Urban Technology at University of Michigan Week -41

Facial recognition + mail call

We’ve seen anti-computer vision makeup, t-shirts, and jewelry, but this is the first time we’ve see a full face mask designed to confuse algorithms. Perhaps it’s because we’re all so used to wearing masks these days and so the image below takes on a practicality that it would not have had even one year ago, but this rippling shield designed by Jip van Leeuwenstein, stopped me in my tracks when a friend sent the link.

Cloth face masks were normalized globally in a matter of months as the planet caught up to an already common practice in Asia. Will anti-CV masks like the one above become normal? Is so, which part of the world will be first to make it commonplace?

Hello! I’m Bryan Boyer, Director of the Urban Technology degree at University of Michigan and this is our newsletter. We’re writing about the issues and topics that the degree engages. While we go, we’re detailing the process of starting a new degree program that will welcome its first students in 41 weeks and counting. Thanks for reading!

🤿 Portland Bans Facial Recognition

Digital activism is urban activism and vice versa. Leeuwenstein and his CV-dazzling peers will be happy to read that Portland made history this week as the first city in the US to ban the use of facial recognition by public and private entities. Other cities including San Francisco, Oakland, and Boston have banned the public use of this technology by groups like the police, but Portland’s ban goes further to also prohibit the use by any private company as well.

This is almost certainly causing significant heartburn for advertising executives (and perhaps the people who build private security systems like we saw a few weeks ago). Equipping billboards, outdoor advertisements, and kiosks in malls and public plazas with cameras has been part of a larger movement in the advertising world to provide finer data to their clients (the advertisers)—in the words of the Big Bad Wolf, “the better to see you with, my dear!”

Heartburn or no, I hope this move by Portland will contribute to an expansion of the already-active “Do Not Track” movement that has been advocating for online privacy. Advocacy and activism in this sector needs people—ahem, urban technology students and future graduates—who are as expert with the technologies in question as they are committed to individual rights to access and use of the city.

📬 Mail Call

Here’s an exciting thing that happened this week. Someone emailed! We love thoughtful email.

This came from a high school student who is curious about the program and was not satisfied by the limited information on our website, which is understandable because the website is a work in progress (Stay tuned). Here’s an excerpt from the reply, lightly edited.

The urban Technology program is designed for people who care about cities, have a bias toward action and making things happen, but want to explore alternatives to traditional “city making” fields such as urban planning, urban design, and architecture.

So, why is this important? If you think about online delivery services for food like Deliveroo or Food Panda, these platforms have an impact on how people live and work in the city. It may be “nice” for an office worker to be able to call up their favorite noodles for lunch, but it’s potentially transformative for people who are housebound and don’t have the option to go out and get the food they want to need.

On the other hand, the convenience and widespread use of technological platforms like this leads to negative impacts as well. For instance, Uber added significant congestion to already clogged roads in cities like New York. That means it’s a technology which is hyper-convenient for the person in the back of a taxi, while simultaneously being one that causes negative impacts for everyone else in the city!

And while these technologies can have a big impact on urban places, they were not created by urban planners or architects, but by technologists and entrepreneurs. And now governments are trying to catch up to regulate them in an effective way. The work of Urban Technology is on all sides of that equation—you might pursue a career as a designer creating the next, more sustainable, more equitable Uber; or as an entrepreneur using the intelligence of Food Panda to figure out how to make sure the neediest among us have access to healthy food; or work in government to ensure that tech companies in the city have room to experiment without harming citizens.

One reason we created this program is because Uber (and similar) may be nice for the privileged few, but we need to make sure that cities work for all. The Urban Technology program will give you the perspectives and skills to do so. It’s a mix of understanding how cities work, having enough technical ability that enables you to prototype new ideas in code, and the design skills to research and imagine new apps, services, and organizations.

Next week we’re having calls with a couple people, including this inquisitive young mind, who are interested to learn more. If that describes you, don’t be shy.

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🤴The Worker’s Tarot Deck. “Meant as a critical tool to help designers understand the implications of their designs (of services, platforms, products, systems) have on workers”—very nicely done!

💸 Could AI organize a rent strike? Chatbot can already help you fight parking tickets. Could similar technologies be used in the future to help renters re-negotiate rents… say… in times of global crisis and uncertainty?

💡San Diego is poised to curtail use of video cameras embedded in their new street lights, which previously have been utilized by police. Los Angeles recently unveiled new street light designs of their own and will no doubt be working through similar issues soon.

🏞Leeside, USA is a “climate utopia” that doesn’t exist but QZ wrote about it as if it does. Interesting to see speculative design and fiction used in a journalistic setting.

📣 Greater Good Studio in Chicago are hosting a Restorative Design Conference on October 2. GGS are brilliant, the speakers are great, and the focus is important. Sign up here.

This week: Website, budget, curriculum, logistics, objectives, networks. Two highlights: a discussion with Joe Grengs, Chair of Urban Planning, whose calm is a salve, and then a discussion with Michael Caton about the "“productization” of urban spaces and how that challenges traditional models of citymaking. More on this soon. 🏃‍♂️