What Would Hari Do?

This past Friday I heard the term “Big Data” for the first time. During the course of the day, I came across it two other times. I guess I’ve always known that as we keep advancing technologically, massive amounts of data would be generated, but I never gave it much thought beyond that.  There are a number of very smart people in our community, however, who are devoting themselves to the exploration of what our new capacity means and how it can be employed to our advantage. I won’t trip- I know design and urbanism, I’m shit at math, and only know enough about technology to have a firm grasp on Adobe CS6. That having been said, from time to time I like to think about how new and emerging concepts could conceivably impact the form of cities.

Obviously, when we consider our smart grid, our internet capacity, and with the world fastest computer ninety miles away, Big Data has profound implications for Chattanooga. The ability to generate, store and analyze massive amounts of data concerning how people live and behave is truly exciting. Given enough data points, it’s possible to create predictive models for how large groups of people will react and respond to certain situations. This has far-reaching implications, from the efficient provision of electricity, to disaster preparedness plans, to buildings and districts that produce more than they consume, to the planning of how cities are built and in-filled. The question that then occurred to me, is that given enough data points about enough aspects of human activity, would it be possible to make more comprehensive predictive models for the future of society?

That’s when I had another “Simpson’s did it” moment.

The father of psychohistory

What I thought was an epiphany was nothing more than a latent, subconscious memory of something I read years ago. When I was in junior high, my stepdad introduced me to the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov (thanks, G!). It was, and remains, my favorite book series, but I haven’t read it for at least a dozen years. The premise is that a dude named Hari Seldon develops a type of mathematics called Psychohistory that uses statistics about human behavior to predict the future. The bigger the data set, the more accurate his predictions, but his tool is ineffective at predicting the actions of an individual. His calculations predict the decline of the Galactic Empire and a dark age that will last 30,000 years. His calculations also showed that while there was virtually no way to stop the decline the Empire, there was a way to shorten the dark age from 30,000 years to a mere millennium. Toward this end he established the “Foundation” that would, over time, make tweaks to society to change the course of history to shorten the oncoming dark age.

So what started off as deep thought about the role of emerging technologies in shaping the future physical form of the city ended with me spending most of my writing time downloading old books. But for now, let me say that we have the unequalled opportunity to improve the quality of life for Chattanoogans, those in the region and those around the globe. Beyond service strategies, and procedural protocols, the analysis of big data has the very real potential to inform how cities are physically organized and how spaces are designed. These are indeed very exciting times to be both and urbanist and a Chattanoogan. When I finish reading my pop fiction, maybe I’ll revisit the subject. Ciao for now.

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