A further wave of urban technology, digital, is beginning to roll through our towns and cities and, as with preceding waves of irrigation, language, currency, double-entry book-keeping, clocks, looms, trains, sewage, power plants, horses, elevators, cars, containers and so on, it suggests new urban forms, new patterns of development, of business, activity and community. And in this case, perhaps most interestingly, a new approach: an emerging ability to build iteratively, adapting as needs and desires dictate.
The digitally-enabled patterns suggested here are often decentralised or distributed, adaptive and malleable, comprising both physical and digital layers, each driven by rich data counterpointed by scalable forms of participation i.e. genuinely meaningful involvement, well over-and-above citizens as data-points. In contrast to earlier models of centralised, capital-intensive, largely inert systems, characterised by grids of infrastructure or buildings enabled by top-down decision-making and high up-front costs, these new developments can be thought of as post-grid, or non-grid. Digital is not always the outcome here, yet some of its instrinsic dynamics are the driving force. Tech in, city out.
This implies a quite different form of city-making, enabled by a convergence of contemporary technologies such as building fabrication, robotics for maintenance and construction, on-demand and autonomous mobility and logistics systems, off-grid utility infrastructure, advanced manufacturing, shared amenities and spaces, and super-local decision-making platforms, underpinned by digital services and real-time data.
Yet grid and non-grid need not be mutually exclusive. Non-grid systems may sit on top of the existing grid of utility and mobility infrastructure, of existing buildings and districts, of existing manufacturing and logistics networks. This enables a retrofit strategy, a multi-layered mobility or utility strategy, or an adaptive design strategy for shaping entirely new places.
In other words, grid-based systems like subways and local energy grids are still needed at a certain scale and density; we just also have non-grid systems, like on-demand mobility or nano-grids, that can work in the gaps. They are additional, rather than replacements, and this new interplay between the non-grid and the grid—when to build a subway; when to build a power grid—could be a crucial design, planning and operational question for cities in the 21st century.
For example, how much will autonomous, predictive on-demand mobility affect that need for fixed mass transit systems? How much will we need to build of the latter, based on what the former could do? (In other words again, how do we factor in the potential impact of non-grid mobility systems, from Uber to Bridj-like minibuses to autonomous versions of the same, onto the projected demand for heavy infrastructure such as a Crossrail 2, say? These various demand profiles are also political—to do with the impact of fixed development on places (say, on property prices for example); to do with the universal accessibility of a Crossrail versus the privileged access of an Uber, and so on.
Equally, how much will local generation, storage and re-use affect the need for fixed, large scale utility networks? And again, what are the political dynamics implied by a nanogrid/post-grid ‘local generation and storage’ model in a shared, civic environment? When does a grid become a shared resource? Conversely, how might a post-grid model open up energy production to masses, rather than oligopolies of energy companies, with perhaps better incentive for energy demand reduction? There are numerous questions implicit here.
How will localised advanced manufacturing affect the patterns of global logistics networks? How will modular, customised, recycled buildings fabricated on-demand fill in around a ‘base-load’ of buildings delivered by formal planning processes? What kind of planning processes can shape ad-hoc ongoing development? How will communities make super-local decisions in contrast to slower, distanced, centralised forms of representation? Equally, what decisions can’t be super-local?
Design strategies for building or retrofitting streets, districts and neighbourhoods could become less about completed schemes and more about describing a series of trajectories that communities can—to some extent—complete themselves, over time, as their needs and desires dictate, and facilitated by design professionals. Outcomes need not be dictated in advance—and locked in—but could be shaped over time via engaged stewardship and co-design, informed by rich data, participation, insights and professional expertise.
These outcomes may be embodied in lightweight, distributed, adaptive buildings, infrastructure, services — and distinctive, diverse places that are constantly being tuned by their users. A series of ‘first moves’, in terms of a base layer of built fabric, infrastructure and services, create a sense of place, of purpose, of principle — but it deliberately takes a ‘minimum viable product’ approach, an incomplete city, which is more open to adaptation and appropriation. (ELEMENTAL’s ‘half a house’ model, as seen in the image at the top of this article, is a useful precursor here; yet this could also be a peculiarly data-driven Geddes-style incrementalism.)
It may be stating the obvious, but ‘how little can we build’ is a very different question to ‘how much can we build.’ And which question best underpins a form of resilience?
What could it mean at district scale?
Buildings are adaptable, modular yet customised structures, constructed as required, and recycled once beyond their use-by date. Data-driven services ensure they are used intensively, and designed and adapted precisely to user needs. The ‘first move’ interventions across the district set the scene for what follows, involving some basic grid connectivity — both mobility and utility — and signature initial structures at various scales and grain. These deliberately incomplete foundations will shape the unfolding patterns.
As further buildings are required, they are designed and constructed on-site, using local fabrication facilities, materials and skills, supported by professional expertise. Zoning is handled on-the-fly, driven by real-time data, local decision-making systems and responsive systems. Decision-making protocols are designed for decisions at district scale. Scale is limited, but strong diversity and density can be achieved. New post-grid infrastructure, based around on-site generation and battery storage, is installed in response to demand. It connects to a grid only if necessary or useful. Mobility is delivered via on-demand services, requiring minimal infrastructure. Local manufacturing reduces reliance on external logistics networks. Crucially, these infrastructures of energy, mobility, housing and making could be owned and run at the local scale.
What could it mean at city scale?
Mobility is no longer solely fixed, heavy, expensive mass transit versus wasteful private cars, but a ‘base load’ of mass transit running along fixed routes and timetables handling peak demands, and augmented by a flexible, adaptive, on-demand (post-route, post-timetable) array of increasingly autonomous ‘mobility as a service’ options (public and private, passenger and logistics) running on existing roads. Energy grids are a backup load supporting distributed networks of local renewable production and local storage, enabling resilience at scale. With buildings, new districts are half-built out and contain fabrication facilities to develop the rest over time, whilst existing buildings are augmented by ‘parasitical’ fill-in structures, built in and around the gaps created by more intense utilisation of space and the large scale deletion of parking. Local manufacturing and real-time data mean that logistics processes are highly local, and overall footprint is massively reduced.
Public services are super-local and distributed; functions are centralised if it makes sense to do so in terms of replicable learning or practices. Strategic planning becomes an ongoing, iterative stewardship process, guiding the accreting layers of buildings and infrastructure, using new tools of performance-based design and predictive analytics counterpointed by meaningful participation and decision-making processes tuned to the scale of the decision.