5 questions with Iben Falconer

We chatted with Iben Falconer, a Director at Gehl in New York City. Gehl and Numina have collaborated for deployments, research projects, and collaborative design sprints. She is currently working on strategy and partnerships for Gehl’s Innovation team. 

MC: You’re currently working and living in NYC. How would you describe the city? What’s your favorite thing about it?

IB: New York City is dynamic, diverse, noisy, and a lot of fun. My favorite thing about it is the density. I strongly believe that small, everyday interactions with other people cuts down on prejudice, hatred, and fear. It can be exhausting sometimes, of course, living so closely to other people. But I have found a strong feeling of connection and interdependence among my neighbors, and I love that.

MC: That’s a great way to appreciate the magic of density in cities! Gehl’s mission is “making cities for people.”  What kinds of problems are you trying to solve or understand more deeply? 

IB: At Gehl, broadly, we’re focused on developing cities and communities that are equitable, promote health and well-being, and are carbon neutral. These are big, complex issues, but we are working to ensure that all of our projects have impact in these areas. Personally, I’m also fascinated by how we can make more connections between our increasingly digital lives and the public realm.   

MC: There is an increasing crossover between digital and public realm. How do you define the “smart” in Smart City? Are there any cities you see as models for your definition?

IB: I’d like us to start asking: “Smart for whom and smart for what purpose?” At Gehl, we focus on making cities for people, and our methodology is intensely data-driven. We have long used our own internal tools to measure and compare public life, and we’re excited about the sophistication of sensor technology. There is a clear opportunity there for us to enhance the work that we already do. But we also know that not every problem can be solved with an app or a digital tool. I keep thinking about the saying, “When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” It seems like that is the phase we’re in right now. 

I want to see more examples of smart city technology used in more targeted ways (instead of big data collection), and I really want to see us develop community engagement tools around data collection. How could a neighborhood engage with sensors, for example? How could they learn more about what they’re doing, why they’re there? It’s interesting to see cities like San Francisco and Somerville, MA ban facial recognition. I anticipate we are going to see more public pushback, and it’s incumbent upon us to be able to make the case for intelligent, people-first data collection.

MC: And what do you find most exciting about computer vision and data insights in the public realm? Most concerning? 

IB: The most exciting is that you can see how people vote with their feet and their bodies. In our experience, you can ask people how they act in the public realm, and you will get some data points from that. But what people say they do and what they actually do is not always the same thing. Being able to gather that data is thrilling and extremely important for decision-making about everything from pedestrian crossings to bike lanes to housing. Most concerning is the fact that, increasingly, there is no way to opt-out of this data collection. You can’t say to someone, “Oh, just stay home.” So we all need to develop stronger data literacy and data privacy tools for the public, as well as stronger community engagement around the deployment of these tools.  

MC: That’s a great point. We can’t just stay home. What is your favorite public space to spend time in?

IB: I love the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, which is my hometown. The creators took a complicated piece of real estate (over an active railroad track) and created a beautiful urban amenity with spectacular views. I love it so much, I got married there! 

I was recently back there for vacation, and my family went for a picnic in the park. There was a public Zumba class happening on the terrace, and it was wonderful to see all these different people, choosing to exercise in public and looking so happy and free. My daughter, who is a toddler, was fascinated by all the movement and action. I felt really happy watching her watching them.

MC: Thank you, Iben for taking the time to chat with us! It’s always great to hear your perspective, especially asking, “Smart for whom?” and “Smart for what purpose?”