The Temporary City

Our shifting desires and social behavior will dictate the city of the future’s fluid design.

In many ways, the “smart” city is already here: public wifi, location-based services and embedded digital display systems embodying a few of the most present, if not visible, harbingers. And there are deeper evolutions afoot: energy and data infrastructures are becoming more complex and at the same time more seamlessly integrated into the material and structure of the world about. But, what is the essential character of these systems as they grow into the future?

There are a significant number of folks at frog today thinking about the many layers of this contemporary urban experience. And whether we're looking at computation, cultural interactions, infrastructure or services, the common thread lies in understanding the lived human experience. Creative Director Rob McIntosh reminded me the other day of the notion that cities are, in fact, "systems of systems," (1) yet we may not perceive them as such at street level. Cities are emergent organisms that have grown along exponential curves, attempting to adapt to changing human needs over generational time scales. Much of the "intelligence" that cities possess is fine-grained; it is the nuanced fabric and patina of human interaction with materials, machines and each other over time.

The language of interaction design for the city inevitably intersects with time considerations. Time's role in the design of the city isn't just about issues of pacing, but of duration and investment.

Within the frog portfolio, the nearest related projects are the design of large scale enterprise systems and data infrastructures that need to perform across platforms as well as human knowledge transfer. In smart cities, as within Big Data, what are the interfaces that will stand the test of time? Can they mitigate growing technological complexity?

There are some key challenges for firms engaging with the emerging smart cities space:

Taking the Long View
Do we need to reconfigure our fundamental perception of time in order to design at massive material and time scale? How do design processes scale to address the behavior and accessibility of systems and objects over time? How is planning affected? The Long Now Foundation provides interesting perspectives on these questions in the extreme, looking ten thousand years ahead. What about 100 years from now? Can digital controls for city infrastructure such as garbage and power be designed in the present to "flex" into future platforms or even future styles of human-computer interaction that will inevitably emerge? And how might business models need to change in support of such longer-term thinking?

Expanding Interdisciplinary Collaboration
How do we work differently to enable multi-disciplinary processes at the scale of the City? Can there be a common vocabulary among design and engineering disciplines that describe the City in standardized terms? How will this affect the way cities are built from scratch in the future? Materiality, space and time need to find parity with digital behaviors at macro and micro touch-points.

Engaging with Polity & Policy
Is the smart city ultimately about computation or political conversation? Can cities become more explicitly "political" artifacts in the context of national or even global interactions? On a local level, how do you make decisions about services and who do they serve? How are they regulated? At the human level, how are citizens allowed to participate in the environment where we live? How do you bring people into the decision making process?

Looking at some of these issues in context, at the recent re:Design UX conference in San Francisco, my discussion group took an interesting and delightful turn on the subject of software interaction and the city: food trucks. On the long-term problem of urban density and the lack of available brick-and-mortar spaces, participants considered the future of urban services as "super disposable layers.” These layers are experiences that come and go to the rhythms of human desire mediated within a mobile software ecology. And if this spontaneity has become possible through social and location based medias, could an entire city become…temporary? This wonderfully simple expression of human behaviors underscores the idea that "the intelligence of the city is on the streets"(2). And that is where we should begin.

"The real intelligence of cities lies is in the almost miraculous, unstable, spontaneous order of city life. The social relationships between people generate the functional intelligence of cities. Imperfect, conflicting, disastrous at times, always open to improvement. Technology only facilitates certain processes, and the logic of collective life will defeat any attempt to implement systems that exceed the required level of sophistication." (2)


The Future of The City


The adoption of ubiquitous computing, mobile devices, and rich sources of data are changing how we live, work, and play in urban environments. Increasingly, a digital landscape overlays our physical world and is expanding to offer ever-richer experiences that augment—and in some cases, replace—the physical experience: “The city is the platform, the network, the sensors, and the interface,” as frog creative director Rob McIntosh put it in a recent talk. To celebrate the New Cities Summit where frog hosted a workshop on the Meta-City, design mind presents a special digital issue exclusively on the future of the city and live coverage from the event.

Articles in this series