Last Tuesday evening I attended a great lecture given by Rick Robinson of IBM UK on the subject of "Digital Urbanism", at the offices of Space Syntax in central London. This event was organised by The Academy of Urbanism which is where I met Rick a few months ago having followed his blog for some considerable time. Rick is an Executive Architect at IBM responsible for it's work on Smarter Cities. He regularly posts on this subject at his blog http://the urbantechnologist.com
The choice of this topic by the Academy is no accident as its one of a small number of organisations in the built environment which has recognised the significant impact that digital technologies are having on urban life and the development of urban spaces and places.
Rick opened his presentation by talking about the disappearing boundary between the information supply world and the digital world and the resultant changes in the way that products are being created, designed, built and manufactured (3D printing of prosthetic limbs customised to individuals being a fascinating example) and the implications of these changes for the built environment, its governance and the way we use it. He identified three important trends urbanists need to be aware of:
- the attraction of little things and big things working together (citing Kelvin Campbell's thinking on the process of initiating change through "massive (amounts of) small (changes)";
- the capability of little things to improve and soften blunt infrastructures like road schemes and infrastructures;
- the increasing capability of technology to collect, fuse and make sense of many and complex arrays of data to improve the way in which cities operate - for example, indicators of vehicle exhaust emmissions and the quality of drinking water.
John Worthington, a founder of the Academy and founder of the seminal architecture practice DEGW, and a real expert on designing workspaces for the rapidly changing world of work, opened the Q and A by listing what he thought were the three levels of SMART in urban development, namely:
- Having and using common sense to build and enable the infrastructure that will help cities to function more effectively and to communicate more effectively with those who use them, avoiding the temptation to think that all new technologies will be a panacea.
- Having clarity on the core and key functions of the city and identifying appropriate technologies to deliver them and spot new ones.
- Understanding how to integrate technologies and digital systems that enables the city to function more effectively and people and business to benefit and "combine" with technology.
- The need for clarity in communications using smart technologies and clarity on what we are advocating on how to use them.
- The need to be able, as individuals and organisations, to "edit" the volume of digitally transmitted and generated information in order to be clear on how smart technologies can effectively enable cities to work more effectively.
- The need to get the private sector more engaged in funding research into the effective use of and development of technologies that will improve cities to lessen dependence on the public sector.
- We must not forget that a significant digital divide still exists in the UK where many people have no access to communications technologies, which needs to be remedied.