A Plan for Digital Cities

Southbank

The “Festival of Love” on London’s Southbank in 2014. Sometimes unattractive technologies – in this case concrete – can create great places.

As an IT Architect in the 1990s, I used Design Patterns as a tool to exchange knowledge with industry colleagues as we tried to solve what were then complex challenges – the execution of failure-proof transactions across distributed applications on the early World Wide Web, for example.

Much of the digital technology suffusing today’s world is engineered to those patterns – when we use a function of an app or website, we invoke a piece of software fitting the “Command” pattern. The Design Pattern was, of course, invented by Christopher Alexander, a town planner.

Today, the influence of technology back into the professions of the built environment is increasing rapidly. We can use computer vision, the internet of things and machine learning to measure the physical world and the behaviour of people and organisations within it; to analyse them; and to design places and services for them to use.

But whilst “Smart Buildings” have been talked about and sometimes built since the 1980s, and “Smart Cities” since the late 1990s, they are largely one-off showcases and experiments rather than our mainstream approach to creating great places in a digital world.

Partly this is because the technology, built environment and investment professions lack a common, modern understanding of value creation. A leading economist recently described the mechanism by which urban economies grow due to the presence of public physical infrastructure that enables us to travel, meet and transact, generating incentives for further investment. That description completely overlooks the astonishing growth in physical transactions that are mediated online.

Copenhagen

This “interface design” in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen, prioritises pedestrian and bicycle traffic along a main road over cars joining from sideroads. Open Data and Open APIs are two equivalent technology policies that seek to promote individual adaptability of digital systems.

From dog-walking to household tool-sharing to transportation, thousands of services now make online introductions between people and companies who would never previously have connected. According to CrunchBase, Venture Capital investments in the technology start-up companies that enable those services is between $150 billion to $200 billion annually. They are changing the way that we work, meet and live.

As a consequence, communities, property companies and local authorities are arguably not setting the digital agenda for the built environment – individual citizens and tenants are selecting their own technology from the market, for their own reasons. The controversies created by “gig economy” employment and the sub-letting of accommodation through peer-to-peer services illustrate that the results are not always consistent with our aspirations.

If we want to create great places which benefit from flourishing digital innovation and enterprise, our first challenge is to better articulate the potential benefits of digital services. For example, students living in University accommodation with good internal and external 4G coverage – enabled by sufficient broadband capacity – will find the streaming video and social media services they use to socialise, access content, and perform research more reliable. They will provide better feedback on their student experience, helping the University to attract more students and to increase fee income.

We next need a common process for applying our expertise. So in “Digital Masterplanning”, we complement traditional masterplanning, planning and design processes by specifying digital infrastructures, policies and services for buildings and places.

For a property developer or owner, that might involve defining a common set of digital services across a portfolio, along with open standards for interoperability so that they are not overwhelmed by a multitude of different systems. A local authority digital masterplan might require new infrastructure and property developments to provide open data and public wi-fi, so that the public realm is both physically and digitally adaptable. A digital masterplan for a new town of 10,000 residents in Scandinavia included digitally-enabled de-centralised renewable energy and low carbon mobility schemes, playful and informative environments, distributed places of work and learning, and data privacy and security.

Finally, we need to measure the value of digital infrastructure and services, and convert that value – which is often personal, social, environmental or economic – into the creation of a financial return for investors.

Digbeth

Digbeth in Birmingham, UK, is an example of an urban place that has attracted a variety of successful creative digital businesses, and that – despite its heritage of industrial decay – flourishes as a place.

For example, for companies that operate sites undergoing re-development or construction, we have explored the value of “digital wayfinding” tools that adapt as physical space is altered on a daily basis. Successful digital wayfinding can reduce time that is literally “lost” and reduce stress and frustration, contributing to productivity both directly and indirectly. In neighbourhood-scale regenerations, we can mediate a balance between the interests of local authorities to secure investment in public digital infrastructure, and the level of competition from private property and infrastructure investors seeking a reasonable rate of return.

In his 1964 book, “Notes on the Synthesis of Form”, Alexander explained that new multidisciplinary approaches were necessary because “new materials are developed all the time, social patterns alter quickly, they also change faster than before”. The amount of digital information in the world overtook the amount of information stored in traditional forms in the early 2000s, and is now doubling every 3 years. The creation of new digital materials and social patterns is still speeding up, and challenges professionals all of our disciplines working in the built environment to cooperate to turn them to our advantage.

(This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 “TripWire” magazine by the Royal Town Planning Institute in the West Midlands, UK.

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