The Digital City


The Digital City

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Today’s cities are growing at an alarming rate. It is estimated that more than half of the population now lives in urban areas. The U.N projects that by 2050, nearly seventy percent of people will reside in cities.[1] Two hundred years ago, only three percent of the world’s population were urbanites.[2] People once had to inhabit areas close to agriculture and water sources. With technological advances, developments are no longer centered on such physical constrictions. Modern cities are complex hybrid realities of technology and place-based infrastructure, in which our social fabric is built and defined. Cities have become hubs for human connections, creativity, and green living. Paradoxically, cities also host the most severe cases of pollution, crowding, crime and social fragmentation. Now, more than ever, cities need a vision for a future in which technology and humans function in symbiosis. Together, humans and technology possess the capabilities to transform city spaces into sustainable, beautiful, and efficient places. The cities of today require a new paradigm for digital infrastructure. The modern metropolis will incorporate innovative and smart places, software that activates these places, and spatial configurations that meld together the digital world with a physical location for organization.

Technology has enabled an electronically interconnected world in which distance is no longer an impediment to connectivity. “Mind-work no longer demands legwork, commerce is not impeded by distance, and community does not have to depend on locality”2 The Industrial revolution coupled with the Interstate Highway Act resulted in the separation of home and work, thus creating automobile dependence and sprawl. The digital revolution is bringing them back together through electronically enabled home and work places. Spaces can now function simultaneously to serve several purposes. The digital metropolises of the future will require new urban tissues characterized by live/work dwellings, mixed-use communities, and widespread electronically mediated meeting places. This provides a framework for more sustainable, walkable and efficient cities. This new paradigm will require planners, urban designers and architects to create new infrastructure, which melds together new and old values of urban living. Architecture and urban design will have to optimize the relationships between physical and virtual spaces. The city is becoming spatially constituted as a hybrid: the digital and physical world merge, thus technological and material edges are becoming increasingly hard to dichotomize.[3] The hybrid age has produced a socio-technical nexus of co evolution between humans and technology.

The twenty-first century metropolis is becoming less determined by discrete objects and increasingly shaped by the connectivity between them.[4] Technology is enabling a new reality; architecture and physical spaces are being programmed to adapt to various conditions and respond to the environments in which they function. These buildings, objects and systems are becoming intelligent consumers of resources. The “smart places” of the future possess many of the characteristics of living organisms: interconnected and self-aware systems that integrate sensory inputs from multiple sources.1 Inhabitation takes on a new meaning: electronically mediated places are a combination of IP addresses and street addresses with electronic linkages. They are simultaneously embedded in and sustained by systems of physical and material circulation, visual and acoustic communication, and remote interconnection. An architecturally defined space now connects with the nervous system through nearby electronic organs. [5] Physical spaces will become a part of humans and humans a part of them. In the hybrid age, distinctions between “self” and “other” are being reconstructed.

The physical spaces that once sat idly now possess semantic memory. Algorithms and voracious data collection allow our cities to communicate with us and us with them. These technological mechanisms have situational awareness: able to consolidate, monitor and analyze data.[6] Through technological systems, our cities have semantic knowledge of people, objects, actions, relations, and culture that are acquired through experience.[7] By corresponding with citizens and other data sources, these systems act as a neural web that is constantly communicating in real-time and learning from other “data cells”. This enables an “internet of things”, in which data sensors embedded in streets, buildings, cars and other objects will transform physical objects and people into communicative systems. The Hybrid Age enables a reality in which all electronic devices act as sensors: counting steps, flashing warning signals at oncoming cars, and monitoring environmental conditions. These systems will be seamlessly linked in a wireless “bodynet”: allowing humans and technology to act as an integrated and semantic system that function in a worldwide digital network.5Author William Mitchell argues that through this semantic knowledge base, humans have transformed into modular re-configurable, infinitely extensible cyborgs.5 Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku claims that the “computer” as an object will cease to exist from view and instead become invisibility integrated into our built environment.[8] In this way technology has become as omnipresent as the air we breathe.

In many ways, virtual systems are taking over physical space. Storage of bits is displacing storage of physical artifacts, thus reducing the need for building.5 Moving bits is more efficient than moving people and goods. The result is a reduction in fuel consumption, pollution, land use, and travel time. Many physical spaces are increasingly being substituted by electronic systems. As population increases, smart growth becomes essential to combat sprawl, automobile dependence, and overcrowding. This means creating communities that are well planned, efficient and economically viable. Cities need to respond to the changing values of young urban professionals. Apartments will become hyper-efficient, technology-enabled spaces that dynamically transform and do more with less space. In addition, built in computational components will adjust for resource efficiency. Hong Kong has exemplified this concept through a 334 square foot space, which can be transformed into 24 different configurations.1 Technologically enabled walls can slide and rearrange themselves while other objects: kitchen, dining, dressing, and bed–can be rearranged and moved automatically depending on the residents needs. With these CityHomes, residents can now reside in personalized dwellings that are more scalable, livable and functional. One size never really fitted all, and now it doesn’t have to. Things can be created in non-standardized ways with elements that respond precisely to the users needs.

Places now possess the capabilities to respond to the availability of more or less resources such as wind, sunlight and water.4 The problem of scare resources will be addressed through semantic technology: Agriculture that regulates soil moisture, computers that download large files from the Internet in off peak hours, and houses that self-regulate. The needs of cities and the humans residing within them will be anticipated before citizens are conscious of them. The “internet of things” will allow objects to react to stimuli from other inputs and adjust their actions accordingly.1 “Smart houses” will monitor internal temperatures, ambient light levels, room-by room sound and motion, and outdoor weather conditions. They will continuously process and consume data and interact with the software delivered through devices in the homes and those worn by inhabitants. In the future sensors will be embedded in even more devices, collecting, utilizing, quantifying and analyzing the processes of urban life.1 Cities can now anticipate things that humans cannot and create feedback loops allowing for the optimization of how cities function. Systems are now capable of applying and imbuing the adaptive intelligence of biological processes into synthetic and technological biology. Using living materials coupled with the use of technology, cities can harvest carbon dioxide and produce energy. Any corner of a busy street could receive 50,000 steps a day; cities now have the potential to utilize pedestrian traffic by harnessing kinetic energy in highly active areas with Pavogen Tiles. Cities could be more than simply efficient; they could become sites of resource production rather than voracious sites of consumption.

Urban regions are made even more efficient through spatial enablement and geo-location. When planned and implemented properly, citizens can interact with and through space using technology in a meaningful and empowering way.6 A water pipe is able to tell a computer it is fractured, a car is able to tell when the driver is veering off, and an apartment is able to determine if there is a gas leak or a fire and immediately alert authorities. The possibilities of these geo-tagged sensors and data practices are endless. Geo-crowdsourcing possesses the faculty of real-time emergency management and open sourced citizen input and feedback.6 Citizens act as sensors to report inefficiencies and problem areas within the city such as potholes, which municipalities can then address before they become too costly. Devices such as smart phones further accelerate Semantic Cities. Singapore used mobile phones and other urban sensor data to create a real-time map of the busiest restaurants, most congested transportation routes, and other information.1 Users can report various incidences, find ride shares, and even locate where their favorite items are on sale. Localized reports on air quality can be crowdsourced to help those with asthma and allergies. Googlemaps traffic layer allows users to overlay real-time information about traffic volumes and other information passively and anonymously. The result is an accurate tool to avoid traffic jams and even potholes.1 Cities would not function as they do without this open-sourced citizen data; it is an integral part of the vast and dynamic network of “smart cities”.

Technology can increase the function of cities as a place for mobilization and civic participation by bringing together residents of diverse backgrounds. Technology as far as urban politics are concerned has allowed cities to be transformed into places, which enable “electronic democracy”. Today over 1,000 towns and cities have homepages and more than 200 already have civic networking projects.[9] These provide new channels for access to political information and introduce opportunities for transparency, immediate feedback loops and civic participation. This substitutes the inconvenience of attending 7pm planning board meetings on a Tuesday or Thursday. This form of online civic participation allows for strengthened interactions of voluntary organizations, pressure groups, and other computer-mediated communication. Technology is a means to reach supporters and share information and resources. In this way, it can encourage less red tape and more results. Intraurban networks have the potential to provide updated versions of the agoras and forums of the past. Accelerated connectivity enables more autonomous forms of community.8 Citizens are enabled to demand real-time accountability and transparency from politicians. The Jeffersonian Dream has been encouraged and reinvigorated by “community networks” and supported by online meeting places.2 With shrinking municipal budgets it is important that citizens have an online platform to collect, communicate and engage within the urban context.

As the definition of “neighbor” is becoming increasingly colluded, cities need to focus on building human capital and reconnecting citizens in face-to-face spaces as well as in the digital realm. Online databases provide organizations, institutions, and individuals with short feedback loops, networking, transparency, and collaborative capabilities in which assets can be visualized and leveraged. Various parties can build partnerships and strategic alliances by observing common interests and organizational links. These relationships relate to funding, referrals, access to resources, joint service planning, and collaborative projects. This strategy of an online map of assets helps identify gaps and inefficiencies and allows for the more effective and cohesive achievement of unified goals. This “digital Community center” brings together stakeholders and eliminates the redundancy of resources and needless expenditures.

A unified coalition allows for the ability to influence power structures, leverage resources, and gain business support. Many applications are enabling citizens to share in a “location based social network” where they can engage/disengage in communication. These virtual meeting spaces provide a framework to encourage social gatherings in both the physical and technological realms. Applications such as Instamapper, Meetup, Foursquare and Spotme combine geo-location and social networking, thus linking together virtual and physical worlds into a platform for meeting. Grassroots planning through online systems such as Plentizen–an online planning website–make movements such as guerilla urbanism possible. Citizens collectively engage to host events. This tactical urbanism can be used in arts, politics, planning, science, and numerous other functions.1 Tactical urbanism is both a bottom-up and a top-down approach, which uses bridging and bonding capital to encourage civic engagement.

Technology also encourages the idea of the “collective”, resulting in the changing of citizen behaviors. By recognizing capabilities within a community individuals are mobilized with a cohesive vision and a plan to solve their own problems. Technology enables the city to function as a commons: A set of resources that belong to the collective of citizens.3 The very thing that makes cities so powerful—the ability to agglomerate—will be enhanced by a new paradigm in sharing. Technology is a catalyst for collaborative consumption: You can share everything from carbon emissions to vehicles. In cities, either consciously or subconsciously, people are beginning to realize that the public realm, the commons and the sharing goods and services are integral parts of urban life.1 The beauty of this is that people no longer need to endlessly consume goods that they will only use once. Instead, they can rent them or share them using various technological tools. Studies suggest that one shared car can take 13 or 14 off the road.1 The Internet has allowed citizens to expand the circle of people to whom they trade with. The open-sourced and collaborative culture of the web has taught people that sharing is a default of social interaction. Sharing is not just an altruistic idea that is taught in pre-school; it is an integral survival strategy that addresses some of cities most pressing issues.

The power of the crowd is crucial to the future of cities. According to Carlo Ratti, MIT’S head of Sense-able Cities. “They are more like a shifting flock of birds or shoal of fish, in which individuals respond to subtle social and behavioral cues from their neighbors about which way to move forward”. Providing awareness through direct feedback mechanisms will impact selfish behavior and reduce the inequitable overconsumption of scarce resources referred to as “The Tragedy of the Commons”. A peer-to-peer governance model will help prevent this tragedy. In an installation by artist Usman Haques, participants received a flower box with watering equipment and a bottle of vinegar. They also received an electrical appliance that was linked via the Internet to the flower boxes. If digestion of the plants offset the electrical appliance, the plants would be watered by the system. However, if all users in the system used more energy than their plants consumed, the system would start to kill plants by using vinegar.3 By utilizing technological resources, people are being turned from individual victims to collective groups with a system in place for remediation. These technologies challenge the suburban mindset that all of us in interdependence should live independently on wheels and accumulate goods excessively.

“Big data” Is drastically altering how our cities are being run and how we live within them. It possesses an invaluable utility in leveraging collective information such as environmental monitoring and emergency management. Unfortunately, there is an undeniable “big brother” element to real-time data collection and monitoring. It is hard to engage people into being human data sources due to the “Orwellian” reality of the situation. Privacy concerns must be addressed so that citizens are more aware and informed about how data is being used and collected. There is a challenge in maintaining a balance between providing pervasive real-time information and preserving privacy. The more aware citizens are of these process and the more they will benefit from these systems, the more likely they will be willing to share this data.[10] Technology is a double-edged sword, reducing burdens for some while creating them for others: we enrich our social lives through co-design in social networks, but our privacy has been compromised in the process.9

In order for these technologies function effectively, citizens should get to choose how much data they share, with whom, and how it will be used. Rather than trying to control individuals using technology, these “smart cities” must work for the people within them. The autocatalytic city contains an intelligence and ingenuity that can never be captured by a top-down system of control. To be successful it requires a bottom-up asset-based strategy and a transparent governance system. These cities should be citizen-centric rather than citizen dominated. These cities must challenge the “If you build it they will come” mindset. As argued by urban activist Jane Jacobs, our goal is not to command the city but to understand the processes that make it work.


[1] City 2.0 the Habitat of the Future and How to Get There. New York: Ted             Conferences, 2013. Print.

[2] Mitchell, William John. E-topia: “Urban Life, Jim–but Not as We Know It”             Cambridge: MIT, 2000. Print.

[3] Foth, Marcus. From Social Butterfly to Engaged Citizen: Urban Informatics,             Social Media, Ubiquitous Computing, and Mobile Technology to Support                   Citizen Engagement. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.

[4] Armstrong, Rachel. Living Architecture: How Synthetic Biology Can Remake Our             Cities and Reshape Our Lives. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

[5] Mitchell, William J. City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn. Cambridge, MA:       MIT, 1995. Print.

[6] Rosche, Stephane, Nashid Nabian, Kristian Kloeckl, and Carlo Ratti. “Are “Smart             Cities” Smart Enough.” ACM Digital Library. N.p., 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.             <;.

[7] Binder, Jeffery R., Rutvik H. Desai, William W. Graves, and Lisa L. Conant.       “Where Is the Semantic System? A Critical Review and Meta-Analysis of 120       Functional Neuroimaging Studies.” Oxford Journal 19.12 (2009): n. pag. Print.

[8] Khanna, Ayesha, and Parag Khanna. Hybrid Reality Thriving in the Emerging Human-technology Civilization. New York: Ted Conferences, 2012. Print.

[9] Cyber Democracy: Technology, Cities, and Civic Networks. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Google             Books. Routledge, 2002. Web. 3 Apr. 2013.10.   

[10] Resch, Bernard, Alexander Zipf, Phillipp Bruess-Schneeweis, Euro Beinat, and Marc             Boher. “Live Cities and Urban Services: A Multi-dimensional Stress Field             Between Technology, Innovation, and Society.” Geoprocessing             2012: The Fourth International Conference on Advanced GIS, 2012.



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