Network urbanism

Dan Hill
Dan Hill
Jan 2, 2016 · 7 min read

I’ve started posting a selection of pieces from cityofsound.com here on Medium, particularly those focusing on design, cities and technology, which I’ve collected into a publication—But what was the question?

The most recently posted all pivot around an idea of network urbanism, sketched out a year ago in a set of articles for three architecture-oriented publications — a magazine, a journal and a book — all concerning the dynamics of contemporary technologies and how they may affect architecture and urbanism, and more importantly, cities.

The book was ‘SQM: The Quantified Home’, Space Caviar (ed.), Lars Müller Publishers (2014) and it concerned some of our shifting understandings of domestic space, taking Airbnb as a pivot for that. The articles were for Architecture + Urbanism (aka A+U) magazine and Architectural Design (aka AD) journal, and they covered a broader urban perspective.

An off-cut of all that was the germ of subsequent Dezeen columns on transport startups and predictive analytics, with longer edit dubbed ‘Clockwork City, Responsive City, Predictive City and Adjacent Incumbents. That discusses the early impact of Uber in particular — though also the potential impact of autonomous vehicles and predictive analytics — and their disruptive rewiring of urban mobility without without owning any of the traditional asset classes in mobility (vehicles, roads etc.) It talked about the fact that Uber-like services could equally be set up by public transit agencies; about the perhaps more interesting Bridj, developing data-driven services in the gaps left by a hub-and-spoke transit model; and many other things including Ancient Egyptian Nileometers, Nairobi’s matatus, and California’s so-called ideologies. It was also the backdrop for a few comments around ‘peak car’ that I made at the end of a later Guardian article around ‘mobility as a service’, a nice piece written by Stephen Moss.

You can find links to the essays below, but first a bit of post-hoc context, a year on.

Many of these new dynamics are easier to discern when you see them through the lens of transport — a taxi is fairly tangible, after all — hence the headline-grabbing skirmishes over Uber at al. Yet we could look at Airbnb in a similar way: a tech-led startup radically shifts the use of urban form, without any of the traditional tools such as buildings.

These are new applications running on the old hardware, in other words. These, for me, are true demonstrations of ‘Internet-of-Things’ — Internet dynamics fused into physical things, creating new value, and sometimes new problems.

Yet in the broader dynamics, running across different kinds of hardware and software, there is the promise of a new kind of urbanism here too (also noted in a piece on the potential of systems like Tesla Powerwall).

In the 20th century, the general approach to solving urban problems was through building: new homes, new roads, new transport, new energy, water and waste infrastructure. This approach met a demand, but often had real costs, in terms of energy, carbon, pollution, congestion, health, wellbeing, ecology, disenfranchisement, and ultimately finance.

Now cities in the (over)-developed world are full of layered histories of infrastructure, full of building. Yet the demands continue to grow, and shift. And we can’t afford to take that 20th century strategy into the 21st, for a number of reasons: principally carbon, but also many other contemporary concerns. As a result, we need new thinking about building, un-building and re-building: using our existing resources and fabric in new ways: avoiding building unless necessary; performing sharp adaptation and modding — and when we do have to build, understanding exactly what and how we have to build, with greater precision and sophistication, and including how that might be best used, owned and adapted — and then adapting over time accordingly.

Not to say that there will be no building, clearly; even in over-developed London, the skyline is pockmarked with cranes. It’s just that the view of buildings outside your window in 2050 may still be relatively similar to the view now in terms of the built form — just as it is probably largely similar to the view in 1980. Unless your window looks onto Pudong, in which case ignore me. This is indeed partly from a ‘western’ cities perspective, yet cities elsewhere need not drive down the cul-de-sacs many western cities did. We have to rethink how and what we build everywhere, hardware or software, north or south.

The built additions may be largely insertions, acupunctures and parasitical interventions, punctuated by the odd clean-slate new-build, sure. But built fabric is no longer the primary urban change layer — over the last decades, that has occurred in the less visible (until now) structures of network cultures.

This is quite different to the 19th and 20th centuries, when our cities’ infrastructures were rapidly constructed brick-by-brick, pipe-by-pipe, road-by-road, and extended out into largely non-urban land. That built fabric was the layer of change. The structure and culture of our city governments still betray that old mission to build and sprawl, as do many of our professions. (And that word ‘sprawl’ could apply to London as much as anywhere else.)

This century will need to be different. There is potential in networked systems to act as a kind of connective tissue laced in-between existing infrastructures, yet the qualities of this tissue are a little unclear, and those that we can perceive are sometimes in tension. And there are many aspects of this that are uncomfortable, opaque, damaging in numerous ways, reinforcing broader cultural patterns of individuality, inequality and intolerance.

Yet we could also pick out some potentially positive patterns emerging nonetheless — a foregrounding of urban experience, of human-centred services, of distributed, cellular organisation and shared ownership of infrastructure, of closed-loop off-grid systems, optimising existing infrastructures, resources and fabric over building anew, But when we do build anew, this new urban infrastructure potentially enables lighter, cleaner, more agile, intensive, productive, adaptive, participative structures, systems and organisations, doing more with less, an urbanism based around the internet’s principles of “small pieces, loosely joined”, yet filtered through an urbanist’s understanding of what enables public good. Whether these dynamics are imbued with a civic sensibility, or highly individualised, will need careful attention (I know what I’d prefer; making it happen won’t be easy.)

I now realise these essays helped me begin to formulate that idea, suggesting a challenge for architecture and design in finding a way to engage productively with these new urban dynamics. 21st century network urbanism needs the spatial intelligence that architecture brings, as well as its higher order strategic design skills. But this will also necessitate architecture finally getting its head around contemporary technology, as a primary material. And in doing so realising that, generally speaking, it has a lot of catching up to do and it is now only one of several relevant skills (others being, for example, interaction design, service design, software engineering, data science, industrial design, urban sociology, behavioural economics, neuroscience and many more.) Each of these will have as much to contribute, if not more, to the way the city is shaped.

Yet there are indeed entirely new spatial implications of all of these things — how Airbnb could change apartment design; how Audi Unite could change plots; how ‘mobility as a service’ or autonomous vehicles could dissolve the artefacts of the age of traffic engineering, enabling a complete rethinking of what a streetscape is; how contemporary retail models could reduce the space allocated for traffic rather than increase it; how battery storage and local energy generation might change district design, and the community structures that evoke a neighbourhood, and so on. Each of those has social, cultural and political implications, as the essays touch on.

It seems to me that the most interesting layer in cities at the moment is best thought of as the objects, spaces, services and movements at street level — scaling from a phone up to a building, and zooming back and forth from individual to urban. There are people here, structures, vehicles, spaces, surfaces, objects, infrastructure, flora, fauna. This is the layer where change tends to happen; it’s where the city is played out. A new kind of urbanism could emerge from this synthesis of disciplines, contexts and experiences.

Here are the original cuts of those pieces. Perhaps understandably, given I wrote them at the same time about the same thing, there are some overlapping thoughts, so please forgive that.

And you can find the actual published versions via the links below — and please do:


Those original pieces were all published first at cityofsound.com. If you found them useful, please hit that ‘recommend’ button below so that others may find them too.

But what was the question?

Essays and journal entries concerning technology and the city. Title lifted from Cedric Price’s “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?”

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Stockholm. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova. Visiting prof at UCL Bartlett IIPP; Adjunct prof at RMIT. cityofsound.com &c.

But what was the question?

Essays and journal entries concerning technology and the city. Title lifted from Cedric Price’s “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?”