Six Notes for Smart City Futures Note 4: HERITAGE

How does the Smart City attend to its cultural heritage? There is often a perceived tension between technology and culture, more prominent in conservative societies, a cultural sense of technology as somehow antithetical to our cultural traditions and ways of doing things. Mobile phones destroy gender norms. Mechanizations replace traditional craftsmanship, threaten old livelihoods. Screen time interferes with family time. The very celebrated "disruptive" nature of technology stands to disrupt the things we hold dear, rightly or not.

The advent of the smart city as an idea and a set of practices that can set so much straight in our urban landscapes means that it's time to foster a reconciliation. That our heritage needs to be conserved and protected within any given smart city framework is non-negotiable. A really smart smart city needs an appreciation of its pasts even as it drives toward utopian futures.

We define “heritage” here as our monuments, museums, artworks, libraries, archives, music, theater, cultural icons, its local cuisines, the unique features of our geo-cultural landscape, and all the other artifacts or experiences that give a city its historical character and unique, irreplaceable feel. “Heritage” so-defined is often a source of economic sustenance in addition to being a source of cultural identity and well-being. Heritage is about developing our many, diverse, and even contested narratives, preserving the landmarks that give us a spatial sense of ourselves, intertwining our sacred and our secular geographies, and making sure the pasts that matter continue to extend into the stories of our future. The only question left is: how can technology and data help us to get there?

We can simply use tech tools to help people find their way to what matters…

Here is a Sardinian initiative to integrate different data (about food, wine, monuments, routes etc.) based on inputs from local residents, generating “smart paths.”

But 'smart heritage' calls for more actively building relationships with our pasts.

Unsplash, Zhang Dayong

The concept of “smart cultural heritage,” according to Italian researchers, is all about digitally connecting institutions, visitors, and objects in dialogue. Traditional models of heritage dissemination are didactic: experts convey information to people. “Smart” heritage means adopting more participatory and collaborative approaches, making cultural data freely available (open), and thereby increasing the opportunities for interpretation, content curation, and experimentation.

Not only would it mean unprecedented access to cultural artefacts and experiences across distances, we would also not be passive recipients any longer.

We've had cultural big data for a long time—in our libraries, archives, and museums…

Unsplash, Mika Ruusunen

Google books, Google’s Art Project, the Europeana Collections, the GLAM project by Wikimedia Commons (to which museums including the MoMA, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Fundació Joan Miró and the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada contribute), and several independent museums have paved the way to open dissemination of content.

Such initiatives not only increase accessibility, but invite new interactions and participation. Many museums actively encourage photo-taking, publishing user-generated content into their social media feeds. MuseumWeek gathers 800 institutions from 40 countries together with their audiences in a massive outreach and bid for greater public participation and content generation – for example, via an app called Periscope.

But digitizing our existing archives and collections does not only mean providing electronic access. It means changing the way we organize, sift, search, discover, and read.

Wikimedia Commons

Digitizing documents turns heritage institutions (libraries, museums) into big data repositories dealing simultaneously with access and preservation. But just facilitating access is no longer enough.

Digitizing material means creating data, which contains inherent information that we need new tools to analyze. We need new methods of discovery and sense-making.

Peter Leonard, Librarian for Digital Humanities Research at Yale University, suggests two types of sense-making strategies for large digitized collections:

1. Looking for something you think is there: using open-source tools like Bookworm to "ingest," process, and graph volumes of information based on keywords input or search strings. The trouble: you'd need to have an inkling of what is there to start searching for it.

2. Letting the data organize itself: using “topic modeling” – or algorithms which uncover latent themes in document collections, promising to do “something on the edge of witchcraft.” The logic is simple: “You shall know a word by the company it keeps”; “a topic is an extremely powerful tool that can capture a shifting discourse over time, even when individual terms come and go.”

Sweden-based Streaming Heritage works with audio files to make heritage accessible: “The core of the project thus involves tracking and monitoring music files - a kind of ethnographic observation of their distributive life.”

Music in the digital age undergoes a transformation: from being a static artifact, to a dynamically active file with inherent information about broadband infrastructure, file distribution and aggregation, user practices, click frequency, social playlists, sharing and repetition.

We can gather data in established ways: we can let the walls talk.

Telefónica's Medieval Wall of Ávila installation, for instance, a key asset of Spanish Heritage, monitors the humidity levels of the wall and tracks possible mortar degradation that enable both routine care and conservation work.

We can look to new sources of complex data.

Today's archaeologists are equipped with digital tools which produce volumes of new data files: including laser scans, high-definition photos and videos, aerial drone footage, array photographs, and detailed climate measurements.

"What happens to all of these field projects? Where do the data reside? And how do we share big cultural heritage data?" asks Thomas Levy, anthropology Professor at UC San Diego and director of the Center for Cyber-Archaeology and Sustainability at the Qualcomm Institute.

There are not yet Open Data platforms and methods for storing, sharing, and analyzing metadata produced by cultural reconnaissance researchers. But the possibilities for their use are already fascinating. 

Digital data allows us to reconstruct lost worlds. Histories become virtual realities.

Unsplash, Toa Heftiba

The destruction of world cultural heritage monuments like the 6th century Bamiyan Buddhas or the Mosul museum have provided impetus to researchers to tackle preservation and conservation in entirely new ways.

Digital information collected by two Chinese researchers made it possible for the Buddhas to be resurrected as a 3D light laser projection.

Digital data could also facilitate future restoration work at existing but unstable sites like Petra in Jordan, or help visitors see how these sites might have looked in the past. 

The crowd is an invaluable source of new data aiding in reconstructions

The destruction of the Mosul museum, which housed many important Assyrian sculptures, lead to the formation of Project Mosul—later renamed as Rekrei. This is a cross-disciplinary, open source initiative which integrates archaeology, web development, and photogrammetry to promote the digital preservation of lost cultural heritage. Photogrammetry is a method of feeding multiple images of an object, taken from different angles, into a software that combines them to form a three-dimensional model. Thousands of photographs were uploaded to the Project by local residents, tourists, and American soldiers deployed in the region during the Iraq war—producing the RecoVR Mosul: a collective reconstruction.

Other Virtual Reconstructions are also on-going

Kathmandu before and after the 2015 earthquake: 3D model created by nFrames from drone images. 

The Zamani Project from the University of Cape Town has spent the last 12 years documenting Africa's most important cultural and heritage buildings, sites and landscapes, and creating visualizations as well as an open data repository.

Smart heritage does not only make heritage accessible. It stands to transform our relationship to it.

Unsplash, Mladen Milinovic

1. It does not dwell on nostalgia;

2. It displaces the norms of tourist consumption with collaborative production; and

3. It creates bridges between physical and virtual realities.

The digitization of the world's literary, musical, and cultural heritage has begun to provide unprecedented access to materials with layers of metadata tacked on to each. This access is the starting point for the development of more interpretive sense-making tools and participatory interactions which turn people from touristic consumers to collaborative content producers. Likewise, smart heritage decenters easy nostalgia—or the sense of the past being only or mainly past. With virtual realities either augmenting or at times standing proxy for physical monuments, too, people can experience heritage more intimately, and feel it as their own. Produced in this manner, heritage becomes less exclusively local and more global in its reach, its production, and its ownership. 

Unsplash, Michael D Beckwith

To draw out the contours of what the "smart city" is and could yet become, we offer six core notes by which the "expressive, cognitive, and imaginative possibilities" of the city in the age of data may be realized—six promises to guide the way to improved urban futures:

· Introduction
· Connectivity
· Inclusivity
· Responsivity
· Heritage
· Mobility
· Sustainability

Subsequent notes will be released in serialized form throughout November 2016. We invite you to join us in our quest to re-imagine the city and our shared urban futures through the data we collect.

Have an example or an idea of how data can be used to address urban dilemmas and build brighter urban futures? Share it with us on our UX Trendspotting page.

Report authors: Deepa S Reddy, Anand Vijayan, and Tushar Jain, for the Institute for Customer Experience at Human Factors International