Robots as responsible urban innovation
So far, our discussion has centered with a focus on the usage of urban robots. However, there is another approach which takes cities and their requirements as the starting point.
For example, the “Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda of JPI Urban Europe” calls for a long-term program that addresses city and societal needs in a mission- and demand-oriented manner, with interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches for understanding urban complexity and ensuring impact and relevance. One of the key elements in JPI’s research projects is the use of “Urban Living Labs,” which aim for knowledge co-production and stakeholder involvement, especially in experimental research in urban environments. These labs may also provide opportunities for the development and use of urban robots. In the context of sustainable development, Urban Living Labs are seen as a form of experimental governance, where urban stakeholders test and develop new technologies and ways of living to
address the challenges of climate change and urban sustainability. Although Urban Living Labs vary, the core idea is to develop and test new technologies in collaboration with various urban stakeholders. Urban Living Labs can be viewed as both a forum and an approach. Given the potential impact on city life, it makes sense to use this approach for developing and testing urban robots.
Exploring responsible design and use of urban robots can also begin with the discussion of Public-Interest Architecture or “Architecture for the other 90%.” Additionally, there are two key connections between urban robotics and urban design. First, robots are physical objects that require space, so their functional needs may require the rearrangement of public spaces, similar to the way modern transportation has influenced urban planning. This responsibility falls within the purview of architecture, urban design, and urban planning. Second, like architecture, robotics often caters to the privileged few who can afford such services. To integrate robots into the urban fabric, we must acknowledge their presence as spatial entities. Robots not only take up physical space, but also impact human interaction within that space. As with the rise of mobile communication, frequent human-robot interaction may bring about changes in public space usage. Additionally, robots may rely on urban information systems for their operation, raising the question of whether these systems should be designed solely for humans or also for machines. Ultimately, we must consider whether the city of the future will be designed to accommodate machines or humans, or both (Voytenko et al., 2016).
It’s important to note that not all robots or robotic systems will be visible in the urban landscape. Maintenance robots, like the sewer inspecting robots mentioned earlier, will likely remain in the background of city life. Similarly, advanced vertical transportation systems may be visible but still perceived as part of the background. Whether or not urban robots become visible depends on their design and the design of the built environment. Even humanoid social robots may not necessarily be visible in public spaces, as evidenced by the hidden spaces in nineteenth-century mansions for servants and maids. Acknowledging robots as spatial entities requires consideration of how architecture and the built environment shape our interactions with them. Designing spaces for robots is not just about accommodating them physically, but also about shaping the social dynamics of how they fit into our environment.
The discussion on responsible design and use of urban robots should not solely focus on finding solutions for the privileged few who can afford robot services and architecture. Rather, it should also consider the potential of robots to serve public interests, especially in addressing the needs of underserved communities. As Lepik (2010) points out, architecture can be a powerful tool for social change, but the field has yet to reach a significant portion of the global population who lack basic housing. Similarly, we may ask how robots can be designed and utilized to benefit the public rather than just meet the demands of the wealthy. For instance, using UAVs to map slum areas is a step towards slum upgrading, an area in which architecture can be extended to make a difference. Urban innovation may take the form of new designs, therefore, we need to explore how new forms of construction and smart transportation systems can serve the needs of underprivileged communities, such as improving access to education, employment, or food. While urban robotics is not the only solution to societal challenges, we can reorient the discussion on how robots can help serve the needs of the less fortunate.
In the following videos you can see several efforts to create robots for cities and urban environments
Voytenko, Y., McCormick, K., Evans, J., & Schliwa, G. (2016). Urban living labs for sustainability and low carbon cities in Europe: Towards a research agenda. Journal of cleaner production, 123, 45-54.
Lepik, A. (2010). Building on society. In Small Scale, Big Change, New Architectures of Social Engagement. Prestel.