Network, medium or grid: the vehicle as a new social hub
The lockdown has shown us what links us to the world in isolation: the globalised information networks that we access through our phones or computers. Without an effective network, this connection to the world is severed. In fact, these days we use digital networks not only to work (when we can do that from home), but also for education, for entertainment, to stay in touch with our family and friends and maintain the semblance of social life.
Lockdown, disconnection… isolation
The COVID-19 crisis highlights many pre-existing inequalities all over the world. In Cuba, where Internet access is limited and expensive, public parks with hotspots are the main access points where people usually gather. The lockdown has complicated the situation. Many people are now obliged to break the rules, whether to download educational materials for their studies or communicate with their families abroad. In the US, in France, and in the rest of the world, the lack of access to the web creates a form of digital exclusion that often mirrors the forms of social or territorial segregation. 42 million Americans do not currently have access to high-speed Internet. For most of them, cost is the main issue, though geographical location or poor network quality remains a highly discriminatory factor, an additional handicap for already disadvantaged populations.
A lockdown that is reshaping the modes of network access and the forms of social life
In response to these kinds of disadvantage, solidarities are developing to connect vulnerable people with volunteer helpers, as in the case of the mutual assistance platform set up by the City of Paris. However, these initiatives still depend on people having the necessary hardware and being connected to the network.
To tackle this problem, in Kenya, the President has just authorised the launch of a fleet of solar powered balloons floating at an altitude of 20 km to provide a high-speed Internet network in the rural and mountainous centre of the country in order to facilitate tele-working for employees and homeschooling for children. In the USA, mobile libraries that were operating before the crisis are now used to provide wifi in underequipped neighbourhoods so that children can take their classes online and other family members develop activities to reduce the effects of isolation caused by the lockdown.
In normal times, users with no home web access would go to the library to use the Internet. Today, these places are closed and the lockdown is depriving whole populations of a valuable service. People living close by can use this new network hub from home, whereas others, who live further away, gather in the car parks around the mobile libraries to access the network. As a result, the use of the place has changed: the vehicle forms a connected space around which people meet, and the car park becomes a temporary place of attraction.
With the limitations imposed on public spaces, whether indoors or outdoors, places and their uses are being redistributed. These situations show the utility of one-off reconfigurations of the networks, using transmitter vehicles that give people a “here and now” according to their needs in specific circumstances. Making services mobile is thus a fluid and nimble way of meeting needs: the library and its network can go to people when the opposite is not possible, and thus continue to provide their services.
These mobile solutions are not confined to the Internet. Some US school buses that provide Wi-Fi also bring meals and educational materials to pupils in disadvantaged areas, especially in rural communities. There has thus been a change in the scale and destination of the service in response to the restrictions.
At the same time, the vehicle’s function as an extension to the network is not necessarily an end in itself – the vehicle can be a medium for the transmission of a variety of events. In Minsk, in Belarus, video-trucks stream live religious services into houses. On the Wuhan campus in China, autonomous vehicles broadcast real-time film of the cherry trees in bloom. In Brussels, a transport company bus operates like a “sound messenger”, travelling through the different parts of the city broadcasting recorded messages to friends or family members. In this way, the vehicle fills a void that is at the same time physical, emotional, poetic and spiritual.
In motion or stationary: the vehicle as part medium, part network
In the case of “mobile schools” in South America, schoolchildren from remote villages have to travel long distances to get to school. With the on-board network, they can use the time spent travelling to begin their school day before they get into class. In the US, Wi-Fi in the school buses not only allows pupils, their driver, the school and parents to stay in touch remotely, but also enables students to use their travel time differently, as a transition between home time and school time.
In different circumstances, transport minibuses in Nairobi, which compete on the same commercial routes, differentiate themselves by means of extreme customisation, which may include an art gallery or a mobile discotheque, while providing a mobile Internet connection for their passengers. In all these cases, the vehicle becomes a destination in its own right, because the service it provides is not confined to transport. The service exists, and passengers simply choose whether or not to use it.
The vehicle can also be a powerful network hub, and fill in for temporary overloads. For example, the network operator Orange has already set up mobile booster-trucks to provide additional bandwidth capacity at big events (sports, culture, etc.) that place excessive demands on the infrastructures. Video-trucks are a familiar sight at sports events (trucks parked on car parks near the stadium), providing the peaktime technical boost needed for the large-scale broadcasting of sports competitions. Similarly, TV and radio channels use trucks to accommodate their journalists and technical teams at the sites of big news stories, turning them into temporary micro-urban places (socialisation between journalists from different channels, resources for mobile traders, passers-by clustered round or walking in front of the cameras…). We see this same phenomenon of clustering and assembling with cycle-stalls in Africa, which create temporary social hubs. Whereas in normal times, vehicles create empty space around them, here they produce a hub that combines connectivity with other types of exchange.
Vélo-kiosque mobile wifi et recharge au Rwanda
The purpose of the vehicle is not always to supply or link to information flows. It can also contribute directly to the energy supply, for example in the case of electric vehicles in “vehicle to grid” mode: the vehicle becomes an integral part of the power supply network. One can imagine “battery-vehicles” like this supplying electricity to power-hungry mobile health infrastructures (like the medical imaging truck providing services to rural areas referred to in billet#1).
Waiting for the hug: physical distance, social closeness
The current crisis underlines the urgent need to reduce the digital divide in order to provide a service that has become basic and necessary for everyone. The famous “world after” or rather “world with”, whatever form it takes, will not be able to deny this need for connection, in particular if the future is one of diminished mobility, whether by choice or necessity. The tools employed before and during the crisis show the potential of agile and reversible mechanisms that can be adapted to different populations, spatial configurations and timeframes.
In the same way that many cities seem to be discovering the benefits of tactical urbanism to give more space for active modes after the lockdown, without turning their back on their infrastructures, Mobile Hyperplaces can offer opportunities for flexible, temporary services and activities, without large-scale and costly rearrangement. They are a “service to service” equipment solution, a temporary and sustainable instrument of urbanism in an uncertain world. Temporary – because of its mobility, it meets a need at a given moment in the day, in the year, or in a particular situation. Sustainable – because it meets a real long-term need, even in ordinary circumstances. It is an instrument of social fairness for disparate territories, an instrument that is frugal because it is agile, reversible and does not require a heavy infrastructure.
Whether it supplies Wi-Fi, energy, video streaming (in short, network stuff in all its forms), or activities of other kinds, the vehicle above all provides a service. As such, it is an attractor and has a snowball effect. On this basis, the possibilities for the proliferation of mobile activities that generate hubs of intense activity are infinite at local level. The forced isolation of lockdown has made us aware of the value of our social connections, our day-to-day interactions. When the time is right, people will want to move again, gather, talk to each other, be together. Rather than creating detachment or distance between people, the vehicle as receiver and transmitter creates clusters of uses and activities around itself, stimulates ideas about new combinations of spatial organisation that can create places of encounter. With these combinations comes the possibility of inventing ways to respond to the reduction in enforced mobilities.
Orange Sky mobile washing machines, showers and screening for the homeless, in Australia
The vehicle thus creates a relationship between people. In the sphere of solidarity, sociocultural divides will not be erased from one day to the next, so devices that can support disadvantaged populations remain the most appropriate, as in the experiments with mobile laundries and showers in Australia. The vehicle can also generate events. By multiplying the possibilities for connections, the mobile photomaton JR becomes a powerful medium of new urban situations. Cultural cement (whether through art, music, dance, food, commerce, etc.) will always be a way of bringing people together, of linking bodies and minds, and a mobile system can be a smart and coordinated way to activate the ingredients of this cement in the spatial domain. In his 1970 article “Spatial proximity and social distance”, the sociologist Jean-Claude Chamboredon observed that the physical contiguity between different populations in the new suburban neighbourhoods did not generate more social contacts between them. The current moment conversely raises a new challenge that reverses the sociologist’s formula: how do you reconcile physical distance and social proximity?
For more information, browse the Mobile Hyperplaces infography.
The pop-up-art section: remedies to the loss of contact
The way that the crisis tests the management of our bodies echoes the work of the conceptual artist Marina Abramovic. In the 1970s, a time of liberation and emancipation, she turned bodily contact into an absolute “necessary step” in order to reach out to people and remind them of the power of touch. More than 40 years on, one of her performances consisted in gazing intensively into people’s eyes, across a table. No touch, no speech, and yet the audience watched for long hours in order to experience the powerful emotion that could be conveyed despite distance. A pure emotion emancipated from the body. It is something worth remembering. What new performance might be imagined today with the new norms of physical distance?
Christine Chaubet, Cédric Gottfried (Institut pour la ville en mouvement-VEDECOM)
Translated by John Crisp