interested in diving deeper into the world of rarely-noticed technologies that shape our cities, I recommend exploring the work of
Ingrid Burrington, Dan Hill, and, Shannon Mattern (including of course Greenfield and Nissen, linked above).     

Our state-spanning urban skyline is not made of steel and glass

Cross-posted at Medium.

CityFi partners John Tolva and Story Bellows frequently find themselves on the frontier of urban change. Their facilitation of major projects often convenes public-private stakeholders, utilizes new models of technology and innovation, and drives policy development, all with the goal of making our cities more livable, vibrant and economically competitive. Currently, this mission extends itself to the western frontier of Colorado. These days, the booming Denver-metropolitan region has largely kicked its historical image as that of a dusty cow town; in fact, two of CityFi’s major Colorado-based projects illustrate the innovative, multi-sector and often regional collaborative momentum this state has built toward creating sustainable, positive change for its diverse communities.

The history of CityFi coincides with the beginning of its relationship with the Denver South Economic Development Partnership (Denver South EDP); it was the project to develop a blueprint for turning the Denver South region — a conglomeration of several small cities driven by its economic hub in the Denver Technological Center — into a 21st Century Innovation District, which was the firm’s first. The Blueprint is a critical component to retrofitting this region — a major economic driver for the state, contributing nearly 20 percent of the state’s economic output — so as to keep pace with the urban changes that Denver is undergoing. Denver South is primarily centered around the major artery of Interstate 25, which runs north-south into the heart of downtown Denver. A new study recently projected that in the next ten years, 70,000 additional people would be coming to the region each day to work, highlighting the critical nature and urgency of determining how infrastructure, local culture and the built environment could be transformed to meet these needs in coming years.

As a result, “the blueprint reinvents the approach to making an effective and attractive suburban landscape by providing a guide for city officials and developers as to how to integrate new technology solutions, approaches to policy and governance, improved land use and cultural change,” Bellows said.

For Denver South EDP, this shift is important to maintaining business vitality in the area, as without addressing these barriers, the region risks losing business to other parts of the city, or even other states. The blueprint also leverages one of the most significant investments made in Denver South in recent decades, that of RTD’s transit infrastructure, including a light rail system, which stretches as far southeast as the City of Lone Tree. CityFi wants to better integrate this asset into the built environment to improve Denver South as a place that can accommodate increased people and their desire to live, work and play within proximity.

CityFi sees the challenge of Denver South as also its greatest opportunity. While Denver South may not have the caché or national intrigue of Denver’s downtown core, CityFi recognizes its fundamental importance as part of Denver’s economic engine, and believes formulating its successful future can inform the efforts of other cities also recognizing the benefit of retrofitting aspects of suburbia to accommodate population growth, mobility patterns and new models of the workplace. In short, CityFi sees opportunity to improve development, asset use, business decision-making and policy in Denver South to not only make the region sustainable, but also to improve the quality of life for those that live and/or work in the area. “Citizens everywhere — not just those in the densest, most active parts of a city — deserve the chance to feel truly invested in and love where they live,” Tolva said.

One of Colorado’s particular strengths, including within the Denver South region, is its propensity toward multi-sector and multi-jurisdictional collaboration. This unique asset is significant when considering the scope of retrofitting suburban regions for the future. Rather than decisions made in siloed vacuums, urban change leaders — from city officials and developers, to business leaders and citizens — can collectively work to shape the development of our cities. “Not only does this approach build capacity, it allows problems to be comprehensively addressed so that the resiliency to weather change is strengthened,” Bellows said. This collaborative approach will help to overcome Denver South’s challenges, including defying the misperception that growth and density leads to a lower quality of life for its citizens. Rather, CityFi seeks to reframe this by educating on how population growth and changes to the built environment will actually provide, not take away from, increased choice and connectivity. CityFi and Denver South EDP believe this will become evident as the blueprint is incorporated into future planning practices, and holds the potential to become a national model for how to approach suburban retrofit that accommodate the needs of both old and new residents and workforce.

CityFi’s other major project with Denver South EDP is the ongoing creation of the Colorado Smart Cities Alliance, which capitalizes on CityFi principles of using innovation and technology to solve the complex urban challenges our cities face. The Alliance — while still nimble and in its early stages — serves as an incubator for Smart City pilot projects, living civic labs, resource and best-practice sharing, and multi-sector and jurisdiction engagement around city challenges that cannot necessarily be addressed through traditional government or private sector avenues.

What is most unique about the Alliance, and what is also evident in the Denver South Blueprint, is the additional leverage that regional collaboration and problem-solving bring to the table. While the Alliance originally began under the auspice of Denver South EDP and the cities it represents, it was quickly realized that this effort would increase in value and return on investment for Colorado citizens if it became a statewide project in which all major cities were engaged. While Colorado cities vary greatly — from small mountain towns, to the Western Slope, to the major cities of the I-25 corridor along the Front Range — what is evident is that each of these cities are facing challenges while adapting to rapidly-changing environments, whether urban, rural or suburban.

As the Alliance unfolds, it will have two main roles: first, to solve city problems where solutions do not currently exist through traditional procurement channels; in essence, as Tolva says, “to loosen the innovation throttle inside of cities, and reduce the risk associated with implementing innovation in government structures.” The other main objective will be for cities to be able to capitalize on the economic development opportunities that arise from the resulting multi-city, cross-sector collaboration. As the Alliance incorporates private sector partners, there is a reciprocal return on investment in being able to test new technologies across a variety of city landscapes to understand the true costs and benefits of their application. CityFi’s role is critical in managing the balance between these public and private participants, while recognizing that both parties are necessary to shape the direction of Smart City solutions and provide a pathway for two-way learning.

As is core to its mission, CityFi advises widening the proverbial doors of the Alliance to involve these cities’ citizens in the process. “Too often in Smart City conversations, there are no citizens present. It’s on us to frame the discovery of city challenges in terms of those they affect — business owners, citizens and workforce. That is ultimately the defining philosophy of CityFi,” Tolva said. “Skepticism about Smart City initiatives arises because they are not centered around the citizen experience.”

CityFi’s excitement around its work with the Alliance is palatable; Bellows and Tolva both acknowledge that while many cities have attempted to pull off a similar structure alone, the Alliance is a national trailblazer in terms of conducting these efforts on a regional or state level. In that spirit, Tolva said, “we are less interested in the jurisdictional boundaries than we are in the experience of these places.”

CityFi’s presence in Colorado continues to grow, and is currently working with Denver Mobility Choice, the City of Aspen, and Panasonic on new urban change projects. The Colorado-based CityFi team has also doubled in the past month with the hiring of a new associate. Look for more updates about CityFi’s Colorado projects in upcoming months.