Design Approaches for the 21st Century City

At The Mobile City, we are currently researching the design processes that shape the cities of the 21st century, and bumped into an interesting paradox (also pointed out by others):

The experience of our present day city in every day life is increasingly a hybrid one – meaning that it is made up of both physical and mediated experiences that mutually influence, extend or contradict each other. At the same time, the design of our cities is for the most part still a rather stratified process where different disciplines shape the different ‘layers’ of the urban experience.

Planners and architects are still mostly interested in the physical, spatial design of cities. Whereas it is artists, telecom-operators, activists, and dotcom-start-ups that shape the software and interface layers through which the experience of a physical place is optimized, extended, reframed, negated, denied, contested or contradicted. What is more, these different disciplines all have their own traditions of understanding what a city is or should do. Often they don’t even understand each other’s language.

This is of course not necessarily a bad thing. Cities have always been heterogeneous or hybrid spaces where different logics are at work – and in competition with each other. Urban culture has always been a negotiation between the spatial embodied ideals of architects and the messy practices of everyday life.

At the same time we think that this time around this negotiation is becoming more complicated. It is not just the architect or planner that sets the stage for our urban experiences. Digital media, software and embedded technologies  – varying from location based services to ‘smart’ sensors – play a co-constituting role in setting and sorting the stage as well as in both enabling and regulating public interaction.

While trying to get a grasp on the different ways that digital media technologies are shaping our cities and could be incorporated in the design process, we came up with a number of possible ‘design approaches’. They form a somewhat ad lib constituted list of categories, each made up of different elements that together set the boundaries for the design process. These design approaches combine certain design tools, a methodology, a particular way of understanding what a city is (often embedded in one or another discipline) and/ or particular urban ideals. A design approach thus consists of a particular way of understanding the world, and / or a particular methodology, tools and objectives to intervene in that world.

These design approaches are not neatly comparable variables: in one approach the tools might be decisive, another departs from social processes, a third from technologies and a fourth stresses a particular urban ideal. Some operate at the scale of urban planning, others mostly focus at hyperlocal interventions. Some of these approaches are overlapping, others might be combined.

This list is also not exhaustive – please feel free to add any approaches that we might have overlooked. Yet we do think that it gives a sense of all the different concurrent and sometimes competing approaches at work in the 21st century hybrid city.

· The Wiki-City – Designing with new media – How can the design process itself be restructured through the use of (social) digital media? How can one allow for more participation, bottom-up input, and engagement in a productive way? How does this change the relation between client, architects and other performers, and the audience?

· The Real Time City – Data-aggregation in the Design Process With the rise of digital and mobile media and gps receivers, urbanites have started leaving numerous digital traces behind that when aggregated reveal their usage patterns of the city. What exactly do we learn from these datasets, and how can they be incorporated in the design process?

· The Living City – Urban experience, narratives and design Digital media can be used to annotate urban spaces with people’s everyday stories and lived experiences. How does this temporal inscription of place change they way we see and interact with the urban environment?

· The Multimedia City  – The design of urban screens and media facades Architecture is increasingly using multimedia components as part of their elementary set of building blocks. How can you incorporate these into urban design?

· The Augmented City – The design of informational services in a physical context In augmented reality, additional layers of information are projected on or over physical environments. Thus the domain of digital information is embedded in the physical domain. What is the potential for urban design?

· The Sentient City – Designing Responsive Architecture Various sensors can register real-time information about the environment, and movements, (social) processes and identities of people and objects. Technical systems may also respond to changing conditions. How can this be employed to adapt the shape, function, usage of or access to buildings and infrastructures?

· The Smart City – Using artificial intelligence to design urban systems that respond or anticipate what is happening Can AI be integrated in urban design to anticipate and respond to urban patterns?

· The Hybrid City – Designing for hybrid practices. Digital and mobile media have led to changing urban behaviors and the rise of new cultural practices. For instance, the advent of WiFi has increased ‘mobile work’ from (semi-)public spaces. How can these changes in cultural practices be translated back into design, either by physically accommodating them or by design interventions that discourage them?

· The Layered City –Integrated design of the parallel experiences of physical places and mediascapes If the experience of the city is shaped by both the shape of the physical city as well as through exchanges in the media landscape, can we design both layers (or ‘channels’) of an urban project in concordance with each other?

· The Plugin City – using digital media to optimize, personalize or extend the experience of the city Can digital media be designed as ‘plug ins’ to the existing city, make the usage of existing urban structures more efficient and personalized or extend and deepen their experience?

· The Tactical City – using digital media to design alternative usage of the city Can digital media be designed to open up the design of physical spaces to other users or practices than initially intended?

· The Critical City – using design to foreground and discuss the dominant discours on urban culture Can design be employed as a means to a debate on urban culture, rather than shaping urban culture itself?

· The Interface City – designing urban ‘interfaces’. Some urban theories understand the city itself as an information platform where goods, opinions and ideas are constantly exchanged. Can new services be designed that optimize or extend this function of the city as a platform of exchange into the digital domain?

· The Informational City – The design of information spaces In our understanding of the media world spatial metaphors play an important role. Some architects have made the leap from designing physical structures to using their spatial expertise in ‘information architecture’.

In our upcoming event in Shanghai this August we want to focus on the role of digital media in the urban design process. How can digital media be employed in the design process of cities and urban culture? There we would like to showcase and discuss varying desing approaches and investigate whether different disciplines involved can learn from each other. A call for participation will be released shortly.

3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Great list! I think many have similar lists lying around on whiteboards and in drawers since, obviously, overlaps and hybridity is a given condition. Good of you to share. I would suggest adding “The Participatory City” — designing for civic engagement and empowerment. There are large overlaps with the perspectives above (wiki, interface, living etc.), but this is focused on facilitating participation in the (civic/political) power infrastructures of a city, including e.g. (citizen) journalism, hyperlocal media, public discourse, mobile/urban media.

  2. @Martin: Thanks for the addition, very useful.

  3. Indeed, a very interesting this attempt to collect the many angles to designing the hybrid urban space. They are all slightly different strategic approaches that find their important (and mostly subtle) differences in the different political and social agenda’s that drive them; (social cohesion, or empowerment or integration, or resistence to surveillance scripts etc.) in different design disciplines that structure them (architecture, urbanism, design for mobile apps, interaction design, etc.) , and from different main operating technologies and protocols (wifi, grps, gps, bluetooth, G3, http, rfid etc) It would be interesting to see what are the main vectors along which the differences between the above hybrid city design flavours are organised.
    Another addition may be the Seamful City – (referring to Nicolas Nova’s concept of seamful design) – a design approach that capitalises on the variety of qualities in network speed, network range, media free zones, and (non) operating technologies.

3 total pingbacks on this post
Martijn de Waal

Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He is currently a senior researcher at the Play & Civic Media group at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting.

Formerly he was part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media.

His most recent book are The City as Interface. How Digital Media Are Changing the City (NAi010 Publishers, 2014) and De Platformsamenleving (The Platform Society), co-authored with Jose van Dijck en Thomas Poell (Amsterdam University Press, 2016)