Can digital technology help us build better cities? A workshop at the Academy of Urbanism Annual Congress, Bradford, Thursday 16th May

(Protesters at Occupy Wallstreet using digital technology to coordinate their demonstration. Photo by David Shankbone)

Over the course of the last two decades, digital technologies such as the Internet, mobile telephone and touchscreen have transformed the way we communicate, work and live; and in so doing have caused industries such as publishing and music to change out of all recognition.

These developments clearly change the way that we behave in cities – the way we travel; and where and when we work, shop and communicate.

And they lead to new demands on the urban environment from residents, visitors, businesses and communities: the availability of mobile and broadband connectivity; open data portals; and transient working environments such as the Hub Westminster collaborative workspace – or simply cafes with wi-fi and power outlets.

Should these technologies change the way we design and build cities, and if so, how? Do technologies offer solutions to difficult problems such as offering more flexible, coordinated transport services? Or are they a distraction on focussing on what really matters – the physical, social and economic needs of people and their communities? And how do they compare to long-standing debates within the more traditional domains of urbanism about how good cities are created, regardless of technology?

(The collaborative working space of Hub Westminster which is constantly refactored to support new uses, exploiting furniture and spatial technology laser-cut from digital designs)
(The collaborative working space of Hub Westminster which is constantly refactored to support new uses, exploiting furniture and spatial technology laser-cut from digital designs)

The Academy of Urbanism, a body of several hundred professionals, researchers and policy-makers involved in the design and operation of cities from perspectives as diverse as town planning, social science and technology is holding a workshop at it’s Annual Congress in Bradford this year to explore these issues.

The workshop will feature opening contributions from speakers from a variety of backgrounds, and with differing opinions on the value and relevance of digital technology to good urbanism. Our intention is to stimulate an informed and frank debate to follow;  from which we hope that useful, practical insights will emerge on whether and how the technology agenda is relevant to cities.

Some of the questions we’d like to consider in the debate are:

  • Do emerging uses of technology in cities have implications for spatial or master-planning – for example, the provision of physical space for cabling, or the specification of policies or standards for information from city infrastructures to be made openly available?
  • What implications do technology trends such as online commerce and virtual working have for requirements for physical space and transport in cities?
  • If cities need the flexibility in their physical infrastructure implied by such approaches as “Smart Urbanism“, then can technology enable that flexibility? And what are the design principles for technology that should be applied in order to do so?
  • If technology professionals and urban designers are applying their skills in the same context domain (city systems) can we use tools common to both professions, such as design patterns, to combine and share our expertise?
  • What are the new investment and management models for funding, delivering and governing “smart” systems? How do they reflect the achievement of long term social, economic and environment objectives? How can the achievements of entrepreneurial and social enterprises be replicated at city-scale?

Our plans are still forming; so I’d value your thoughts on the theme and scope of the workshop; the structure of the debate; questions that will stimulate a constructive and worthwhile discussion … and any speakers on this topic – whether they are proponents or sceptics of technology in cities – who you think would be particularly interesting. (I’ll update this blog soon with our initial speakers once I’ve confirmed them).

And of course, I’d love you to simply attend the conference and the workshop and join the debate! I hope to see some of you there.

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.

11 Responses to Can digital technology help us build better cities? A workshop at the Academy of Urbanism Annual Congress, Bradford, Thursday 16th May

  1. Tony Fleming says:

    As work is already underway. The Question should include IS in addition to CAN. we should acknowledge how technology may already be impacting our urban communities and residents. Then we can build upon that in the nature of growth and continuity rather than as something that has to be born anew. There are organizations that have taken up to his challenge for several decades that have had to struggle to do their work. One such is one which I helped to found in Violence plagued East Oakland, CA called The Eastmont Technology Center, a project of a 40 year old civil organization called OCCUR.


  2. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi Tony,

    Thankyou; personally, I am convinced digital technology is already contributing to the improvement of cities. I’ve just had a look at the Eastmont Technology Centre and I’d encourage other readers to do so too – We need to take away the things that make it hard for these community-based programmes succeed.




    • tonyfleming479 says:

      Thanks Rick for supplying the correct link to ETC and suggesting readers should check it out. What is not obvious is that ETC has had a hand in training and preparing well over 60,000 Oakland residents of all ages and cultural backgrounds for the future. Our community traditionally last to the party is actually the best prepared so we are doing our part and hope that other communities are as well served.


  3. Rick Robinson says:


    I originally posted this article with a misleading and ambiguous date in the title. I’ve corrected it now, but just to be clear: the workshop I’ve described will be held on Thursday 16th May, not the 17th May as I originally stated.




  4. Pingback: Privacy in digital cities: Google Glass, the right to choose, and the enduring legacy of Jane Jacobs | Urban Systems Collaborative

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

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  7. Galo Mejia Mantilla says:

    Digital cities require a core telecomunications infraestructure. How and who should do that: Local goverment or private sector.


    • Rick Robinson says:

      Hi Galo,

      I agree that’s needed, and who should do it is a good question. The approach I see most often is for private sector to deploy the infrastructure where there is sufficient market demand; and for national and local government to work together to subsidise deployment where it is required to enable growth. Of course it is of always easy to do the latter, not only due to the cost but also to avoid conflicting with state aid legislation.

      I’m sure I’ll update my article on Smarter City design principles soon ( and I’ll add something to cover this when I do,




  8. Pingback: Seven steps to a Smarter City; and the imperative for taking them (updated 8th September 2013) | The Urban Technologist

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