Transcript: Looking backwards to look forwards
How can research that explores the past can help us to better understand the present, and maybe even predict the future?
plastics, materials, ucl, people, london, bartlett, cities, computers, data, building, judy, history, technologies, christoph, sense, question, records, future, research, heritage
Judy Stephenson, Christoph Lindner, Katherine Curran, Mike Batty
Christoph Lindner 00:06
Hello, and welcome to building better, a podcast about the human spaces and urban landscapes that we build worldwide. We are here to ask the question “how can we build better?” My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I'm also the Dean here at UCL’s Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. In each episode, I will be sitting down with other members of this community to explore new ideas on some of the world’s most important challenges, bringing together multidisciplinary perspectives, and radical thinking from some of our world-leading experts. In episode two of this series, we're going to be looking backwards to look forwards - we'll be discussing how the research that explores the past can help us to better understand the present, and maybe even predict the future. Today, I'm joined by researchers here at The Bartlett all of whom use the past in their research, but in very different ways. And I'm joined by experts from The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, the Institute for Sustainable Heritage and the Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management. So let's start by getting to know our guests. Our first guest is Professor Mike Batty. Mike is Emeritus Professor of Planning and Chair of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis. Mike uses computer models to visualise and understand cities and has received numerous awards for his work, including the Nobel de Geographie. So, Mike, could you give us a brief overview of your research approach, and share with us a few highlights of your work?
Mike Batty 02:01
Okay, Christoph, thanks very much for the introduction. I've worked on computer models of cities, almost from the beginning. I sort of met the pioneers in the 1960s, when I was a graduate student, and have worked on building computer models of how we can actually predict the location of things in cities. So, we're very involved in transportation, movement, things of that sort. And of course, as computers have developed over the last 40 years, there's been dramatic changes in the way we're able to do things in terms of computing. Essentially, we use the past basically, because to some extent, we begin with present cities, we try and simulate and predict how the present relates and of course how the present, of course, is built on the past in that sense, and then we use our models to make conditional predictions. We can't forecast the future. That's magic, basically. But what we can do is we can ask, “what if” questions, so that's really what I've been doing for the last 40 years or so.
Christoph Lindner 02:59
So, you've been working with computers since they first became available to academics and the public. And of course, computers have changed a tremendous amount over the last 40 years. In your work, how have those changes affected the kinds of questions you ask and the kinds of projects you undertake? In other words, as computers have developed, how has your work developed with them?
Mike Batty 03:20
Okay, well, we began of course, as I said, almost at the beginning, and the computers I used, I used the Atlas 1 when I was a student in Manchester, and we punched tape, basically, we punched all our programs on tape, we then took them across to the computer center, and two days later, we would get the output. So, it was a very, very different world. The notion of doing anything like we're doing at the moment, which is heavily computerised, all this, all this interactive stuff was just impossible. And essentially, you ask the question, Christoph, how have things changed? Well, very radically, in the sense that computers have become personal. They've been miniaturised to the point where we now carry them around basically devices in that sense. So, there's been this massive dissemination of computing power everywhere. What really is important in our field is that the models and cities themselves are very complex. There are great complexities. And of course, visualisation is all important in figuring out how things work. Increasingly, the power of visualisation using computers is very central to our field, in this particular context. What we've also been able to do is avail ourselves of a lot of new data that is emerging very rapidly, big data, so called and that data is coming through, it's actually coming from embedding the very computers we use to actually simulate the city, those same computers are actually embedded into the city. That's the idea of the Smart City. So, a lot of new data, particularly mobility data is actually coming from this kind of computation. So, data visualisation, and what I should say too, is the theory is still very problematic. Cities have got evermore complex as time has gone on. And in a sense, our theories are always a little bit behind in that sense. So, the great challenges is to develop new theory as well as being able to simulate and use new data.
Christoph Lindner 05:14
Yeah, I love that phrase you used about computers becoming embedded in cities. And of course, another place where computers are becoming embedded in our bodies. Maybe that's something we can pick up over the course of this conversation. But I'd also like to introduce our next guest, Dr Katherine Curran, who is Associate Professor at The Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources. Catherine is currently leading a project on raw materials focused on plastics, which has been funded by the UCL Knowledge Exchange and Innovation Fund. So this is a project that uses a multidisciplinary and community focused approach to understand plastics as a material of heritage. Catherine, could you tell us a bit more about that project and your work? How is plastics heritage?
Katherine Curran 06:02
Yes, thanks, Christoph. I'm based at The Institute for Sustainable Heritage. And my background originally was in chemistry. So, a lot of my research focuses on studying the degradation processes that happen in heritage materials. And I've had this particular focus on plastic now since I moved to UCL. And I think your question there is one I'm very familiar with, I think the number of times people have said, “historic plastic?!” as if the two terms contradict each other, you know that that's happened to me really quite a lot. But when you think about it, these materials go back to the late 19th century, when we're thinking about materials such as celluloid, or cellulose acetate. And over the course of the late 19th and 20th century, they have dramatically shaped society, you know, in terms of the technologies that we work with the art forms they've enabled through cinematic film and photography, the impact they've had on on lifestyles and society, and then modern art and design as well. So plastic objects are collected by a wide variety of museums, including libraries and archives, art galleries, social history, collections, that sort of thing. So you know, I think it takes a minute to compute plastic heritage, but when you start thinking about it, it covers a huge variety of objects.
Christoph Lindner 07:37
I can hear a fondness in your voice for some forms the plastic can take. So if you say to someone, “well, without plastic, you wouldn't have film” I think that that enlivens the material in the minds of many. So how do you reconcile the vast range of forms that plastics take from, say, the micro-plastics that are polluting all different parts of the world and increasingly, as we're discovering our own bodies, with the more kind of cultural heritage side of plastics, enabling things like computers, and film, and cool furniture, and art?
Katherine Curran 08:09
I think in a way that that was a lot of what the Raw Materials project was about. So you know, the issue of plastic waste in the natural environment is undeniable, you know, it's a really serious problem with with a lot of different consequences. And I feel that there's something that plastic heritage can bring to help the problem, I guess sooner because it is partly to do with the material and the properties of the material. But the plastic waste issue is also very much to do with our attitudes towards plastics. As part of the project, we interviewed people asking them to think of words that came into their head when they thought of plastic, and also to ask what plastic objects they used. And sometimes people would say that they didn't use plastics at all. And I would be standing looking at them wearing synthetic fabrics and plastic glasses frames, and they didn't see them, you know, so plastics have become quite like some plastics have become almost invisible to us, particularly the single use materials. And with the Raw Materials project, I was interested in seeing if going back and looking at plastic as heritage as objects that are curated and cared for, and understood, whether that could cause any kind of shift in perceptions of plastic, which would then, you know, maybe make us reconsider the way we use them and the way we dispose of them so easily. So that's the connection I was looking for.
Christoph Lindner 09:46
It sounds like there is a need to understand and see plastics much better. Last but not least, I am joined by Dr Judy Stevenson, who is Associate Professor in economics and finance of the built environment and whose work you may have seen featured in The Economist or the Financial Times. Judy is an economic historian of early modern London. Judy, what is an economic historian of early modern London? And is that job as cool as it sounds?
Judy Stephenson 10:16
Oh, It's far cooler than even that. Economic History is a very multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary sort of thing. Already in the light in the sort of 12 minutes we've been recording, I've thought about about three projects that Economic History people would jump up and down for and they all involve mapping, plastics, and materials. So yeah, my research is focused on labor markets, and construction in England and very much in in London, and I focused on 200 years 1650 to 1850. And I'm fascinated by the process of building London in that time. And I’m also, my sort of other fascination is labor markets generally.
Christoph Lindner 10:59
So why London? Why did you settle in London as a city of particular interest in your work?
Judy Stephenson 11:05
Well, I'm Irish, like Katherine sounds like she is. I've lived in London for just over 25 years. And so I was brought up in a much smaller city in Dublin. So London's scale, and its structure as a sort of series of sort of villages that have kind of come in together absolutely fascinates me. When I was doing my PhD at the London School of Economics, and I needed to find, you know, sources, London is also one of the best documented cities on the planet. So I'm definitely pre-plastic. I spend an awful lot of time with paper from paper, leather, parchment, and sort of other products other than synthetic products from the 18th century, which are the sort of recorded world and one of the things would be really interesting to think about is, what behaviors were replaced or affected by plastics and what things were used in place. So yeah, I spend an awful lot time going through building records, and records of wage contracts and records of working lives from London from basically the restoration to the railways. That's the bit that bounds my research.
Christoph Lindner 12:24
So hearing from all three of our guests today, already, I think there's a there's a fascinating interrelation happening, and it relates to plastic, paper, and digital data. These are all materials or in the case of digital data, a slightly kind of immaterial materiality that we use to study and understand the world that we live in. And the big question that I want to put to our guests today, and it is a broad question, how do you study the past? So when you are studying the past? What methods? What tools? What materials? Or even what places do you need to go to in order to do your work? Mike, let me invite you in?
Mike Batty 13:05
Well, clearly, as we go back in the past, the data that we use about cities, changes, in some sense. And generally speaking, data in the past is more problematic, there's less of it, it's different, it embodies different sorts of cultures. I mean, in a sense, the past is a great open book, in terms of the way cultures change in cities in that sense. And that changes everything and really changes the way we look at cities, in some sense. So in terms of data, then what is quite amazing about the modern world, and about the world wide web and size that increasingly, people are looking at the past and the way cities have evolved, and so on, and are discovering all sorts of new data from the past in that sense. And also our ability to put things together to add value, if you like, as we say, in terms of data in the past. Now, I'm not saying that the data we are able to generate is well, it's full of our own biases and prejudices and things of that sort. But nevertheless, we're getting to know more about the past. That is one of the most amazing things about the modern age, the digital age, in that sense, bringing people together so they can actually construct the past really.
Christoph Lindner 14:15
And Katherine, I'm curious then what for you are some of the data that you work with and what sort of methods you do you need to use in order to study the past?
Katherine Curran 14:26
I work also within Heritage Science. So, some of what we do is very much laboratory science. So as I mentioned, I have a chemistry background. And we have a heritage science laboratory in Bloomsbury. So, part of what we do is understanding material composition, material degradation processes, with a view to you know, understanding what materials were made of and understanding how they're likely to behave in the future. So in that case, some of what we do is is analytical chemistry and material studies and things like that. In the Raw Materials: Plastics project there, we were collaborating with Bow Arts, who are a charity in East London. And at the time, they were developing an exhibition around the history of plastics in London. So I know Judy said that she she misses the era of plastics, but it's only by a whisker, because the first plastic was invented in London in the 1860s. So you're only out by about a decade and Bow Arts, their gallery is in that area. So, they were investigating the history of the plastics industry within East London using archival sources and museum objects. And they curated an exhibition covering the history of the local plastics industry, they collaborated with some artists who created new pieces based around the research and they collaborated with us as well, using some of the objects and equipment in our laboratory. One of the artists made a film which involved really new ways of looking at our instrumentation. I've never seen our instruments as kind of art objects before. And then also, we used their exhibition as an opportunity to interview people about their perspectives on plastics. So we caught them on their way out of the exhibition and asked how they had responded to the objects and whether it had any impact on the way they viewed plastic in general. So yeah, we use a wide variety of research methods.
Christoph Lindner 16:34
I had no idea that plastics were invented as early as 1860. Maybe others already knew that, but that's news to me. And I'm wondering, given that plastics were invented in the mid 19th century, why did it take so long for them to take off as a widespread, almost ubiquitous material in the modern age?
Judy Stephenson 16:52
I'm just gonna say it's what happens with all technologies. All technologies are, you know, macro invented before they are micro applied. And if history teaches you anything, it's that we knew how to solve problems long before we actually did. So you know, you need the it's the combination of, of the actual mastery of the hard stuff, and the organizational soft stuff that actually begins to put technology into use, but but we tend to concentrate only on the hard stuff at the moment. Yeah, history teaches you, it's really soft.
Christoph Lindner 17:25
So I think that's a an idea, we need to circle back around to and explore a bit further because it connects to the broader notion that history can help us predict the future or even solve the problems that we're facing. But before we get into that question, Judy, can you tell us a bit about how you do research? So when you study the past, what what kinds of methods and materials do you need to use?
Judy Stephenson 17:48
So there's two methods and materials predominantly in my work. One is in the wonderful archives in London, particularly the London Metropolitan archives. I was just dreaming the other day of usually around this time of year, the sun starts coming directly in from, you know, over Spa Fields into the into the viewing room at the LMA up in Northampton Road. And you know that Coronavirus means you can't, we can't access the physical artifacts of the past that we're used to doing so. And it's it's, it's a longing, let me tell you. So, archival records, and they tend to be from institutions from organisations that keep really good records. And so they have to be sort of put into context… The other source that I use, is I walk around the city, we literally have six, you know, the 1600s, the 1670s or 1680s, at the rebuilding of the Great Fire of London, you know, and the long-term effects of us around us, especially at UCL because the entire the Bedford estate is one of the great legacies of the rebuilding of London. You know, when I really want to try and work out how they were doing something I take a sort of intuitive look to what Michael would be able to map properly and go, “Oh, hang on a second. So if the sessions are here, and you know, and the road to the Fleet is here, so why did they do it like that?” So walking around is a great way of researching.
Christoph Lindner 19:06
I love this idea of the UCL campus and Bloomsbury being this open-air archive that we can stroll through and experience history and do analysis and thinking and collect data as we walk. That's, that's a beautifully poetic image. You are listening to Building Better: The Bartlett podcast, a podcast brought to you by The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. If there's a question about life and research at the Bartlett, you would like us to answer e-mail us at Bartlett.firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet @BartlettUCL. So, there's a lot of fondness from all three of our guests today for the objects of their research and the materials that they use and and investigate. But I'm wondering, there's also a question around data and its reliability and its accuracy. So I'm curious whether in your work you've needed to challenge or question the data you've been that you've uncovered, and in the process, maybe even challenge the interpretation of others for the data that you're working with. Does anyone have any interesting, juicy examples?
Judy Stephenson 20:24
The reason why I am here and have a job at UCL is I went to see some records that lots of people had seen before. And just like Michael’s talking about other people had sort of taken these as just let's get the figures from them, you know, economists have gone in and gone, “Well, I'll just copy the numbers.” And I went, “Oh, well, obviously, this isn't what they thought it was. It's not a wage book. It's a set of accounts. And so the number here doesn't represent the money that was paid to the workers. The money represents the overall management cost of hiring that worker, what people got paid was 30%, less of this figure.” And this was 700 years of wage data have been based on the previous assumptions. And because they had been interpreted as wages before, economists had spent a lot of time trying to work out why England was a high wage economy and actually come up with, you know, a whole rationale or an explanation for why the industrial revolution happened off the back of this what they thought was wage data. And it is when you when you say, actually, you're wrong about the wages. You know, this isn't what I think, this is what the record say, it's very uncomfortable for people. And I think the thing I found in challenging this story was that people would rather rely sometimes on an interpretation where there's a lot of maths done than an interpretation that says, “no this document from 1712 is very clearly a set of, you know, institutional accounts, not a wage book, the wage book, I have a wage book, it's here and it looks like this.” "Oh, interpretation, you can't really tell" people would say, "I mean, that's a very long time ago.” Or "we could just run some maths instead.” Like I deal with students of economic history all the time, their mistrust about the materiality of the past, and their uncertainty about how to interpret the material artifacts of the past can be quite surprising. You know, they're looking for the answer in a spreadsheet more than they are looking for the answer in the world around us. And I think that's the sort of characteristic that a lot of economists and historians would agree with me about today.
Mike Batty 22:32
I like what Judy is saying here, I mean, I think we have to embed ourselves in the context. And that means in the history and so on to be able to interpret data. I mean, data is value-laden, it's almost a rite of passage that in some sense that we collect data to reinforce our own hypotheses, test our own hypotheses, which are culture-bound. I mean, to me, that's always been a rite of passage, in some sense, that if I build a model of a city, somebody else builds a model of the city, they will be different. In some sense, they're different people. Now, one of the interesting things I think, is that history can teach us an awful lot about data. We take our students on a walk from St. Paul's Cathedral up to UCL and it's an information technology walk because back in 1937, St. Paul's tube station was called Post Office and the biggest industrial complex in the world was at the post office. In 1896, Marconi sent the first wireless signal from BT headquarters to Carter Lane South just south of St. Paul's, basically. Edison put his first power station on Holbourn Viaduct it only lasted for two or three years, in that sense, and so we take the students on this walk, we walk from all of this stuff, which is information technology, all the way down to the printing area, Ludgate Hill, through St Paul's, and so on, and then up onto onto the Strand and so on. And we pass a whole variety of different things, John Harrison and his clocks all the way up to Kings, where Maxwell invented his equations. And then we circulate round into Soho. And go on, we end up at UCL where the first internet connection outside of the United States was actually built in 1972. In that sense, now, that kind of data, there's an awful lot of data contained in that and there's a great archive of this stuff to be put together in terms of and this is the history of the computer revolution to some extent, but it's also a social-economic history as well. And it seems to me that, in looking at data, we need to sort of look at many unconventional sources, which pull them together. In some sense. And many of the things we've talked about this morning, I mean, in plastics, and social and economic history, and what we map what we collect, and so on, how we interpret it, you know, and it's all about the past, which is conditional on thinking about the present and the future.
Christoph Lindner 25:06
So we're getting into some quite philosophical considerations here that the future is about the past or the past informs the future. Katherine, one thing we learned today is that plastics has a longer history than some of us realised. But one thing we do know is they have a much longer future than their history because they're going to be around with us for a long time. So, as you imagine the future study of plastics and imagine some of the challenges/opportunities that this material brings to our world, looking ahead, what advice or insights do you have?
Katherine Curran 25:38
That's a big question. I think that the insight I'd like to take from my existing research is just that I think we ought to look at our materials. Again, maybe that isn't an insight for research, but more an insight for our behavior. You know, I think of something like the typical plastic soft drinks bottle. If you look at that, in the context of drinking vessels through the ages, it's remarkable, you know, this lightweight, transparent, resealable and not breakable object, but we see it as trash. And as, you know, when it's used once we we discard it, and we need to reconsider that. And I think we are to a certain extent, and people are beginning to use reusable drinks bottles. But I think that that, sort of, where the plastic heritage comes in is that it does allow us to look at plastics in a different way, which I think we should be doing day to day. Going forward in research, there are amazing challenges in terms of developing new materials that are more easily biodegradable, and things like that, or have greater longevity, depending on the application. There needs to be research into waste management systems, the impacts of plastic on the natural environment, the timescales of degradation in the natural environment, you know, there's a huge amount that we don't know, and a lot of scope for research. But I think that insights about how we look at plastics is the thing that I think particularly relates to my own work right now.
Christoph Lindner 27:10
And, Mike, as you look to the future, what insights do you have drawing on all of the historical work that you've done?
Mike Batty 27:22
Well, I think one thing we can say for certain is that our view about predictability is changing very rapidly that I know when I was a young boy in high school, really, you know, we were taught really that science was magic. And it could actually predict the future. In some sense, I think that view is rapidly changing, in a sense. Even physical sciences are problematic in this particular context. And so our view about the future is a bit different in that sense that we can't predict it. But of course, what we do try and do in in my area is to develop conditional predictions. What if, for example. An excellent example, of course of the unpredictability of things. And of course, in hindsight, we can always say we anticipated these but it is indeed the pandemic, for example, that it's amazing what we've discovered about the pandemic over the last year, that has been known throughout history, but we've forgotten it. So for example, I know Judy would relate directly to this because her period started 1650. Well of course, in 1665, about a third of the population of the city died, basically through the plague, but people lived with the plague in that sense. And, of course, social distancing was was all important back then. I mean, it's the obvious thing to do if you've got infections to keep away from people and also people are moving to the country, the equivalent of almost working at home really happen among the elite and so on. So I think this this question of unpredictability is, is incredibly important. We need to figure out that how we think about the future in terms of the extent to which we can produce informed debate about it really, I'd hesitate to use the word prediction because, you know, in a sense prediction strikes us, strikes us as though we can actually... our predictions actually turn out in that sense. So that's very important. I think for a faculty such as the Bartlett, really.
Christoph Lindner 29:15
I fully agree, Mike. And actually, I'm curious, Judy, how Mike's comments here relate to your own area of work. So in a sense, as an economic historian, what do you see in our looming post-pandemic future that can be informed or improved by the research that you've done?
Judy Stephenson 29:38
Well, one of the things I'm very interested in is, is contracts you know, between people and how, and they're really about human capital, I'd like to just echo both what Michael and Katherine were saying, when when you look at rebuilding, which is, you know, something I'm very interested in, particularly after 1666, we actually, we really value what was put up in London, after 1670, still some of our favorite building some of our favorite artifacts. And when you ask the rich, the famous people with a lot of resources, where they want to live, and how they want to live, many of them will choose technologies from that period, before they will choose modern technologies to live in and to work in. And that that's, I mean, that's a, that's a real challenge to an architecture school and to a, you know, a faculty of the built environment is why are we choosing stuff from, you know, 2, 3, 4 hundred years ago, rather than the modern stuff. And working in a construction school, I see project managers and designers and investors grappling with new technologies and modularity, modularity, you know, they think modularity began with the Crystal Palace, I’m like, “Hello! his name was Nick Barbin. And he cracked. and he you know, the Romans cracked modularity.” But the really interesting thing is, you can talk about materials till you're blue in the face, you can talk about what's happening with, you know, plastics, you can talk about... and Mike, I want to come on one of those walks, please. But it's, it's where it's how the human capital interacts with the material capital and with the money capital. And the big thing about materials generally is unless you have the skills in the human population to implement them properly, there's no point in predicting what's going to happen to the future. If we can learn anything for prediction, it is that we need both science and, and history, the history of the materials and the history of people to understand you know how to go forward. There isn't one magic bullet, and neither is how we interact.
Christoph Lindner 31:47
So I can't let all three of you go without asking you one last big question. Looking to the future, what is the one thing that needs to change so we can build better?
Mike Batty 32:00
Prior to the pandemic, there was quite a strong green agenda beginning in terms of mobility, more people walking, more people cycling, and so on. Not only that, but changes to the notion of where we travel and so on. This, I think can be both accelerated, in some sense. But of course, if we sort of decide to walk and not use public transport, and take to our cars, and so on, these are sort of contrary trends. So I think we have to grapple with these things, and building back better, I think, is to come to some conclusion about what they mean, in this particular context. There are many other issues, of course, in this related to deprivation and segregation, and things of that sort, which are influenced by it. But from my own perspective, this notion about will people return to city centres, to what extent I mean, of course, they will return in that sense, but to what extent this kind of intensity is to be seen in, in cities will continue to be is all important. And I don't know the answers to those questions. They're unpredictable, but those are what we're gonna have to grapple with, I think.
Christoph Lindner 33:06
And, Katherine, if there's one thing that you could change to help us build better, what would it be?
Katherine Curran 33:12
That's definitely a difficult question. I think maybe I would just kind of reiterate what I had said before that I think we need to look again at the materials in our lives, and maybe particularly the humbler materials in our lives.
Christoph Lindner 33:29
I like the word humble. I think that's a nice sentiment to bring to this. And Judy, what about you - one thing?
Judy Stephenson 33:35
Skills, skills, we are very focused on computers or robots doing things for us, but a conversation about technology such as this highlights that we need, if we're going to utilize the resources around us, we need to know how to. And that gets, you know, you can turn it into Tony Blair's education, education, education, or you can say vocational training, whatever you want to do. But a lot of people don't know how to do things they literally don't know how to build, and we are going to have to know how to and to understand the materials that we we work with. So, skills.
Christoph Lindner 34:13
Thank you. You've been listening to Building Better: The Bartlett Podcast. This episode was presented by myself, Christoph Lindner, produced by UCL with support from the Bartlett communications team, and edited by Cerys Bradley. It featured music from Blue Dot sessions, with additional sounds recorded by the UCL IEDE Acoustics Group led by Professor Jian Kang with Francesco Aletta, Andrew Mitchell, Simone Torresin and Tin Oberman. I was joined today by Professor Mike Batty, Dr Katherine Curran and Dr Judy Stevenson. If you would like to hear more of these podcasts, subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/buildingbetter. And you can follow us @BartlettUCL. This podcast is brought to you by The Bartlett, UCL’s global faculty of the Built Environment and UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise to events, digital content, and activities that are open to everyone. See you next month.