Digital Placemaking

Designing Digital Cities – reflections

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Smart cities promise a bright future for urban communities with safer, more efficient infrastructure. From greater mobility in public spaces to faster improvements of public services, thanks to a more connected citizenry, the increased integration of digital technology into everyday life can be transformative.

However, in recent times there have been growing concerns over the potential encroachment of digital technology into people’s personal lives, with fears of a dystopian future of sensors, uncontrolled AI, big data, surveillance, and more.   

Such issues were tackled during the Designing Digital Cities event at Bristol’s Arnolfini, which I attended on 27 February. Presented by Architecture Centre, the talk posed the question “What are the risks and rewards of integrating digital technology into our built environment?”

French-Brazilian architect and urbanist Elizabeth de Pontzamarc, as well as Chief Innovation Officer and Partner at Gehl, Jeff Risom, were invited to speak on the topic. Meanwhile, founder of Bristol Futures Global, Stephen Hilton, chaired the event.

For the opening remarks, Stephen addressed the dystopian fears that come with smart cities, such as increased surveillance and AI control. He also stated that the idea of smart cities came before this current age of social media, as councils believed they had the responsibility to incorporate digital tech into public works for the good of society.

The two speakers then talked about their different approaches to digital city design. Although both focused on using technology to design for people, Elizabeth’s talk focused on designing buildings with AI, Jeff spoke about using people-centred data to design cities that are better for the public, in terms of health, active mobility and sustainable development. 

Designing Buildings Using AI

Elizabeth de Pontzamarc is an architect and urbanist based in Paris. She creates architectural symbols and urban landmarks, ensuring the buildings she works on are visionary in design and connected to the communities they serve. Her 30-year career is built on the study into the identity of places, local life, and territorial links, and has seen her lead proposals for sustainable and flexible mixed-use and prefabricated housing. 

Arguing against the social isolation that can come with AI-driven development, Elizabeth champions human intelligence in designing smart cities.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of AI

AI can be beneficial to urban development. Its high competence in specific skill sets can hasten urban planning and public transportation projects, delivering results in superhuman speeds. But that very same speed and competence can also lead to scenarios that put humans at great risk, if an AI’s goals are not set to account for certain variables like privacy and safety.

Examples of the dangers of AI misuse are the facial recognition technologies in the surveillance cameras installed on the streets of London, Facebook’s racially discriminatory housing ads, and Google’s inappropriate access to medical records to develop AI tools.

Such issues reinforce Elizabeth’s argument that human intelligence should be what drives urban development, with AI only used as a tool to facilitate innovation.

Case Study: Taichung Intelligence Operations Center (TIOC)

Her work on the Taichung Intelligence Operations Center (TIOC) serves as the prime example for her thesis. 

The project won the bid to create a symbol for human intelligence in the urban sprawl of Taichung, the second-largest city in Taiwan. It is the first fourth-generation tower, built to support a sustainable neighbourhood and encourage human interaction through its openness and connection to the city. The tower’s base and lower levels serve as public spaces due to their direct link to the park, making the facility an extension of the city. 

Increasing the functionality of the TIOC is a suite of AI devices, including:

“Thanks to the complementarity between artificial and human intelligence, this tower fosters the development of the innovations that our civilization dramatically needs in the current context,” Elizabeth says.

Using Data to Design Digital Cities for People

Jeff Risom’s formal education in architectural engineering and the intersection of city design and social science lets him approach the challenges of designing smart cities holistically. People-first design principles underpin his work in urban governance, business, and culture to create economically-viable and socially-equitable spaces.

Smart cities can become such spaces, especially as smart city tech rapidly grows and attracts more interest. IDC projects investments in smart cities are forecasted to grow to $158 billion in 2022

In his talk, Jeff points out that the problem with data collected from smart cities is that a great deal of it doesn’t correspond to people’s needs. There is plenty of data on people who are on the move (e.g. riding vehicles), but not on the places these people are arriving at and congregating in, like restaurants and parks.

As Chief Innovation Officer at Gehl, Jeff says they seek to use data to make the invisible visible. They are also “looking at the spaces between buildings.” They actually go into public life and gather data from real people.

Designing for Inclusivity

Gathering data from real people means accounting for underserved populations. It follows then that by using such data to design digital cities, inclusivity should be integral to the process. A digital city should serve its citizenry after all, as all citizens are a part of it. This is, in fact, the approach that Calvium took while we work on NavSta—an indoor wayfinding tool designed for people with invisible impairments. Inclusive design and research underpinned the project.

Designing inclusively is in line with the four methods promoted in the report Designing with Data: Shaping Our Future Cities by the Royal Institute of British Architects and Arup. This method covers designing for citizens, experimentation, city analytics, and transparency.

Case Study: New York

For Jeff, his methodology is to get data, triangulate, and design. Illustrating this process was the work his team at Gehl did for New York City.

They surveyed key areas and found that 90% of space in Times Square was for cars but 90% of people were pedestrians. To fix this problem, they initiated a series of pilot projects across iconic locations such as Broadway, Times Square, and Herald Square and personally communicated with city departments and community groups.

The results were marked improvements for people, the local government, and businesses. 

The Human Element of Designing Digital Cities

Whether it’s adopting AI or gathering data, these two design philosophies to digital cities are ultimately guided by prioritising people with an emphasis on inclusivity. 

It is the people who will be living and working within smart cities—their needs and wants— that should be directing design. Without this human element acting as the foundation, we squander the golden opportunities for societal advancement that smart cities can provide.