3 Engines of Tomorrow’s City

Love these pictures by Stephen Wilkes. If you haven’t already, definitely check him out.

Consider quantum physics — wait, stay with me — the field’s foundation of knowledge is built on understanding the universe’s largest phenomena so we can better explain the small things. I’ll let Brian Greene’s recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert explain. See 1:15–4:30 for the real important info.

Not so bad, who wouldn’t want a levitating rapid bus transit system? Here’s the gist of the conversation in case you didn’t watch the video:

  • Small things are bound by the same principles of large things
  • Actions taken by small things are fundamentally different, and yet the same, as big things (i.e. they do the same things differently)
  • In large quantities, the different actions small things do are identical to how we understand the actions of large things

Borrowing from quantum physics we might be able to understand, predict, and facilitate all the connecting interactions within a digital city if we can conceptualize the larger principles of network theory and hybrid placemaking within an urban network.

Mapping a Digital City

A digital city network is the culmination of three primary layers and a 4th facilitation layer within an urban landscape:

  1. Physical Layer — the tactile physical infrastructure of the built environment (i.e. bridges, roads, public parks, buildings, etc.)
  2. Social Layer — the spontaneous and planned interactions between people, businesses, and events occurring both digitally and physically
  3. Technological Layer — the data engine of the city enabling optimization of city resource allocation (aka the “smart city” stuff we see in the news)
  4. Civic Layer — the final unrefined layer that promotes, facilitates, and influences all interactions within and across the previous 3 layers

If the civic layer is responsible for activity across the network, then by understanding it’s core engines we can model interaction throughout the entirety of the digital city.

Actions to Know

The majority of all activity within the urban network can be categorized as one of three relationship types. To illustrate each, take a farmer’s market:

  • Facilitate — you want to buy an apple at a fruit stand using a credit card, the credit card facilitates the purchase and you walk away with the apple
  • Promote — a favorite grocer is featured at the farmer’s market, before it opened they promoted their appearance to drive customer attendance
  • Influence — there are two competing creameries at the market, one with fun ice cream flavors and the other only offering an uninviting plain vanilla…which do you get ice cream from? Did the quirkiness of the first creamery’s fun names influence your decision?

These relationships are sorted by the intensity of pressure they exhibit upon the interaction; meaning, facilitation is a very active relationship while influence is predominantly passive.

Behold, a digital city. Looks like a circuit doesn’t it? (produced by: this guy)

Engines of a Digital City

I’ve identified 3 engines of a digital city — connection, engagement, and discovery — each with 2 fuel sources contributing most of the outbound activity. As with any system, the urban network can operate without all engines in operation; however, doing so will create a substantial network imbalance leading to rapid decay and abandonment.

Understanding these 3 engines, their fuel sources, and relationship types (the big things) allows us to hypothetically model the individual connections within a digital city (the small things)…thank you quantum physics 🤓

1. Connect

Connection is a powerful engine within the network; driving cluster density (social) and all transactions (access) it services the uniquely human urban experience within a digital city.

  • Social — the advocate for the history, economy, and personality of a digital city; fuel is supplied by the ability to interact at scale within the digital and physical world (hybrid placemaking).
  • Access — the facilitator of activity within the digital city and the main determiner of citizen functions (i.e. economic, civic, cultural, etc.).

2. Engage

Engagement is driven by social governance (civitas) and the unique social, economic, and historical characteristics (culture) of the digital city. This engine is extremely reciprocal — how much you invest largely determines what you get out.

  • Civitas — the builder of the digital city, its a representation of the social contract between citizens streamlined by the rule of law.
  • Culture — the promoter of the digital city, it fuels socio-economic attraction within the target urban network and from other networks.

3. Discover

Discovery is an engine of renewal, hosting the ability to adapt the city to serve new and innovative purposes. Its fueled by communal characteristics (identity) and the attributes of the built environment (place).

  • Identity — the filter of our individual perceptions and reactions to the digital city; unique per person, but communal at scale.
  • Place — the distributor of the urban experience; you see it, walk through it, ride on it, and live within it…the built environment.

Go Further

Exploring these engines is worth detailed examination; notably, what the combinations of different fuel sources can impart on a digital city. There are many to consider (ex. access + culture → place), each with the ability to produce interaction on the network broadly or elicit a particular reaction being sought.

Returning to our farmer’s market example, one could ask what combinations the organizer might leverage to maximize the socio-economic benefit of the market. This may help urbanists, businesses, and city officials guide their actions within a digital city to meet target outcomes.

Something for our urban-technologist friends to consider…




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Brian Rollison

Brian Rollison

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