accidental urban designers

Tomorrow’s Accidental Urban Designers

As designers, we like to think that our work is a primary influence in shaping the places where we live: defining our towns, cities and suburbs – determining the look and feel of our built environments. And yes, there have always been planned new towns defined by the likes of HaussmannLutyens , Corbusier, Niemeyer and many who did the same at modest scale and whose names are forgotten. But are there other ‘accidental designers’ who have a better claim to be the real shapers of our urban realm?

For example, only when mechanical engineer, Elisha Otis made elevators safe could buildings become tall and the modern form of high rise cities evolve. George Stephenson’s railways had huge physical influence: fundamentally changing settlement patterns, creating suburbia, and breaking the link between local building materials and place; and the effects of Karl Benz’s automobiles on the shape and character of towns, cities and suburbs are immense. The inventions and ideas of many others could be added to the list – none of them spatial designers.

It is worth reflecting on this, as a consensus emerges that we are entering the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) founded on the convergence of new technologies, including artificial intelligence, robotics and mobile supercomputing. To date the emergence of the digital and I.T. sectors has brought many changes to our lives but no fundamental changes to the shape of our settlements, as happened in the first industrial revolution when the railways transformed the Victorian city. However there are signs that, with 4IR, this is about to change and a raft of new developments will force major alterations in society, the spatial and economic organisation of cities, and the purpose and uses of buildings and spaces:

  • Car manufacturers and tech companies are investing billions in autonomous cars with early prototypes already on our city streets. These have the potential to be far more efficient in their use of space – for example there would be no need to park outside one’s house or office and the vast surface spaces and buildings currently used for this purpose could be reclaimed;
  • Developments in artificial intelligence and robotics are predicted to eliminate significant numbers of jobs very soon and not just the low skilled, repetitive jobs lost by early manufacturing automation – any job which is linear and transactional (as opposed to, say, creative or people focussed) is at risk. Deloitte consider that 35% of jobs could disappear including many, often well paid, city centre professions; i.e. the occupiers of the expensive office buildings that physically define city blocks and whose spending power fuels activity at street level;
  • Might increased digital connectivity and changing concepts of work undermine the traditional pattern of central business districts and lead to more polycentric cities?;
  • What effect will the combination of online purchasing, home delivery and last minute logistics have on retail spaces in which much of the floor space is currently dedicated to holding stock?;
  • And what of the current trend for giant distribution buildings, with equally large service yards, when local distribution by drone and autonomous vehicles links to local ‘on demand’ manufacturing?

As Donald Rumsfeld would say these are just the ‘’known unknowns’’, and the future of cities will also be shaped by the ‘’unknown unknowns’’ which have yet to emerge.

So where does this leave designers? Perhaps the key is to recognise that we have a role to play, but that in 4IR technological developments may ultimately be the key actors. We must create resilient spaces and places, flexible enough to respond to significant changes and we must be alert enough to recognise early trends in technological change so that we can contribute to the debate. Global car manufacturers and tech giants are prototyping their driverless cars but have they begun to think through the consequences for the future of our cities? Perhaps we can help.

Guy Pearson

Guy is qualified as an architect and an urban designer at IBI Group. His interest and skills lie in the links between the two disciplines, including masterplanning and designing mixed use, high density urban neighbourhoods. Guy is an advocate of sustainable design to create liveable, healthy communities.

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