Building a Virtual Vancouver

On Canada Way, in a building so boring it almost fades from view, a powerhouse company is assembling the future. There’s no sign of jetpacks or quantum generators (sadly), just the emerald-green circuit boards, silver-stitched with wiring, that we recognize as the building blocks of the modern era. Our world is made of more than concrete sewer pipes or asphalt roads, more than bridges, heavy metal lampposts, garbage trucks, and landfills. Municipal infrastructure depends equally on those circuit boards, which Webtech Wireless technician Joy Li is quality-testing for use in locator boxes that can report exactly where a given vehicle is. With them installed on a dashboard, transit systems can calculate, through algorithms on expected traffic patterns, when a bus is likely to arrive at a stop (as opposed to when the schedule says it should arrive). That’s a level of service that companies and customers these days increasingly take for granted. Consumers want the information that distributors have: they don’t want to wait around just guessing when the recycling truck will pass or the next grocery delivery will arrive. “If you’re under 25, you think everything is an app,” says David Greer, Webtech’s marketing vice-president. What gets missed, though, is the vast invisible infrastructure that makes it all possible.

That infrastructure-the cables and antennas that cellphones and wifi and cloud computing rely on-has been an ongoing challenge for municipalities. Vancouver has been wrestling with the buildout of telecommunication hardware since the ’80s. At heart, of course, is money. Almost since the beginning of the cellphone revolution, telecoms have routinely torn up streets to install fibre-optic cables, then left the city to patch it all up. When they’re not tunnelling through the streets, they’re bolting antennas to rooftops or towers.

Such blights on the landscape-and our impatience with the unsightliness-will only worsen. The world is exploding with data use (which everyone wants), but it requires physical boxes and towers to transmit it (which no one wants). In the ’90s, when Telus (then BC Tel) served all of Metro Vancouver’s cellphone users with a handful of transmission sites, each transmitter could broadcast 19.2 kilobytes per second. At the time, it seemed plenty enough.

Today, there are over 100 cell-transmission sites in the downtown alone. The roof of the Renaissance Hotel on West Hastings is one. There, on the 19th floor above the Vistas 360 circular restaurant, is a shed filled with banks of Telus equipment like old-fashioned tuners, all piled on top of each other, each connected to a thick, brightly coloured cord that comes from a second, smaller roof where a half-dozen mini-silos are filled with transmission equipment-more tuner-like boxes and “antennas” that look like giant lozenge-shaped speakers. These antenna transmitters are capable of relaying 75 megabtyes a second, in a perfect, theoretical world. Meaning you could transfer the entire current season of Mad Men in 61.44 seconds-which seems more than adequate, but if 100 people in this particular cell of downtown all decide to wirelessly download Mad Men in the next 10 minutes and another 500 load a YouTube video and 1,000 more make cellphone calls and 200 of those MMS a picture, that antenna’s capacity will slow like cooling caramel. Now look away from the antennas and out at the city: this roof is only a small lake in a forest of glassy towers. Behind all those green and gold and blue windows, thousands of people texting, emailing, talking, Skyping, Livestreaming.

“We are now serving up amounts of internet that are staggering. It’s 20 times what it was just three years ago,” says Eros Spadotto, Telus’s vice-president of technology strategy, speaking on an old-fashioned land line from his Toronto office. Personal use is only the beginning of the story. An architecture office might send out several hundred gigabytes a day in renderings. A finance firm passing around spreadsheets, another several hundred. And then there are those migratory packets of data that most of us don’t even apprehend. Like Webtech’s locator devices beaming information back to the mother ship.

What’s needed is a gadget to resolve these overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, information needs. Something to dam or divert the many streams of data flowing through the city-without provoking more calls to City Hall complaining about unsightly cellphone transmission antennas and towers. In the spring of 2010, when the scale (and cost) of this puzzle became apparent, city engineer Peter Judd, as the head of the department tasked with somehow burying wireless wires, had a first flicker of invention: what about putting cell-company antennas onto city light poles? Light poles are so ubiquitous they’re almost invisible. As it turned out, other cities were exploring the same idea. Rogers, at the forefront of telecoms trying to figure out better ways to work with the city, liked the idea. The company put up two prototypes on Vancouver’s East Side.

Six months later, Judd was sitting in a meeting on the top floor of the BC Hydro head office downtown, wrestling with another engineering problem: how to install electric-car-charging stations as part of Vancouver’s drive to be a leader in the post-peak-oil world. The lamppost idea came back to Judd, and this time he mentally added an element, the car-charging station, that could share the same energy source the cellphone antennas needed.

Deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston says that at first he thought this was just another of Judd’s sporadic Rube Goldbergian ideas, but he didn’t laugh for long. “If we could get these things on the poles, we could get telecoms paying for our electrical needs,” says Johnston. New streetlights, including upgraded LED models to replace the old orangey high-pressure sodium lights, are costly enough. Having something with the capacity to charge an electric car could be as much as $100,000. In Johnston’s old stomping grounds, Chicago, it had cost $11 million to put in those stations.
Judd’s next step was to connect with the Emily Carr industrial-design program where students began experimenting with physical concepts.

Last spring, Gregor Robertson reached out to Douglas Coupland; the two had got to know each other through the artist’s work on the new Terry Fox monument at BC Place. They began batting ideas around. The mayor’s message to Coupland in March 2011 was supercharged with excitement: “Cell towers. We’ve got a game-changing plan afoot and would love to collaborate. This is a creative process trying to birth transformative infrastructure. Too good an opportunity to flub, and time is of the essence. I will wager that many cities will embrace a multi-purpose pole that addresses cell-wireless-electric vehicle charging and whatever other new tech makes sense. It must be a visual benefit too. We want to roll this out at citywide scale and tell the world.”

Coupland had Emily Carr student designs in mind when he spent a week in February visiting the Bell Research Laboratories in New Jersey for a book he’s writing; it’s in a series that asks prominent authors around the world to get access to and write about the working innards of important institutions. At Bell, Coupland saw a new kind of wireless-transmission device, the Alcatel-Lucent lightRadio, that didn’t require a bulky transmitter. Instead, it was a relatively small cube that could fit inside a large pole.

His synthesis, developed over the next couple of months, was a light pole that incorporated everything: lightRadio-style transmitters for multiple cellphone companies stacked on top of each other; power for wifi and for wireless electric-car charging-all in one thrilling modernist package. There’s only one stumbling block to Coupland’s neat solution: it’s imaginary. And because the real world is slow and complicated, that won’t change anytime soon. As many a disappointed comic-book reader has discovered, futuristic advances are often so much better in the imagination than in practice. Jet-pack flight as a transportation solution never really materialized. Star Trek-style teleporting is a non-starter. Almost none of us live in 150-storey towers with space-pod docking systems on the roof. Instead, our high-tech lives amount to scanning our own purchases at Canadian Tire and ordering concert tickets online then waving our smartphones later at the door. The iPad and iPhone have been startling precisely because they actually come close to matching the hype.

For now, none of the local telecoms are using Alcatel-Lucent lightRadio technology. They are developing their own miniaturized transmitters, but nothing that can be put in a pole yet. Nor, it turns out, could a V-pole ever be strong enough to carry the whole system, in spite of the mayor’s enthusiastic claims. Telus’s Spadotto says the schema of the future will have to consist of different layers of infrastructure for wireless and cell: macro sites (like the equipment shed and multiple transmitters on the Renaissance Hotel); micro sites, like V-poles, whenever the technology is there; and pico sites, like household wireless routers that become part of the city-wide transmission system.

I see what is happening now,” says David Vogt, “as the biggest potential boon for humanity since the Renaissance, allowing people to be creative in groups.” Vogt’s nominal title is director of digital learning projects for the UBC Faculty of Education, but his function, more accurately, is pondering the big changes that technology creates, and helping organizations figure out how to tap into their potential. “So much of our current built infrastructure-roads, office buildings, malls-has been constructed because of the inadequacy of our information and communication technologies. But mobile phones have really changed everybody’s lives, merging the Internet with wireless. They are overlaying themselves in an existential way.”

For Vogt and people like him, visionaries whose imaginations have already gone warp-speed into the future, V-poles will support a world where the buildings, the roads, the malls fall away and all conversation and human accomplishment happen in public spaces where people interact through social media. Cities will talk to citizens through open dialogue. Businesses will exist mostly virtually, with data and conversations flying through space. People will experience parks as open-air encyclopedias: their smartphones will tell them about every plant and animal around them while they feed information about what they observe back to the cloud. The city will be able to listen to its residents constantly, not just through ponderous telephone polling or excruciating nights of public hearings but through continuous real-time integration with a million bits of public chatter. “So when something explodes like a Stanley Cup riot, we will be able to understand who are these people and what are they saying.”

For Vogt, who has been helping local municipal and parks operations think about new ways to use technology, it’s all about changing from an old way of understanding stories-linear narratives that move from Point A to Point B-to participative narratives where everyone shapes the story. “The city is experimenting. Nine out of 10 experiments will fail to live out the hope. But if you’re not trying, you’re out of the game.”

Back on planet Earth circa 2012, Phil Lind is one of those encouraged by Vancouver’s efforts to stay in the game. The vice-chair of Rogers Communications says he doesn’t know of another city that’s experimenting as boldly as this one in trying to combine city infrastructure with other utilities. “Vancouver is really ahead of the curve on this score,” says Lind. “I do salute the city.” The V-pole “is something that’s right on topic.” And even if it won’t be in production this time next year or even next decade, that doesn’t mean time is standing still. “We don’t have to wait for the future to get started,” Judd says. The city is hoping to pilot three test poles with Telus on park land along English Bay sometime this fall, if public consultations don’t provoke a smart-meter-level uprising. (People might object. Or they might be swayed by the argument that, at the moment, Telus has to bring trucks in to that stretch of English Bay to cope any time there is a special event that generates feverish data-pumping, like the Pride Parade or Celebration of Light.) The architect of the Telus test poles, Bruce Haden of Dialog, has had to grapple with the heaviness of current technology in their design: the pole has to be accompanied by a metal cabinet for the power source. Haden has done his best to make that metal cabinet work-he’s covered it with art and made it a structural support for an artfully designed canopy that extends out from the pole. But it’s still a big metal box. Embedded within it is no wifi capability, no other modern magic.

In May, Coupland travelled to the New Cities Foundation conference in Paris, where Gregor Robertson was already scheduled as keynote speaker. He unveiled his idea to the 600-some urbanist geeks at a conference held in Paris’s fortress-like La Défense, and the presentation went off like fireworks. Publications from Time to sang its praises, with headlines announcing it as the next-generation utility pole on the “bleeding edge of urban technology.” It’s a promising plank in the ladder to the future-not because of its engineering, but because of its prescient ability to slot into a new OS for the whole world-one, Coupland says, where “appiness is what defines our era.”