Digital Impact on Urban Design: A Parable

UCTAT Newsletter n.28 – novembre 2020

di Luigi Ferrara

In 1987, I wrote about and created a project that I called the “imploding” house. It was based on the idea that the personal computer had penetrated our homes enabling concentrations and accumulations of data that allowed for intangible digital spaces to be compressed and overlaid on our physical living space altering it in both subtle and drastic ways. The first significant change involved returning the function of work into the home introducing live/working, facilitated by ICT networks, after a few generations where those functions had been separated. This was quickly followed by the rapid acceleration in the development of technology that facilitated dematerialization and rematerialization engines such as scanners, printers and sensors which worked in tandem with our increasingly mobile array of computing devices. By 1995, I held an event called the “electronic” city that focussed on understanding the growing impact of the digital city and its relationship to the physical city and the consequent changes that were ensuing in our urban design.

The trends at that time pointed to the end of the skyscraper in cities that had deep and growing digital infrastructure. Skyscrapers had always really been a physical version of a CPU processing information for corporate business deals. With the new digital infrastructure increasingly paralleling and capturing these types of activities of the physical city, it seemed clear that new patterns of urban form would develop impacted from the growing interactions between our physical and digital environments. The birth of ecommerce at that time seemed to spell the end of the shopping mall and the expansion of the internet and collaborative software applications presaged a world where we could live and work anywhere, leading many to imagine an inverse rush back to the countryside in the post-industrial era. What I hadn’t quite anticipated at that time was the adaptation and the resistance the physical city would put up against the trends arising from the digital world’s fight to dematerialize it.

If you could buy anything online why not create stores that had everything, like box stores. Also if you wanted to fulfill ecommerce you needed to build vast distribution centres that themselves were physically transformative of the city. If you had started working from home would you be happy without the socialization that the workplace had provided. Were the digital tools really advanced enough and practical enough to facilitate that which they had promised such as e-learning. In 1998 I had built the DXNet, a broadband network to enable designers, engineers, architects and planners to collaborate remotely, synchronously and asynchronously on urban development projects. It was a more advanced version of the zoom platform that we are using so ubiquitously today during the pandemic. I believed then that it would move the design of our cities from a process of sequential specialization to one of collaborative design practice but when I introduced it into the market at the turn of the millennium I saw the resistance that both people and existing professional processes would present to it. I abandoned that project for others that seemed more fruitful and I predicted that it would be 20 years more before something similar would actually penetrate and impact the market place as it has during this period of the pandemic in 2020.

Today, many architects I speak to, tell me that they will not return to their offices post pandemic and that they will operate as a virtual consortium of professionals connected by a broadband network as I had anticipated over 20 years ago. I would like to believe that this will be the case even if its consequence might be the decimation of the office clusters in our cities especially as I am concerned with climate change and the impacts of our zoned cities, but my experience living in our physical and digital worlds and working over 35 years with them both tells me that the coming story will be much more complicated than that. While the acceleration of the digital are taking root during the pandemic, from the escape from big cities to smaller ones, to creating homes where one can live and work more comfortably, to the hollowing out of retail cores because of the increase of online commerce, I know now that the physical world will fight back in its own way and create new opportunities and new urban formats that will be as attractive and compelling as the conveniences we have come to better understand when we were forced into the digital city by the pandemic. What is even more clear to me now is that whoever really understands the connections and interactions between the levers that control the digital infrastructure and the physical infrastructure of our environments will be able to generate the highest value for our society. Whoever masters the process of dematerialization/rematerialization will not only control the economy but will shape how our cities will grow or even decline in the coming years. As architects we should remain alert and watch and map those changes to save and or re-imagine perhaps the most precious commodity that we trade in, public space.

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