Solving particular problem (P) may generate side effects where there was no-problem (NP) before. Pic.: Author, excerpted from the book chapter “Mobility Oriented Development (MOD)…” https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-49899-7_12

Side effects of emerging technologies in urban structures

We need to be aware that new technical and organisational solutions created to solve particular problems may generate side effects which could emerge during technological diffusion.

The quality of the public space results from the overall spiritual and material achievements inherited from the past generations, and worked out today. Cultural heritage includes, for example: works of art, material goods and methods of their manufacturing. The public spaces are unbreakably linked to the technological legacy and achievements of communities that inhabit them. Public space has evolved over the centuries (with its positive and negative sides) depending on the development and collapse of many cultures: Ancient times developed, among others, technologies affecting hygiene, and in consequence the health of urban residents (aqueducts carrying fresh water for the public watering places, public baths, public toilets with discharge of sewage from the city).

In this regard, the Middle Ages was a setback (but thanks to the advanced craftsmanship contractors created great public structures like Gothic churches and cathedrals, where people prayed for cures for diseases and an end to epidemics harassing human kind); In the nineteenth century diseases have been associated with the generally prevailing stench in the cities, and so the construction of modern sewage systems began. It was as late as 1854 in Soho, London when doctor John Snow proved that diseases may be transmitted by water, and sewage pouring near water intakes is the cause of contamination. After a thousand years the great return to investing in technologies that provide clean water and dispose of waste water began. The problem was moved outside of the city — to the riversides.

Contemporary public spaces in the cities of the so-called Western civilization are also not without faults. Although the risk of water-borne diseases is limited to a minimum, new risks appeared, including air emissions of toxins, heavy metals, and dusts. According to the upcycle theory the only way out of this situation seems to be the production of things, their use and further processing completely without emissions.

The great difference between the old and the new public space is the way in which modern humans (do not) interact with one another, and how and where they move. Before the invention of the clock time did not rule people — they worked on one task, then moved to another. The transition from the natural time (seasons, days, work rhythm) to artificial time (days of the week, hours) is one of the reasons why we do not live today in a sustainable manner. Already in 1881 George Beard introduced the concept of neurasthenia — describing psychological problems caused by the increasing pace of life attributed to, among others, the telegraph, the railway, and the invention of steam power. The above examples indicate that the inventions designed to make life easier may complicate it.

Another reason is the fact that nowadays life in the public space is ruled by money. The free market economy, globalisation, and connected to that neo-liberal capitalism, mobility and individualisation of the social life destroyed traditional public space. The walls of the public space, which are facades of buildings, fences and temporary structures, belong to the owners of plots adjacent to this space. Adam Smith believed that man:

„by pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it” [sic!]

Smith’s innovative thought that people should manage their wealth without limits because by nature they have a rational approach seems to be controversial. What he called the invisible hand of the market had taken away a sense of community in the public space.

Nevertheless, it cannot be said that a better alternative to the capitalist system was the totalitarian system, which arbitrarily coerced social attitudes [sic!] and centrally controlled the market. It follows that decisions on investments in and around public space should not be left entirely in the hands of either: the private capital or the top-down control. Therefore, spatial development needs strong governance at the local, municipal level.

Urban design is multidisciplinary and its results typically become visible after decades but conditions are changing on a regular basis. Modern cities develop too quickly to use only conventional methods for their planning. In order to speed up work and adapt it to the constant changes should it be supported by the processing power of computers? In this case, the role of an urban designer is to enter input data for the calculations and select one of many generated output possibilities. Computers can change plans not only during the design process, but also in real time, with the changing conditions. Yet, it would not radically speed up the process of urban development — the real effects of modern urban planning and evaluation emerge after long time. However, today you can test modern planning methods for limited areas, including: renovation, restoration, modernisation or just construction. But where would be a place for place making? When would be a time for sketching a planned human-scale street from human point of view?

History shows that implementing inventions and innovations one should be wary of the side effects. The desire to obtain benefits (resulting from the particular or social interest in introducing new technologies and solutions) may entail negative consequences for the uninterested. The introduction of rail transport led to mass migration of the population, making it easier to transit from poor provinces to industrial cities. Railway has also made transport of bulky goods independent of the access to navigable rivers, which resulted in the industry development in new places. The negative effects of this invention were, among others: the cities became overcrowded, city space was torn by the railroad tracks, there was an increased danger of accidents, the quality of air decreased, and noise pollution rised. Already in 1854 in Walden; or, Life in the WoodsHenry David Thoreau wrote a statement:

„We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us”

Nowadays, the main problem with this mode of transport is the division of the spatial structures of cities by the impassable barrier of the tracks — other problems have been eliminated or reduced to a minimum (e.g. the noise barriers screen settlements along the railway lines, electrification reduces air pollution; safe passages and crossings are built), not to mention implementing subway networks.

Just like railway, individual transport has brought many positive and negative changes. Society is satisfied with seeming independence given by owning a car. However, users (drivers) must bear not only the purchase cost of a vehicle, but also its use and maintenance (fuel, insurance, repairs, tolls, amortization). Other users of public space (including drivers out of the car) must adapt to the road infrastructure accepting discomfort and danger such as: longer walking route and longer waiting time at pedestrian crossings, accidents (in which mostly pedestrians and cyclists are killed), noise pollution and exhaust fumes, cars running over and grabbing the public space even during their non-use time (parking).

It is estimated that a personal car is used only two hours per day — in other words, for twenty-two hours it is useless! According to the Lynn Sloman’s ’Rule 40:40:20’, (the author of the book Car Sick: Solutions for Our Car-addicted Culture), about 80 % of travels by car can be replaced with pedestrian walks, cycling and public transport — 40 % without changes in the infrastructure and the other 40 % by making small changes.

„People usually think that the journey by public transport takes about 70 % longer time than it is in reality, and the driving time is estimated to be 26 % shorter than the actual”

There is also the problem of transport emissions of too much CO2 into the atmosphere. One can say that it depends of engine efficiency but such attitude runs counter to sustainable development. Heck and Rogers write in their book:

„Until Watt’s steam engine came along, roughly half the coal that was dug from an underground mine had to be used to power the earlier type of engine that pumped water from underground and made it possible to mine the coal in the first place. Watt’s engine drastically reduced the amount of coal that had to be used to allow mining. But because steam power became so widespread, the aggregate demand for coal rose dramatically”

But CO2 emissions could be reduced, among others, by persuading drivers to use public transport. Comparing to individual car travelling for the slightest evil should be considered long-distance journeys made by bus and coach. Calculated per passenger this mode of transport emits 29 grams of CO2 per journey kilometer, while the train the value is 52 grams, and for the car — 170 grams. In addition, of the fewer cars the more attractive the public space, and this will affect a more frequent choice of walking/cycling and improving interpersonal contacts (which from the inside of the car is limited to complaining at others, or worse, offending others by the opened window).

Jan Gehl, a popular ’star-urban planner’ writes in this context that

„the value (…) is the trend for parking cars 100 to 200 meters from the apartments. Streets of such areas are more populous, being on them and looking at them is more engaging, and the chances of frequent, informal neighbours meetings grow”

Thanks to Gehl’s publications and activity, the voices of integrating local traffic on the terms dictated by pedestrians using the street design called Woonerf zones become popular. Although, following the Netherlands, this solution was applied in many countries, in Poland it is considered an innovation in the public space, and one which contradicts the use of modern technology — car driving.

The first street lamp was constructed and installed in 1853 by Ignacy Łukasiewicz in Gorlice, Poland. The invention immediately became popular around the world. Street lighting after nightfall helped to avoid poorly visible obstacles and collisions with other traffic participants. It is also said that better illumination of public space improves safety in the context of assaults and robberies. Meanwhile, New York city authorities decided to intensively illuminate all streets with increased crime and drug trafficking. It turned out the problem did not disappear, because criminals moved to other areas of the city, and intense lights did not stop hooligans. Thus, street lights do not always affect ’safety improvement’, but the ’feeling of being in a safer place’ compared to where it is darker. Meanwhile, from the bright space one cannot see the danger lurking in the dark, and vice versa — hiding in the shadows is much better for seeing the light-exposed victim. This effect is best seen in a photo, which objectively reflects the contrast between light and dark spots. The above examples show that certain innovations and inventions may not affect the implementation of the selected targets, but they can even cause the opposite effect.

Is not the darkest place under the candlestick?

Modern technological development tends to combine reality and the virtual world. A recently popular term the ’smart city’ is related to the implementation of the information and communication technologies (ICT) and to manage with their use. A Smart City is supposed to be flexible and accessible and thereby convenient for individuals. Everything has to be available at your fingertips, such as through the smart phone. One should answer the question, what effects, including side effects, will the smart technologies bring? William J. Mitchell wrote in the City of Bits:

„Linking ICT with the space of the city is most evident in the so-called media spaces — places where traditional architectural elements are enriched with digital displays, interactive installations, and where are heavily used wireless communication devices”

Some of them may harm traditional spaces and even monuments… In the meantime, further innovations are coming under the premise to help people with everyday life and to improve the environment. Will this entail further unforeseen conflicts in the public space? Until recently, the market of the individual transport of persons (compared to the public/mass transit) in the cities was dominated by taxi corporations and not affiliated taxi drivers. Currently, in dozens of cities around the world, you can hire a car easier than a taxi. It is possible that this will affect the greater use of the car (VKT — vehicle kilometres travelled), rather than the previously mentioned two hours a day. It may also result in more people giving up walking, cycling and using public transport. The effect may be isolation of the people moving inside rented cars and in a congestion increase.

No-manned flying objects, the so-called drones, may become the next means of urban transport. They will be able to send and receive mails (see the announcement of Amazon corporate or China’s delivery companies), explore the museums at night (when they are empty), and the physically disabled will be able to move remotely — for example going shopping (and meeting neighbours) without leaving home. However, it can be expected that part of the population will use this opportunity to spend more time at home, away from the public space. Is it possible that the world will look like a computer game implemented into the reality, and humanity will move even more into virtual space?

A significant change in how modern human function on a daily basis was the replacement of stationary phones by mobiles that use cellular networks. But with the common use of this tool, new problems have arisen, ranging from lack of coverage or network failure to discharge of batteries, which are then transferred to undesirable situations in personal and professional life. Another important problem was the inappropriate use of phones in public places. Examples abound: leaving meetings in order to answer the call; interrupting presentations (by a presenter who has not turned off the ringer); speaking so loud on public transport (or even cinema) that others hear one’s private conversation; disturbing acoustic concerts or theatrical performances. These negative effects of new technologies, although caused by a minority, unwittingly touch the majority in public and semi-public spaces. To quote the words of Saddie Plant,

„the mobile phone is more than a communications technology — it’s a remote control which can operate the environment”

The launch of the so-called ’smart-phone’ improved access and exchange of information via the Internet. In addition, the screen of this device has become an overlay applied to the real world around us, giving additional unprecedented opportunities. Augmented reality (AR) is a combination of elements of the virtual world with the real one and there would be a breakthrough in the appearance of a number of devices that provide the consumer with an enhanced reality.

In recent years, we have seen how street protesters communicate with the world. This was possible thanks to the use of ubiquitous access to the Internet. Municipal WiFi is also used to promote attractions, for tourist information, navigation and many others. Can be shared wireless or via a network of hot-spots, such as pylons with touch screens. Authorities in a number of countries have recently turned off Internet access in order to hinder the protesters in a public space from contacting the world. Paradoxically, this confirms the conclusion that when for one group modern technologies are a useful tool, for other groups the same technologies can emerge as the basic problem.

Past and current implementing of inventions and innovations are taken into account and exemplified to show their impact on both spatial and social structure. The objectives persuading the introduction of modern technologies are presented with their intended and unexpected side effects. It should be emphasised that these effects tend to be positive, negative or inducing controversy and conflicts between different social groups. It is also noted that the rush of the modern world is conducive to the implementation of new inventions and innovations without reflection. This results in a risk of infirmity and loss of control over the development of public space, and consequently limited possibility to pass it to future generations in a better condition than the one inherited from our ancestors.


Piotr Marek Smolnicki, architect, industrial designer and urban planner who “solve problems you don’t know you have the way you wouldn’t understand” ;)

This article was excerpted from my first journal publication “The influence of modern technologies on spatial structures” when I discovered that writing is not as bad as I tough, eventually. If you wish to cite:

Smolnicki, P.M. (2015), The influence of modern technologies on spatial structures, in: M. Czubenko, M. Tatara (ed.), PhD Interdisciplinary Journal: Special Issue. BIOTech Conference 2014, Gdansk University of Technology Press, Gdańsk, s. 67–75.

During my PhD Course I am studying “Relations between Emerging Mobility Technologies and Metropolitan Spatial Structures.” Last time, by coincidence I wrote anti-outdoor-advertisement legislation laws for two municipalities — Gdansk Roads and Greenery Administration hired me for this purpose as the City’s Aesthete guy.

I am looking forward for comments here or via piotr@smolnicki.com