Engaging the Smart City: Reclaiming Architects’ Role in Shaping the Urban Environment

Engaging the Smart City: Reclaiming Architects’ Role in Shaping the Urban Environment

January 2017
Project Lead(s): 

Smart cities promise a resilient future for the built environment where the needs of citizens will be balanced with the sustainable consumption of resources. Realtime data streams gathered by a network of digital sensors distributed across the smart city fabric offer perspectives on the city as never before; in capturing activities ranging from traffic flows and energy consumption to Internet use and municipal waste collection, smart cities should foster new forms of awareness and engagement in the planning and design of the urban environment.

Yet these wide potentials have been narrowed by a corporate version of smart city ideas. IBM and others have established a dominant presence in shaping the vision of the smart city which biases a top-down centralized implementation, privileging its capacity to monitor and optimize municipal services over direct engagement with its citizens.

Luckily, architects are engaging the core practices of smart cities in a manner which counteracts this centralized deployment, instead foregrounding the capacity of information communication technologies to empower individuals to create new inclusive ways to organize, use and shape the places they live.

Specifically, an emerging body of work characterized as information-inspired design (IID) is working to take advantage of the availability of data flows and computational tools in shaping proposals for the built world. IID projects take on many forms, from data-driven form-finding algorithms which combine information on climate and site to generate optimized shapes for buildings, to responsive architectures which propose sentient environments that literally transform based on needs.

At this moment, when resistance to the corporate smart city grows urgent, practitioners wanting to advance IID projects from prototypes to real-world deployment are hampered by a lack of resources offering in-depth exposition of the digital engines underlying smart city proposals. Increasingly, the design content of digital tools is recognized as fundamentally informing the design proposition as a whole: there is a need to expand the literature to encompass not only the architecture outside the computer, but the architecture inside the machine, and the connection between the two. The importance of this expansion guides the objectives and methods of the proposed research. The research outcomes will support architects who are welcoming into their practice activities outside of their traditional expertise, such as writing code, acquiring and operating on data sets, and assembling hardware components; ultimately leading to increased agency over all aspects of a project.

This research responds to a need for new analytic frameworks and synthetic tools to build a coordinated understanding of the body of IID work. A two-phase methodology will offer an examination of a collection of IID projects in which attention is paid to both the physical and virtual components. The first phase will use a preliminary case-study framework to present a wide-ranging inventory of IID work. Case-study findings will be integrated into an interactive web-based tool which will bring the results to life by allowing users to dynamically sort and filter the projects in order to generate multiple perspectives on the collection of work and to draw out new relationships between individual projects. In the second phase, selected projects will be exposed to a second, more in-depth analytical pass to further examine and understand IID projects’ virtual components in relation to real-world project outcomes.