The need for sympathetic digital urbanism

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset, which measures the magnetic waves created by brain activity.)

(Photo of me wearing the Emotiv headset, which measures the magnetic waves caused by brain activity.)

(I’m a guest blogger on UBM’s Future Cities community; this article was published there last week. It builds on themes I first explored here in the article “Little/big; producer/consumer; and the story of the Smarter City“)..

Technology is changing how we understand cities, and how we will understand ourselves in the context of urban environments. We’re only at the beginning of this complex revolution.

Consider that scientists from Berkeley have used a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner to reconstruct images perceived by a test subject’s brain activity while the subject watched a video. A less sensitive mind-reading technology is already available as a headset from Emotiv. (My colleagues have used Emotiv to help a paralysed person communicate by sending directional instructions from his thoughts to a computer.)

Developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and advanced manufacturing show similarly remarkable interactions between information systems and the physical and biological world: solar panels that can mend themselves; living biological tissues that can be printed.

These technologies, combined with our ability to process and draw insight from digital information, could offer real possibilities to engineer more efficient and sustainable city systems, such as transportation, energy, water, and food. But using them to address the demographic, financial, and environmental challenges of cities will raise questions about our relationship with the natural world, what it means to live in an ethical society, and what defines us as human.

(The remainder of this article, which explores ways in which we might answer those questions, can be found on UBM’s Future Cities site, as “Make Way for Sensitive Cities“).

About Rick Robinson
I’m the Director of Smart Places for Jacobs, the global engineering company. Previously, I was the UK, Middle East and Africa leader of the Digital Cities and Property business for Arup, Director of Technology for Amey, one of the UK’s largest engineering and infrastructure services companies and part of the international Ferrovial Group, and before that IBM UK’s Executive Architect for Smarter Cities.

3 Responses to The need for sympathetic digital urbanism

  1. Tom says:

    Can’t see anything smart in these sorts of developments. You’re right though about the challenge to our concepts of what is human. The really smart idea is how technology can help us preserve our humanity rather than shape and sort us as if we were objects.


  2. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi Tom,

    On their own, I don’t see these technologies as “smart” either.

    I do think that they’re striking examples of what’s already possible; that they have challenging implications; and that if they are what is possible now, then the relatively near future holds developments that will really challenge our imagination.

    If you include social, economic and resource-sustainability in the word “preserve”, then your last sentence pretty much sums up what I was trying to say in this article. It’s a relatively short article in order to confirm to UBM’s editorial policy, so it’s possible that that didn’t come across.

    There’s a longer version at the link below that probably does a better job of describing ways in which I think we can harness technology to address the challenges that cities face in ways that are sympathetic to, and enhance, our humanity; and that’s increasingly the way that I define “smart” technology and cities:




  3. Pingback: Death, life and place in great digital cities | The Urban Technologist

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