Visions of a digital urbanism – inhuman metropolis or rural idyll? All is not what it seems

19th October 2011
IBM Smart Cities Conference
Helsinki, Finland

In addressing the question, “What will the future city look like?” I am less concerned about the visual appearance of individual buildings and more concerned about how the city is planned as a layout of streets, spaces and land uses.

Why? Because the spatial layout of a town or city organises the movement and interaction of people. Movement and interaction lead to social and economic transaction. These are the building blocks of society, of culture and therefore of being human.

Digital technologies offer new forms of online human connectivity. Does this mean we no longer need traditional city layouts? This is a key question for urban planners and there is a body of professionals that thinks we don’t need cities, at least in the form we know them. Instead, it argues, we can now live in small-scale towns and villages, which are supposedly more humane. This idea has huge appeal and it is shared by many environmental campaigners and Landscape Urbanists.

I will argue that this is a flawed idea. Digital technology is a new urban utility, of immense value to the social, economic & environmental performance if cities – but the “essential structure” of a dense, compact & continuously connected city should remain in place. Yes, cities have been damaged by divisive and polluting highway engineering but these failings are recent mistakes in the long history of urbanism; mistakes that can be fixed.

However useful they are, digital technologies can not replace the powerful and beneficial effects of the street grid. What are these beneficial effects? The most important, I will argue, is “first contact” – the unplanned, informal encounter between people that have not met before and may not have known that they would benefit from meeting. Densely connected cities create networks of movement and interaction that lead to rich transactional outcomes.

Certainly, people can become aware of each other online – and technologies will continue to improve the quality of these encounters. But technology is unlikely to replicate the subtle, spatial dynamics that convert awareness to interaction to transaction. Or, even if “online” does come close to doing so, the loss of “on land” first contact is a risk that is not worth taking.

Unless digital providers appreciate the risks of small-scale, dispersed settlement patterns, they may be lulled by the quaint imagery of a highly damaging rural idyll. Instead, the future city should continue to be densely connected, built according to planning guidelines that focus on the creation of high quality interpersonal transactions.

What does this mean?…

Public realm and “public infrastructure” (cafes) as workplace.
“Grown up” workforces & management practices.
Campuses of innovation.
Connections between fundamental research and live practice.

4 Comments on “Visions of a digital urbanism – inhuman metropolis or rural idyll? All is not what it seems”

  1. Pingback: Teaching urban design – a sketch for a new approach | The power of the network

  2. With Tim Stonor’s customary freshness, here we have a suggestion to keep on doing to escape the present financial crisis, at a moment when the founding notions of Space Syntax are revised to turn them deeper and more akin to the implementation required in present urban processes.

  3. Pingback: Smart cities – why, what, how, how? | The power of the network

  4. Pingback: Key questions for Smart and Future Cities | The power of the network

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