Technology alone is not enough: what we can learn from the traffic light
Traffic lights constitute one of the symbols of the contemporary city, as a technology that regulates traffic flows and mobility in cities. It is a materialization of the car-based city we built in the last century, an object that reminds us, in almost every intersection and road, how our cities were thought, planned, designed and built following a dominant vision linked to the car-centric dominant utopia. and responds to a conception of the city based on the private car.
As such, we could apparently think of traffic lights as neutral artifacts. An electrical device that started to colonize cities in the early decades of the twentieth century once the car started to dominate the urban landscape and shift so many things in urban life. It is easy to imagine (if, not, you have a photo below depicting the deplyment of one of the first traffic lights in London in 1931) how people gathered to contemplate the marvels of that odd, magical, object that promised to automatically discriminate the right of passage and, ultimately, transform the balance of transportation modes for the next decades. Automation and control were conveniently adhered to its technological specifications to regulate traffic with the most advanced technologies at the time. Does it sound familiar? I am quiete sure there is no such an expectation today when smart lightning systems, sensor networks, EV charging stations,...are inauguration, nor the breakthrough feeling people could experience when these traffic lights first appeared.
Its three-color light, its electric system, its metal structure, its bulbs,…it looks like a perfect technology fix to solve an urban problem, a formal and material fix in which technology makes its case as a neutral answer.
However, in its conception and its subsequent developments, the traffic light embodied a number of non-technological variables in the equation, actually those that have had a fundamental importance in our lives. A conscious decision to grant the right of passage to drivers (expressed by the push button dedicated to walking people). From its early versions, some design decisions were implicitly embedded and promoted subtle but profound consequences in terms of social thinking on how to physically design our cities as car-centred places.
Imagine how cities would have evolved cities only if we had thought mobility in other terms (in which priority is only a tiny and anecdotal example in the long chain of important decisions that were taken around cars). Cars brought welfare and obvious positive effects, but also negative consequences we could only be aware of decades later: an unsustainable pattern of land consumption, fragmentation of communities, the disappearance of social life in public spaces, climate change related emissions and a number of other negative implications today we are trying hard to overcome.
“A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam”, Frederik Pohl once said. We were so good at imagining the car, a car society (and its traffic lights) and we equipped our cities with technologies that materialized the visions that depicted a future in which the triumphant technology at that time would conquer cities. But we were so obtuse at imagining what could it go wrong.
Picture source: Dhiru Thadani (author)
The technical equipment of urban systems is not a purely a technological issue and the design of its products, services, or infrastructure devices is far from being neutral. Technologies, when they turn into material fixes, respond to a certain thinking and are capable of coding social life, personal behaviours, urban form, governance models, institutional frameworks,…
In every app or service we add to our daily routines there is, more or less implicitly a set of design decisions not directly associated with the pure technical solution or specification. These designs are actually the result of the social context in which technological innovation is developed, where regulation, economy, social structure, power relations ... are critical elements in understanding technology development and it takes shape in the world. Tech does not arise neutrally in a laboratory or in a garage. Now that we are building our cities under the influence of the smart city utopia, we´d better take enough time to unveil how smart technologies are being designed and what implicit and explicit ideas are condensed in plans, devices, interfaces, specifications, ... before it's too late and we have to face the "traffic jams" we were able to foresee (loss of privacy, technological centralization, democratic risks, technological dependence, excessive control, etc,).