How digitalization helps rapidly growing urban areas remain livable

Antoine Picon is a French engineer, architect and historian who has published 20 books about urban planning and architecture, taught at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées and the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and been honored as one of the 2014 Mellon Senior Fellows of the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA). Compass spoke to him about cities’ growing challenges.

COMPASS: Throughout the world, population is becoming increasingly concentrated in cities. What challenges does this present, and how are urban planners responding?

ANTOINE PICON: It is indeed a substantive shift which, in some regions of the world, is very quickly gaining speed. Cities are playing an increasingly strategic role in the global economy. In light of this acceleration, there is somewhat of a crisis in traditional planning tools. Cities have become so spread out, so complex, and are evolving so quickly that traditional urban planning solutions no longer meet the needs of planners. The success garnered by the first proposals of digital cities and the global movement toward smart cities are exactly in line with this expectation of new tools for managing cities. Another essential point concerns environmental uncertainty, related to climate change and the proliferation of extreme events.

Many cities are threatened. Populations are attracted to the coasts, and it is especially in these areas that the effects of climate change will be felt the soonest. A third important point is the increased competition between cities that are vying with each other to attract talent, companies and capital. This trend correlates with discussions about the knowledge economy, according to which a city’s competitiveness comes from its ability to attract brainpower, that is, to successfully synthesize academia, research and cutting-edge companies. What’s more, when we speak of cities, we need to speak more specifically about urban metropolises, even though many cities have had difficulty in abandoning the municipal framework. More and more problems, particularly environmental, are emerging at the regional level.

What is the role of digitalization in the recent evolution of cities?

AP: In La ville territoire des cyborgs, I explained in a somewhat provocative way that the cyborg is the contemporary city what the ideal man was to the regular city imagined by Leonardo da Vinci in the Renaissance. Let me explain.

You have technologies, like the car, which have had a direct impact on the urban form. Digital has very profoundly changed the nature of the urban experience, but has not yet altered its form. Today, all cities are experienced and used in augmented reality: thanks to your smartphone, you are simultaneously in the street and in the digital world, like a kind of cyborg. It is a worldwide phenomenon and is profoundly changing modes of sociability, the way the city is used and even the way we look for a restaurant.

We are no longer the same city dwellers we were during the first industrial revolution or even during the middle of the 20th century. Now, it seems abnormal to us not to know how many minutes we will have to wait for our bus in Paris. Twenty years ago, the bus arrived “within a certain time.”

"DIGITAL HAS SLIPPED INTO EVERYTHING, FROM DISHWASHERS TO CARS, FROM STOPLIGHTS TO VELIB BIKE SHARING, BUT IT HAS NOT YET PROFOUNDLY MODIFIED THE URBAN FORM.”

ANTOINE PICON URBAN PLANNING AUTHOR, HISTORIAN AND PROFESSOR

As for the impact digital has had on the urban form, in my opinion, we are only at the start of the process. Digital has slipped into everything, from dishwashers to cars, from stoplights to Velib bike sharing, but it has not yet profoundly modified the urban form. However, it has completely changed the modes of managing cities. Today, we are able to generate huge amounts of data that make it possible to follow certain aspects of the urban metabolism in real time, and we can cross-check this data in a much finer way than before. This does not mean, however, that all problems have been resolved.

Indeed, it seems that the city itself is not changing a great deal.

AP: We can’t forget that a city is more than a physical reality. A city is made up of the millions of urban experiences and people who live there. The historically constructed framework can be preserved, but we are no longer living in the same inner Paris we used to. Cities have in a way been transfigured by digital; that is, they are lived, understood and experienced in a different way.

The two books I’ve written on smart cities were related to my observation that the theme of smart cities came primarily from the digital industry, while the traditional players in architecture and urban planning had made very little use of it, especially in France. I explained that the smart cities movement would have enormous consequences on the way cities are designed. We are moving from a traditional city of flows to a city of happenings, of events.

Geolocation represents one of the greatest disruptions in the relationship humans have to space. It is somewhat amusing to see to what degree everyone finds this completely natural. The real disruption is not that we no longer have to unfold a map, but that our life takes place on a map. The planet has become a map, a bit like the famous text by Jorge Luis Borges  [On Exactitude in Science], on the map of the empire that is the same size as the empire. And this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the digital world, which allows us to zoom in and out continuously, from the planet to our garden and back again.

It also carries many risks. The first is to imagine that reality is made the same way, with a risk of losing landmarks and scales. The information world is a world that spontaneously has no scale, unlike the traditional physical world.

How can digitalization integrate citizens into the urban future?

AP: We now have tools that allow us to consult with citizens, obtain feedback and communicate. This is one of the assets of digital technology. There are still problems, however. Any mayor or technical department will tell you that this ease of communication can prove to be very disruptive!

The problem is that you can make a lot of noise on the Internet without being very numerous in the physical world: a very organized group can mobilize against a project without being especially representative. It’s a problem for urban planning, which used to begin from the principle that people needed to be represented based on their number in reality. On collaborative sites, 10% of the people author 90% of the contributions. This is true for Open Street Maps, and it was already true in the first online communities. On the Internet, as in many other areas, very few people are behind the majority of the contributions. One of the major challenges in the coming years will be to move past this issue. We will need a new civic education, reconsidered for the digital era.

Furthermore, smart cities cannot be reduced to the matter of technical management because the city remains fundamentally a political reality. Cities are not factories or machines. Even if their operation needs to be optimized, they cannot be reduced to a series of processes to roll out. It is much more complicated, and cities need collective imagination, hope and dreams. They are places of tension and conflict, and imagining that they can be managed in a completely smooth way is, in my opinion, taking a very big risk.

What do you foresee for the development of platforms used for digital exchanges, data management and situational understanding? Is it inevitable?

AP: I think that it is certainly one of the most promising directions to explore today, and this is the reason why digital city projects are developing so quickly. Many social science researchers believe that we are in the midst of moving from a traditional way of thinking about infrastructure to thinking about platforms, and I am fairly convinced that something along these lines is being worked out. With digital platforms it is possible to combine more important initiatives, both quantitatively and qualitatively; more numerous, and in a wider range of fields.

Traditional infrastructure operated based on a very marked distinction between managers, operators and users. Platforms no doubt make it possible to be more flexible and to involve very different players. Platforms open up new possibilities in a world in which traditional roles seem a little too limited. They also enable combining traditional infrastructures and encourage intermodality. They can integrate resources of very different types, which is also one of their strengths.

The people who are connected to platforms are no longer solely users. This relationship can come in a variety of forms. Not everything is completely clear yet, but we are in a period of change. Finally, I am interested in the epistemology of cities and technical systems, and I tell myself that in the transition currently taking place, something fundamental is occurring.

The platform model that facilitates exchanges is beginning to become central, whether in terms of information or physical movement. Are networks therefore essential?

AP: Networks will in any case be managed by platforms; that’s what is happening: a city’s transportation system is integrated into a platform, to certain degree.

To return to my idea about flows, what I find very striking is that with Uber, in the end, they are managing occurrences, meetings between a vehicle and a user. We are moving beyond the traditional, aggregate figure of the flow, to connect with issues related to collisions between particles.

This is also what is changing the nature of the representation of the network. A traditional network managed flows. Today, we are managing occurrences that are much more atomized or individualized, with much greater granularity. What platforms also allow is to considerably increase an image’s resolution, to zoom in to a certain degree. And on this point, in my opinion, we may still tend to underestimate the revolution this represents. But here again, a very profound transformation is taking place.

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