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Cities+Nature

Have opinions about your city? Chat with the street lamp.

Thanks to natural language processing, urban objects are ‘talking’ to residents — and getting their feedback.

By Stav Dimitropoulos

West Thurrock, Essex, England. On a balmy spring day, an elegant woman dressed in yellow and a ponytailed girl are walking between clothing stores in Lakeside Shopping Centre. Suddenly, the girl notices a large art installation in the shape of a butterfly. She goes up to it, tugging at her mother’s skirt. The butterfly, formidable in size, comes with a quick response (QR) code, through which it invites passersby to start “chatting” with it. The woman scans the code and types into her smartphone.

Woman: Hello, Butterfly.

Butterfly: Hi there! Thanks for waking me up! I hope you’ve had a good shopping day. I’m here to chat with you about the Big Bugs expedition, tell you a little bit about me, and find out more about your nature interests. Can I ask, what is your favorite season and why?

Woman: I like spring because it’s so balanced and beautiful!

Butterfly: That’s cool, I think my favorite season is fall — I love the changing colors. I’m also interested to know, when you saw me today, did it make you happier?

Woman: Absolutely! Although we need to leave and my daughter can’t stop talking to you!

The chatter above occurred between July 2018 and September 2019, when 12 giant insect sculptures, created for shopping center owner Intu’s “Big Bugs on Tour” exhibition, traveled across various locations in the U.K. and invited shoppers into “conversations.” Behind these amusing exchanges between humans and objects was Hello Lamp Post, a U.K.-based texting platform that aspires to breathe life into city infrastructure and objects and engage citizens through playful yet informative chats.

So far, people have talked to a utility box in Malmö, Sweden, about the United Nations’ goals; to a lamppost in Independence, Oregon, about the city’s 2040 vision; and to Sydney’s Plotting Room, a World War II-era defense command center, about improvements to Sydney Harbor. The platform caters mostly to the public sector, but Hello Lamp Post’s clients also include construction companies, airports, and shopping malls. At each installation, visitors scan a QR code on the object with their phones or text “Hello [name of object]” to a given phone number, and they’re directed into a chat program, where the back and forth begins.

The tête-à-têtes with the inanimate can surprise visitors. The script is not standardized; instead, the algorithm creates a unique exchange with each person, says Tiernan Mines, cofounder of Hello Lamp Post. “One person can end up having very friendly and playful and entertaining conversations, another a more informative type of conversation,” says Mines.

These chats with objects are a sort of urban reliving of the Tchaikovsky ballet “The Nutcracker,” in which the namesake toy soldier and his army come to life. But in this case, open-source software, machine-learning tools, and natural language processing power the object-to-person interactions. And the conversations have a practical use: to gather visitors’ opinions for a city’s decision makers to consider and act upon. “So, democracy thrives,” says Mines.

“A tour guide can only serve a specific number of visitors, but a lamp post is always accessible, and anonymous, and uncritical.”

Tiernan Mines, cofounder of Hello Lamp Post

Joan Fitzgerald, a professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University, says Hello Lamp Post represents an innovative way for cities to collect digital feedback from residents and visitors. BOS:311, an app that allows Bostonians to report incidents to the authorities through smart apps, texts, tweets and phone calls, has been around since 2009. “But Hello Lamp Post has taken this to a whole different level,” adds Fitzgerald, “since it is interactive.”

Between July 2019 and January 2020, the city of Independence, Oregon, programmed 12 objects downtown, including benches and murals, to ask people questions like, “How do you want Independence to be in 20 years?” or “Would you like to see more environmental restoration projects in town?” or “Do you value public art?” The pilot project, Hello Independence, helped engage residents with Independence Vision 2040, the long-term planning effort for the city of 10,000.

“The project was hugely successful,” says Shawn Irvine, project manager of Hello Independence. “We wanted to reach people in the digital age in a fun and innovative way, and Hello Lamp Post really seemed to check all the boxes.”

It also seemed to engage people more than traditional surveys. About 1,000 people — about a tenth of the city’s population — participated in the project, with a total of nearly 2,000 conversations. A digital survey that asked the same questions through the town’s website and social media got only about 300 responses. “Some of the information we got through the project found its way into the final Vision 2040 plan,” adds Irvine. Responses confirmed that people craved a great place to live, raise a family, and be happy — “in a nutshell, the American dream,” says Irvine.

The city of Malmö programmed street furniture to socialize with citizens in the summer of 2018, to promote a United Nations initiative that proposes 17 goals for sustainable communities. “We connected the goals to the different objects in the game,” says Linnea Uppsäll, manager of the project. For example, a trash can talked about goal 12, Consumption and Production, while a pier by the ocean talked with residents about goal number 14, Life Below Water:

Pier: If you were made a pirate captain for the day, what outlawed acts would you commit?

User: Search for hidden treasures on tropical islands.

Pier: Whatever you choose — please don’t fish illegally. With many delicious fish now endangered, the UN is trying to end all illegal, unreported and unregulated overfishing by 2020. Nice talking to you. Please find other objects around here to talk to!

Uppsäll says Hello Lamp Post was a fun and interesting technology to try out, and her city gained some new insights about its residents. But she adds the tech has room for improvement. “The project required quite a lot of work from us, and we didn’t manage to reach and engage a lot of people,” Uppsäll says.

Indeed, Fitzgerald isn’t convinced that the platform will transform how cities respond to public input — or that the data Hello Lamp Post gathers will help serve citizens’ most pressing needs.

“Who is using these apps?” Fitzgerald asks. “When you talk about democratizing, you need to make sure that all voices are heard. You want to get everyone engaged.” In the case of Hello Lamp Post, the reach seems confined to a very select group of people — mostly tourists, thinks Fitzgerald.

“Also, how do you differentiate between a tourist in London who says, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be great if you had this here!’ versus a longtime resident who may have different needs and reasons for wanting the same thing or not wanting the same thing?” she asks.

But Mines has big ambitions for the technology — to foster interactions that go beyond merely sharing information. The chatty street furniture, meant to gather opinions about urban quality of life, also seems to cheer visitors up, Mines says. “People smile, they hug objects,” he says. “We’ve seen people take selfies and post them on social media with objects.”

Some clients are trying to use the apps to provide an emotional service — or at least connect people to mental health resources. In 2020, the University of British Columbia, Canada, used the technology to study commuters’ and visitors’ behavior on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. On one gloomy day that September, a young man with a goatee noticed a sign with a QR code on a bench and struck up a conversation. The bench asked how COVID-19 had impacted his life, and when the man replied that he felt social isolation, the bench replied with encouragement: “I understand. It’s been such a challenging time for everyone… If you need advice, support or just someone to talk to, click here.” Clicking sent the user to the university’s wellness page.

Despite the hugs, apps can’t substitute for human interactions, warns Fitzgerald; improving urban life still boils down to neighbors engaging with each other. “There are lots of organizations and groups where people can meet and talk about the needs of their neighborhood, and then act accordingly or have the city act accordingly,” she says.

Hello Lamp Post is “not looking to replace people,” counters Mines. “We’re trying to get citizens’ feedback at scale, something we could not do under normal circumstances.” Still, he thinks street objects have one advantage over humans. “A tour guide can only serve a specific number of visitors,” he says, “but a lamp post is always accessible, and anonymous, and uncritical.”

Mines says Hello Lamp Post will soon open a new office in the U.S. and install new interactive projects in the U.K., North America and Australia. The true impact of the company’s talking street furniture will bear out over time. But in the meanwhile, it could be fun to let a statue, a parking meter, a bus stop, a bench, or a bridge transport us to a real-life version of The Nutcracker’s fantastical kingdom of living objects and intriguing possibilities.

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Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer based in Athens, Greece. She has written for the BBC, National Geographic, Nature, Scientific American, Science, Runner’s World, Popular Mechanics, Inverse, and The Sunday Times.

 

Illustration by Stefania Infante.

 

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