in Architecture & Engineering, Design, Urban Change


The promise of planning, architecture, engineering and construction is useful but not the way we think. 

Designers, planners, architects, all of us, suffer from several well-documented cognitive failings that distort our ability to predict accurately. But, hey, it is the future, it is not that easy to predict, but this could be changing due to two causalities:

  • Are we more likely not to believe evidence contradicting a commonly adopted meaning of a bright-line, hot button event? The event is easy to recall, leading to the likelihood of overestimating such events’ incidence. We are, thus, less likely to accept contradictory evidence without the bright lines.
  • We know how to make events recur with increasing accuracy right along with the sunrise and the tide. But, the capacity to build for the future does not include knowing what it will mean to people or do to their lives?

Solid psychological evidence of these abilities and behaviors leads to one of my favorite things — inevitable conclusions. With human behavior data, governments and businesses use open database connectivity (ODBC) to build businesses. ODBC is a powerful alternative to firms making decisions based on an experts’ track record.

ODBC is complicated because we are all involved. Knowingly as well as without our knowledge, we are all participants in a huge regression to the mean experiment. New ODBC business partnerships bring unbelievably accurate tools to analyze/improve urban evolutionusing a benign participation process with some sticky privacy issues.

New kinds of knowledge capital are consistently built through curiosity and action. Known preferences are finely tuned essentials of routine design decisions predicated by the senses of the human body. The ODBC benefit builds on this framework for a reform movement in which designers, planners, architects, and engineers acquire the leadership role and loses their subservience to capital by capturing a higher level of control over its uses. Aside from the political challenges involved, the advancement of certainty is a forceful way to assure the quality of human life on the earth.

The Decline of Expert Discretion

I offer two examples as to why this decline is probable. In Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart, Ayres describes the replacement of the “expert” whose knowledge is built on experience and track record by step-by-step procedures with fact-holding computers for data modeling. He argues that anything can be predicted. Just before the publication of Super Crunchers, an equally popular book entitled Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, illustrated how extensive analysis of databases reveals hidden causes and new questions replacing the “firm expert” approach to community development services.

These writers explore new business structures that replace the expert. They skillfully illustrate how massive datasets’ quantitative analyses make hundreds of real-world decisions using algorithms for people asking better questions. The question posed here does not regard removing the role captured by traditional experts from the policy framework. The question is not when or if but how quickly it becomes inevitable. Is there any solace in this truth? It seems the answer is yes.

The remaining and most important human element is to guess. Guessing requires a test to discover the variables that should and should not be included in statistical analysis. In other words, to generate hypotheses remains ultimately human. To ask “what causes what” remains the most valid human act.

What Causes What?

Our present experience is coupled with a dense urban environment where the exponential growth in the number of variables affecting choice is now instantly available. These “sets” of information are beyond our “intuitive” abilities to use, let alone an individual or team’s skill at defining problems. However, tools, such as telescopes in space or microscopes in laboratories, force new observations. We thought they were stars, but they are galaxies, and we are a little blue marble in one of them. We can’t see the “atom” but know why they are objects of matter that are smaller than a wave of light. This quality of observational insight is now available regarding human behavior.

The selection of statistical inferences capable of building datasets that explore human behavior is a vital new policy tool. Hours of sleep, the expenditure of dollars on everything-everywhere, miles traveled, even tears shed, and a laugh out loud. It will help designers to see things never seen. Discovering novelty and asking questions will be the source of human insight in regression to the mean data. Still, the sources of data to establish commonality will define the ultimate decision-making structure of every individual. The trade-off could and must be equal. For example, have a look at this narrative on Earthdays (here).

Consensus on OBDC

Therefore, the consensus on this question is developing as follows: There is a lack of extensive knowledge regarding viable algorithms useful for defining the aesthetic of the urban living experience as weighed against the privacy sought. New questions:

  • How will people be added to this group to develop the super-crunching urban design discussion?
  • How will end-user experience data become a routine product for design and planning firms in dense urban and metropolitan areas?
  • How is urban design data produced, made accessible, and used to alter urban design practices?

Two books that offer some insight are: Freakonomics [Revised and Expanded]: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart

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