Part I: Future Health, Future Cities – Intel Physical Computing Module at IDE

Intel has sponsored a physical computing module on the topics of ‘Future Health, Future Cities’ as part of the first year in the Innovation Design and Engineering Master programme in conjunction between Imperial College and the Royal College of Arts (RCA). This module, coordinated by Dominic Southgate at Imperial College, was intended to be an investigation into the future of health in urban environments and a projection of how technology might support this multi-faceted theme.

The Intel team (John Somoza, Chiara Garattini and Duncan Wilson) suggested themes that the 40 students (10 allocated for each theme) had to work on individually over the course of four weeks:

1.  Food, Water, Air

The human body can only live for three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air. These ingredients are vital for our survival and key to our good health – how can we optimise each of them within our cities?

Food has an obvious connection to healthy living. But what about the more subtle relationships? How can food be analysed/customised/regulated to help with specific disorders or conditions? Meanwhile, how can technology help us in water catchment and distribution in the city or manage quality? Can we reuse water better?

Likewise, an invisible and yet vast component of cities is its air, which is key to human well-being. While air is currently rated by proxy metrics in many ways, what is air quality and pollution through a human lens? How can we re-think the air we breathe?

2.  Systems of Systems

A city is made of many systems inextricably related and depending on each other. One important aspect of cities is its healthcare system. How can we re-imagine a city-based healthcare service? For example, hospitals are currently hubs for providing health care when needed, yet they often may not be the first or best place we seek care when unwell. Can we reimagine what a hospital of the future would look like? What would a healthcare worker of the future look like and what equipment would they use?

Although we currently use tools such as the healthy city index rates that rate cities as healthy and un-healthy, how could we measure a healthy city in a way which reflects its complexity? Measuring the world in a new way at some point becomes experiencing the world in a new way -- what tools do we need and what are the implications?

Ultimately, if cities are systems of systems, then we are the nodes in those systems: how do we understand the impact of our individual accumulative actions on the larger systems? How can we see small, seemingly un-impactful actions, in their incremental, community wide scaling? How can we entangle (or disentangle) personal and collective responsibilities?

3.  Measuring and Mapping

There are various ways to measure a sustainable city, but none is perfect (e.g. carbon credits). What is the next thing for measuring a sustainable city? What would be the tools to do so? How local do we want our measures to be?

Our cities have different levels of language and communication embedded in their fabric (symbols, maps, and meanings). Some of these are more evident and readable than others, marking danger, places, and opportunities. One class of such signals relates to health. What kind of message does our city communicate in order to tell us about health? What symbols does it use and how do they originate and change through time?

4.  Cities of Data

Much of the current quantified-self movement is centred on metrics collected by individuals and shared with a relatively close, like-minded community. What would a ‘quantified-selfless’ citizen look like within the context of a city-wide community? How would people share data to improve their lives and that of other people? How could this impact on the environment and systems in which they live? How could the city augment and integrate people’s self-generated data and support you in an effort of being ‘healthy’ (e.g. personalised health cityscapes)? At the same time, individual and communities’ interests are sometimes harmonic and sometimes competing. How would citizens and cities of the future face this tension?

Commentary on selected projects

The underlying idea behind these themes was to stimulate design, engineering and innovation students to think about the complex relationship between connected cities and connected health. Because the task is wide and complex, we decided to start by pushing them to consider some broad issue, e.g., how can a city’s health infrastructure become more dynamic? How can we help cities reconsider the balance between formal/informal resourcing to meet demand? What are the triggers to help communities understand/engage with environmental/health data?

The aim was to encourage the upcoming generation of technology innovators to think of health and cities as vital to their work.

The IDE programme was ideal for the task. Imagined originally for engineers who wanted to become more familiar with design, it has now transformed into a multidisciplinary programme that attracts innovative students from disciplines as varied as design, business, fashion and archaeology. This shows a resurgence of the relevance of engineering among students, possibly stimulated by the accessibility and ubiquity of tools for development (e.g. mobile apps) as well as the desire to find solutions to pressing contemporary problems (e.g. aging population trends).

Students were able to explore different points of interest in Intel’s ‘Future Health, Future Cities’ physical computing module, each an interesting starting point into the challenges of designing for complex, living systems such as a city.

We will share eight of the projects in our next two blogs, based not on their overall quality (which was instead assessed by their module coordinators) but rather how their collective narrative under three emergent sub-themes help highlight connections to some of the ongoing challenges and questions we face in our daily work.

Read Part II

Read Part III

*Concepts described are for investigational research only.

**Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others.