Doppelgänger and digital twins, urban glimpses and drawing data

Data versus stories, abstract models versus everyday complex

Dan Hill
Dan Hill
Jan 22 · 19 min read

It’s a fundamental analytical shift from the station to the taxi, from the fixed dimensions of the street to the fluid interactions of the sidewalk. The form of data changes, and the tools and capabilities accordingly.

Currently, these conversations are obsessing over the idea of the ‘digital twin’, an attempt to model and manage a city through its data, real-time and otherwise, about almost everything, mobile and static. The Twin seems possible due to the now-usual bundle of Internet-of-Things tech, machine intelligence, cloud connectivity and data viz, but thrown at our cities’ streets, and their own heap of disparate components; air quality, scooters, retail spend, spoken language, autonomous vehicles, parking spaces, whatever.

Data is given as a starting point

Data, in itself, is not something to place faith in at all; it is something to work with. In Being Ecological’, the philosopher Timothy Morton writes that the word ‘data’ essentially means ‘given things’. ‘Data’ is the plural form of the Latin datum, ‘that which is given’, from the Latin verb ‘to give’. In other words, data is not the self-evident truth of an object, or a fact, even. It is something we are given to work with, something we have to interpret, more akin to a complex process than an entry in a field.

The glimpse

But the glimpse is a useful token for unlocking this practice of everyday life nonetheless. It glimmers with the promise of understanding. The glimpse is the start of something.

Both Tokyo

The Twin

And there is something else in the Digital Twin rhetoric that should also give us pause: that other kind of twin, the doppelgänger.

The everyday-complex

The digital version of the Twin, and much of the visual language of urban data visualisation, has emerged, subconsciously or otherwise, from a generation that grew up playing the computer game ‘SimCity’ (1989). Whilst the game itself functioned as kind of ‘glimpse’ into the world of urban policy and planning, it’s a safe bet that few of that generation unpicked the political backdrop that invisibly defined the game’s mechanics. Will Wright, the game’s designer, was no urban planner; he drew most of his understanding of how cities work from a 1969 book by Jay Wright Forrester called ‘Urban Dynamics’ (This story is detailed brilliantly by Kevin T. Baker for Logic.)

SimCity (1999)
Jay W. Forrester, at MIT

We cannot tame complexity; only wallow in it.

The character of Baltimore homicide detective Bunk Moreland in ‘The Wire’ described this reckoning with complexity as having “soft eyes”, the ability to squint to be able see the big picture, to not get lost in the detail (though his partner, Detective Kima Greggs, remained unimpressed: “Oh … Zen shit.”)

Fiona Scott’s beautifully-rich drawings of London’s high streets are a kind of ‘soft eyes’ view of economic data about the city
UN HABITAT, Minecraft and Ericsson One prototype
London Squared, by After the Flood
London Squared

But what was the question?

Essays and journal entries concerning technology and the city. Title lifted from Cedric Price’s “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?”

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, the Swedish Government’s innovation agency.. Visiting prof at UCL Bartlett IIPP & RMIT &c.

But what was the question?

Essays and journal entries concerning technology and the city. Title lifted from Cedric Price’s “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?”

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