Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The digital urban experience


Data is rapidly becoming a valuable commodity.  It can be bought, sold, and used for various purposes.  For example, in the last presidential election, data became an important tool for targeting voters.  By the close of the election cycle, campaign staffs from both main parties knew exactly who their voters were, where they lived, what type of house they lived in, martial status and family size, preferences, level of education, and so forth.  In a talk presented several years ago by John Tolva, the Chief Technology Officer for the city of Chicago to a group of architects, he repeatedly used the phrase "information architect."  The question that arose from the confused audience at the end of his lecture was, "you don't mean real architect?"  In Emily Badger's article "What an Urban Planner Should Like in the Internet Age," she explores what it means to be an urban planner in the age of where information on anything can be obtained with a click of the mouse and how its changing the face of urban planning.

Is there a real difference between a real (let's refer to them as physical) architect and an information architect?  Let's ponder that for a moment.  The function of an architect is to create a built environment for humans to experience.  Increasingly, those experiences are being mediated through digital technology.  If you recall a previous post where I discussed this issue based on notes I took at a lecture presented by the AIA, one of the things I mentioned is that the architects who spoke where doing research in ways to integrate both the digital and physical experience.  This can be accomplished through apps, QR codes on building facades, WiFi hotspots in unexpected place.  Ms. Badger speculates that it would be a great idea if some of the best elements of the built environment could inform the digital one, such as broadband connectivity that as active as an urban street grid.

Mr. Tolva suggested that it's incorrect to treat physical architecture differently from information architecture.  He noticed that a lot of people were using information technology to resolve problems that physical architects already solved.  The physical architects have spent millennia figuring out how to design successful public spaces however information architect still struggle with the issue online.  For example, Facebook is public space in the sense the that anything you post is ripe for public consumption.  Remember this next time you decide to post or tweet pictures of a party you went to.  The downside of the social media sites is that unlike sitting in a coffee place, like I'm doing now, it doesn't allow for random encounters and exchange of information, like the one I just had with a gentleman sitting across from me.  Private malls and planned suburban communities are a type of mediated public space.  They have all the affectations of public space: fountains, benches, trolley cars, twinkling lights in the trees but they're highly controlled environments.  The social media sites are essentially the same thing without the chance encounters.

The social media sites start to look different through this prism.  In the meantime, our actual public spaces, buildings and parks, can be viewed as platforms for information.  Try this, next time you're at work or school, sit somewhere for a period of time and observe the people.  Carefully look at what they wear, what they eat, who they're or if they're alone, and so on.  Thus, Ms. Badger concludes that it's high time for building designers and information designers to get together and blend their profession.  Mr. Tolva, publicly stated that it was time to create a new discipline that merged urban design and planning with urban informatics, with a networked public space.

John Tolva is touching on a number of ideas.  The unevenness of digital information has real-world implication in cities.  The smartphones, tablets, and laptops we use to access this information will insist on changes to the physical environment.  The social norms of private and public space start to blur.  Perhaps New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was right when he said that privacy doesn't exist anymore.  For now, it's useful to consider who should be addressing this brave new world and if those people exist.  Mr. Tolva said, "The real opportunity is in thinking about how many points of tangency with the online world actually become embedded in the physical space."  It's not just data portals that contain information about cities, it's about interacting with your city from your computer.  However, that's not what the urban experience is genuinely about.

Emily Badger sums it up by saying, "the best part of the cities is on the street."  In the future, how that street is experienced could be enhanced through information gathering and exchange from buildings, stoplights, bus stops, and parks.  The possibility of a more personalized urban experience is a fascinating one, yet has shades of Big Brother.  Then again, think about this the next time you log onto the internet, look at the adds, they're generated based on your searches and buying habits, then think about everything you just read.

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