Architecting the unexpected

“Serendipity”: it’s what cities have always provided but online environments only sometimes produce. Why “search” isn’t enough, hackers need to think like urbanists and the internet needs urban design.

It’s the start of a new semester at Harvard and there’s a real buzz about the place. I had breakfast with Nicco Mele and Chee Pearlman this morning and the Charles Hotel was a hive.

What a difference a day makes. Chee and I were in the same place yesterday and it was almost empty. On that occasion we were meeting Ethan Zuckerman who, like Nicco, lives much of his life and does most of his thinking online. He studies how people throughout the world use new media to share information and moods across cultures, languages and platforms.

Both meetings were in preparation for an upcoming seminar that the Loeb Fellows are hosting at the Graduate School of Design. Themed around “technology” this will be the first of a series of four events that aim to tackle big issues in planning and design, including food, extraction, waste and community activism.

The Loeb take on technology is less about fancy architectural graphics and more about the role of social networks as online complements/alternatives to the spatial networks of the physical world. Until no more than 20 years ago and – for most people only one or two – social relations were pursued, made and broken in the “real world”. Cities, being intensities in the socio-spatial network of real world connections, were the place to move to in order to optimise opportunities for social encounter.

Likewise with economic transaction. The very purpose of cities was – and still is – to act as trading machines, whether that meant providing radial routes from farms at the periphery to marketplaces at the centre or, at a later stage, clustering commercial activities to create critical masses of human co-presence.

A remarkable feature of cities (so remarkable that it sometimes goes unsaid) is that they are marvellously effective at creating unexpected phenomena. At the most mechanistic level, urban places work because they allow programmed activities to occur – business meetings and concerts for example – which are only possible because a large enough number of people are close enough to places of common assembly – meeting rooms and concert halls. However, at an even higher level, cities work because they bring people into seemingly random encounter with other people, places and objects that spark unplanned events over and above the programmer ones. Such unplanned encounters are the sparks of innovation, learning and cultural development, which are in turn the essence of humanity.

So, although the spatial track of one person’s orbit between home, work and piano teacher may read as a mundane, multiply-repeated and well-worn triangular path, the wonderful reality is that life in cities is as much about what happens in between as what’s there when you arrive.

I was therefore delighted to hear Ethan talk about his interest in serendipity as an online phenomenon. The idea of the “unexpected” builds on his concerns that the Internet, rather than facilitating cosmopolitanism, is in fact more narrowly defining many of its users. He argues, for example, that Facebook helps to reinforce connections with people you already know rather than generate new, unexpected contacts.

Despite this concern, Ethan offers tangible ideas for harnessing the connective potential of the online world. His concept of “bridging” is one geared towards avoiding the Facebook trap and instead finding people who connect between networks as well as within them. The idea that parochial xenophobia needs to be actively countered by identifying and nurturing “xenophiles” is lucidly and intriguingly described in his TED Talk. I look forward to hearing him weave sendipity into this discourse. It will give planners and designers at the Loeb seminar an urban theme to relate to.

Indeed, the most significant thing that struck me in our discussion with Ethan was just how frequently the language of the online world is the same as that of the urbanist: “home”, “path”, “connection”, “nest”, “network” to name a few. We picked up on this with Nicco this morning. He has the job of curating the conversation with Ethan during the seminar. I suggested that the common ground of serendipity is closely connected to the importance of “search” in both physical and digital environments. Search requires navigation and navigation requires cognition, which requires the common engine of a human brain.

Yet our conversations with Ethan and Nicco seemed to suggest that this common ground has yet to be properly explored. It seems not enough people are studying the physial:digital duality, either urbanists or technologists. Urban networks should provide a rich source of inspiration for designers and analysts of digital phenomena. In return, architects and planners can learn lessons in the online world with which they seem overwhelmingly unfamiliar. Is this coming together not happening because the need for online serendipity isn’t widely enough appreciated? Unless serendipitous search emerges online, the internet will underperform.

Architects and urban designers, if they understand human behaviour in physical space, can help create serendipity online. Simplicity, hierarchy, centrality, intelligibility, land use mix and active street frontages are principles that help make cities work. These are techniques that get people from A to B while creating serendipity along the way. We know this because we can see that, when new towns and cities have been built without these properties, they do not spark human transaction.

There seems to be an opportunity to introdue this learning to the online world. In return, the transpatial potential of the internet – the ability to bridge on a global scale – needs to be brought into the thinking of planners an designers. The new, online network of social connections, serendipitous or not, presents a significant challenge to the way that cities work. Urbanists who remain unaware of the importance of online transactions will continue to assume that social, economic and environmental change can only come about through physical transactions in the physical world.

Hackers and urbanists need to work together. The common ground of search and serendipity appears fertile, if insufficiently explored. For this reason we are hopeful for a healthy discussion when Ethan and Nicco bring their experience and intellect to the Graduate School of Design at the end of the month.

Much much more with much much less
The Loeb Fellows invite…
Ethan Zuckerman & Nicco Mele
Harvard University Graduate School of Design, 31st January 2011

3 Comments on “Architecting the unexpected”

  1. Yes, in many ways the web remains two-dimensional. Very few users can deploy search to find information outside their usual sphere. The volume of information drives users to seek comfort in small, known zones.

  2. Tim, this is fascinating; I look forward to your conference! I’m particularly interested in the “serendipity” effect in London in the year ahead. It’s obvious that planning for the 2012 Olympics will mean some radical transformation of physical space. I’ll also be looking at how efforts to include & connect citizens can enhance the city’s sense of identity & community online.

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