The Street as Platform 2050
How Digital Dynamics Shape the Physical City
The way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye.
So began an essay I wrote in 2007 called ‘The Street As Platform’, concerning the then-emerging ideas of urban informatics, Internet of Things, and the smart city. It used a depiction of a near-future city street as a platform for a wider discussion around the possibilities and pitfalls of urban data.
In 2014, I was asked to write an update of the essay by my colleague Chris Luebkeman, who was guest-editing an issue of Architectural Design journal, wherein each contribution would be framed around the idea of 2050. What you read below is the original edit.
Writing about 2050 seemed near-impossible. My then-six year-old son would be my age now in 2050, more or less. That single fact viscerally conveyed to me the difficulty of the task.
Nonetheless, cities are slow. Scrolling back the other way, we would recognise much of the physical city my father lived in when he was 44.
What has changed is the layer I described in the note on ‘Network Urbanism’: the enabling urban elements smaller than a building, bigger than a phone, sometimes immaterial. For my father and his generation, that might mean internet and mobile networks, the trade traces of globalised economies, algorithms and analytics, cultural patterns and social contracts, vehicles and devices, deeply embedded electronics and material advances.
Of course just as the original essay was largely about 2007, thought not set then, so this would be largely about 2014. (It thus concerns similar themes to the Clockwork City piece, the Urban Parasites piece, and so on.) Ironically, as a result, it feels out of date already. Yet perhaps its value is in comparing to the 2007 version seven years on, noting how our understanding of a street drenched in a drizzle of light persistent data is transformed again, by today’s ideas and emerging urban services. And in doing so, what changes physically?
What follows isn’t a prediction, which is basically impossible at this range no matter what anyone tells you, nor is it an attempt to spell out any kind of coherent vision. It attempts to hover over a knife-edge of judgement, settling in neither utopia or dystopia. I tried to write in a deliberately flat, dispassionate style to aid this balancing act, though there is the odd dash of pepper. I’ve kept the sense of place slippery.
In all this, I’m helped by the format of the original, that Bruce Sterling described as something like an “uncontrollable beat-poet gush about urban computing”; more akin to a series of filmic images connected only by their proximity in a linear format and an imagined place. You can pause on the moments that resonate for you. (This is also my attempt at dodging the fact that I’m in no way equipped to write fiction.)
So this vignette is not written as speculation—to predict what invisible ‘dark matter’ might actually exist in 2050 and how it might manifest itself materially — but rather to stretch today’s patterns, and throw them forward, as far as one can, to 2050. With apparently seamless interactions all around us already, we need to hunt down and sketch out the seams.
The Street as Platform 2050
The way the street feels now is increasingly defined by elements that cannot be seen with the naked eye. Data-driven services like Uber and Airbnb, the emerging ‘Internet of Things’, social media and mobile connectivity, ‘big data’-driven algorithms: these are already shaping the urban experience, even if they are difficult to perceive.
A new kind of city is emerging, an algorithmic city. It promises gleaming efficiency, citizen-centred services on demand. Yet the algorithms that produce these conditions — political, economic, cultural — are similarly challenging to parse, and are quite different to those that shaped cities previously. Just as Kevin Slavin has noted that we are writing code we cannot read, Anthony Townsend notes that “the tools that have governed the growth of cities — the instructions embodied in master plans, maps, and regulation — have long been considered a matter of public record,” before pointing that this was increasingly no longer the case.
Perhaps by speculatively fast-forwarding some of these conditions to 2050 we might better understand and articulate what is beginning to happen in today’s cities?
At a crossroads
Imagine film of a normal street in 2050. A relatively busy crossroads at 9am taken from a vantage point above, looking down at an angle as if from a CCTV camera or James Stewart’s apartment in Rear Window. We can see several buildings, a few vehicles, and quite a few people, and pavements dotted with street furniture. To the right, a train station. To the left, a row of apartment buildings.
Freeze the frame and scrub the film backwards and forwards a little, observing the physical activity on the street. But what can’t we see? What defines the street in 2050?
The first impression is not visual, but aural.
It seems quiet. The only prominent noise is that of a few nanocellulose tyres on the street; every now and then, a soft, somehow distanced ‘swish’, as if they are throwing their voice. Drones buzzing around overhead are also quiet in the main, their ultra-light bodies bobbing and weaving in the gentle breeze. (The odd lashed-together home-brew drone, flown out of the settlement over to the east, sputters along with the odd unpredictable snarl. It ferries small parcels from east to west over this crossroads every hour or so. A boy looks up and wonders if he could take it down.)
The texture and colour of background noise is rich, varied. Birds can be heard clearly, as can wisps of conversations. An old coffee machine sputters and hisses. Music drifts from apartment windows.
Much of the street is woven with lush foliage — clumps of grasses, small trees, creepers curving around fabricated mesh forms. These winding pathways are designed to handle stormwater as well as to breathe, and have thin rivulets of irrigation cut into them. Thickets of trees shade the street along one side. On the other, a slender curving structure floats above head height, its struts and lattice strewn with subtropical vines and flowers. It provides further shelter, protecting cyclists and walkers from the sometimes intense sun. On a hot day, which is most days around here in 2050, part of the structure emits a delicate, fine mist of cooling vapours that follows people as they pass through it, sensors tracking their movement such that the environmental conditioning is applied only where needed.
One end of the structure cantilevers out over a wildly varied topography of large blocks, like a fractured basalt causeway sawn off at the knee. Its sloping surfaces and clefts provide informal seating, deskspace, workspace, conversation space. Again, a lattice-structure of canopies and drapes protect people from the sun, and foliage is threaded throughout. This is some kind of office. Or meeting place. Or café. Almost no-one is sitting here — indeed, there are few seats — but there are many standing, working, talking. Some drape themselves across the lower, flatter slabs; others rest on their elbows, watching news or speaking to someone via a Sliver. Others stand against taller blocks, activating their surfaces to sketch, conjure images, or capture dictated speech.
Whilst most movement, other than walking, seems to be via a wildly diverse set of bicycles that are almost constantly drifting through the crossroads, occasionally flocks of ‘Drivers’ swoop through the streets, curving gracefully around the greenery and any other obstacles in their path. Over time, these autonomous vehicles appear to have carved a broad sweep through the foliage; or rather, the greenery has slowly encroached on what was once road space, in a symbiotic relationship with the Drivers. There is no real definition between street and what passes for kerb, and building and flora. There are no traffic lights, fences, street markings, barriers, traffic islands, bollards, drains, road signs, few if any pylons, no step-down transformers, switchboxes. Traffic, from Drivers to bikes to animals, move in all directions at once. Forms ease out of one into the other. Streets are broad canyons of activity, as rich with biodiversity as they are with diversity of people, work and play.
There are perhaps three or four drivers every five minutes, each of varying shapes and sizes depending on function. Some carry one or two people, others four or five, or nine or ten. Some drivers carry goods, others are mobile workplaces, bars, medivans or civic service touchpoints. There is no parking as far as the eye can see — drivers slide in, pause briefly to pick up, drop off or interact in some other way, and then exit the stage left or right, heading for their next appointment.
The city’s Civic Intelligence System — dubbed ‘Lestrade’ — is based on an atom-thick membrane of nanocellulose derivative, woven with microscopic smart dust in a form of low-res circuitry applied to many surfaces of buildings or infrastructure, some foliage, most Drivers and so on. Stretched taut over the city’s fabric, it is essentially invisible, but it is there, constantly sensing its state.
Bridges and tunnels are anxious hypochondriacs, looking for cracks in their structure before they occur. Mercantile streets are counting footfall to predict likely commercial activity, with some property values fluctuating every few hundredths of a second accordingly. Every breath of air, every footstep, every shift in temperature as the sun creeps across the stone is generating data for the city’s intelligence, helping refine the current set of Predictions. Older buildings have the plasticky membrane spray-painted onto them, in places of likely stress — either physical or social.
At the back of an older building, dating from 1930, is a patch of Lestrade that has shut down. It’s a void in the model, known informally as ‘relingos’ by the City’s Civic Intelligence Service.
Hanging from a wall on the corner, a new advert for the City’s Predictive Controls. It promises a new set of Predictions for the following 14 hours. The sheer fabric that the movie is playing on ripples gently in the light breeze. The movie abruptly jitters and freezes for a second, compression artefacts suddenly visible, before the fabric repairs itself. Below, and under, the feathery material a rat’s tail whips out of view, apparently disappearing into the wall itself. The rat’s teeth, whiskers and digestive tracts contain trace elements of Video Fabric.
Racks of Slivers, paper-thin curving films of flexible display, can be found fanning out from the slender lighting poles that sprout alongside the wattle trees, although the odd flash of reflected sunlight reveals that a few Slivers can also be seen discarded on the various benches and tables that punctuate the street’s gardens. The Slivers appear to be semi-translucent, with small strands of fibre electronics woven into the nanocellulose film itself.
A sharp-dressed man wearing glasses picks one up and it flares into life. It pulls down his ID via fingerprint and rapidly unfurls a series of updates, largely image-based, with the occasional blare of audio coned for his ears only. His Predictions rattle up the screen with a slight flick of the wrist. He mutters something under his breath to the Sliver.
The Sliver, using its creaking 5G connectivity, borrows a few processor cycles from the lighting pole he is passing before switching its attention to a park bench as it, too, is passed by the increasingly broad strides of the man. The Sliver tries to Handshake with the newer display hanging overhead, but its protocols are incompatible. The Sliver’s various antennae grasp thin-air anxiously for a few seconds, admittedly harvesting some radio frequency energy from spare wireless networks while they do so, before a relieved hop onto a meatier access point baked into chunk of responsive street.
Something kerb-esque raises a few bumpy nodules out of the ground as it recognises the man is visually impaired. The temples of the man’s glasses are threaded with small sensors, which gently graze his cheekbones, a bone-conducting speaker conjuring a 3D soundscape about his immediate environment, enabling him to navigate it with some ease, particularly when combined with the haptic feedback underfoot.
The man feels for a nearby lighting pole, and leaves the Sliver in the communal rack. The Sliver’s shape memory rolls itself up into a tube, its glow dissipating as it transfers any excess power into the lamp’s grid. It settles into a pattern of pinging plaintively every now and then, broadcasting its location over a radius of a few metres.
The man steps out into the road, the light traffic flowing around him like a river around a rock.
A homeless woman leaves a soup queue nearby and wanders over to the discarded Sliver and picks it up. The Sliver flares into life again, quickly scanning its immediate environment for redundant processor cycles, bandwidth and energy to appropriate, but instead of the previous user’s torrent of data, the Sliver’s iridescent display shimmers with one single message: “No such person,” followed by a Sad Face. Her thumbprint had failed to match any accounts of suitable value. The woman grimaces, and shoves the Sliver back into the rack. The Sliver’s shape memory kicks in again.
Crossing the road in the opposite direction, a woman with an implant over one eye is gracefully carving shapes with her hands in the air in front of her, manipulating unseen information elsewhere.
A 30 year-old cargo bike clatters across the street, the cyclist’s legs pumping as it trundles around a banked curve.
On an oversized Sliver hanging across the street, hoisted on thin, almost invisible cables, a countdown to today’s Extreme: ‘Prediction: 8 hours and 14 minutes until Tonight’s Extreme. Flavour: Subtropical Cyclone. Intensity: Category Two. CHECK YOUR ENERGY.’
The slender rectangular screens sitting underneath a few old-style street signs flicker into life, their jittery physical pixels shuffling rapidly before settling on a single message denoting that City Algorithm No 33 ‘Blue Dahlia’ is in effect, as virtually everyone knows.
Many of the buildings appear to have retrofitted skins which, if the Predicted Extreme shows up around 20:30 tonight, will stiffen and flex, creating almost imperceptible channels that should absorb the storm’s energy in order to dissipate it effectively (and in some areas, capture it for later use.)
In preparation for the Extreme, two municipal workers in Borough Council exoskeletons stride into view, and start clearing the street of anything vulnerable. A large Municipal Driver faithfully follows them a few paces behind, skipping forward in eager, attentive lurches. The exoskeletons bend down gracefully, lifting an upturned and graffiti-daubed maintenance robot onto the back of the Driver.
The large municipal Sliver attaches to a building via a robust stainless steel fixture ring. Some other wires are dangling from the fixture, a few lashed together into snaking knots of cables, disappearing into a propped-open apartment window above. The tangle of frayed cables weaves around a rusted and inactive building energy display, hanging askew by its redundant wires, drifting back and forth in the breeze. Nearer the ground, flyposters are pasted onto a bit of spare facade. The flyposters’ glue interferes a little with the Lestrade readings from the building surface; though Lestrade has begun to understand exactly how, and generally calibrates accordingly. An older woman is leaning forward, peering at one of the posters, tapping at some jewellery sewn into her cheekbone. She stares at different quadrants of the poster, tapping each time she fixes her eyes on a new image, passers-by grudgingly flowing around her.
A few hundred metres above, an airship slides discreetly through the sky towards one of the local distribution hubs. The cargo manifest, depicted in vast symbols designed for recognition via machine vision, glowing along its fuselage, indicates that it much of its hold contains cheap consumer goods produced in North Korea and Malaysia. The rest of the cargo is building material, especially resins and proteins from Wuhan, for use by various fabrication centres around the neighbourhood.
A group of people forms by the roadside below, tapping wearables, moving closer to each other. They are edging towards a spot where a constellation of pinprick lights embedded in the ground indicates a ‘Predicted Social Driver Stop’ will shortly appear. They form a moving queue, following the finely-gridded display as it glides around on the dusty ground, like absent-minded kittens chasing a beam of torchlight. The display settles on a particular patch of street fabric, and its light level intensifies, clearly forming the Municipal Transit Agency’s circular logo more precisely from the small lights. It starts gently pulsing as a set of destinations fade in and out at one point of its perimeter, in a roughly NNE direction.
The queue is a concentration of datapoints, a shuffling phalanx reminiscent of a Roman Army tortoise formation comprised of commuters. Across the street, a smaller group of around three or four people is also trying to summon a Social Driver. Their group fans out just a touch, as if trying to appear more significant than it actually is, like a peacock’s tail feathers, signalling its desire to an unseen system. They simply do not have the numbers, though. A stout man in the first group shouts across for them to ‘Give it up and join us’. Three people from the second group trot across the road. The group must have achieved critical mass, as a Social Driver (Medium Size) soon appears around the corner, its side panel popping up and over with a hydraulic sigh. The Social Driver sets off once it’s near-full, calculating the optimum route and fare for the various destinations of the passengers, who are all going in the same direction, broadly speaking. The errant member of the second group decides to wait a bit longer for a Personal Driver instead, and heads off to the coffee shop for a swift espresso in the meantime.
From the corner of the image, a commotion at the station.
A curtain wall composed of tumbling water shrouds the entrance to the metro station concourse. The station perimeter is a vast arcing curve of water, a few meters high and many hundred metres long, following the length of the deep grooves that mark the outer platforms of the station. Its water gushes rapidly from nozzles above, falling directly into a slender trench below with such precision that its perimeter is bone dry. The air around is pleasantly cool with moisture, yet with a tang of dank metal. The waterfall-wall is a shimmering, hissing spectacle, projected with glowing adverts and train arrival information.
As commuters head towards the curve of water, various Sensors ping the commuters’ Wearables, making small deductions accordingly. Small cameras above and below the wall must be assessing the approaching commuter’s size, speed, gait, distractedness, net-worthiness. As a commuter enters an invisible threshold in front of the wall, the nozzles switch off around the approaching body, creating a temporary, person-sized portal for them to walk through. This is happening up and down the wall every second or so, enabling the fluid movement of hundreds of people through the station’s walls.
A few meters in from one corner of the wet curtain wall, however, one thousand small nozzles simultaneously decide not to curtail the flow of water, drenching a tall man as he tries to walk through. He stands there, water pouring over him, identifying him instantly, and wearily lifts his arms into the air in half-hearted protest. Security personnel are on him within seconds, their grey aquaphobic uniforms suddenly fluorescent yellow head-to-toe.
People behind him simply step to some side, flowing around the blockage in the water. The tall man laughs incredulously — “Second time this month!” — and begins to protest that his net worth is “more than enough” to cover the outlay of a train fare. The security guards lead him away as he continues his damp, red-faced protest. Elsewhere along the curve, people continue to flow easily, a pianola roll of staccato interruptions in the semi-translucent veil of water that separates the vast, open station concourse from the city around it.
A flock of Drivers suddenly appear from nowhere and swarm towards the station. Some of them display the yellow livery of the Municipal Transit Agency, and others have the iridescent nanocellulose shells of Drosje-brand Drivers. They move with what most still consider a slightly eerie jittery gait, their intelligences constantly shuffling them around in relation to each other, a little like Venetian gondoliers jockeying back and forth on a rolling grey tide. They near-silently glide towards the station’s curtain wall, emitting a volley of Whistles, inaudible to humans, indicating Handshakes and Transactions between each other.
Their immediate physical presence and movement may appear unpredictable, yet the Drivers have been generated in response to a Prediction of the likely traveller needs on the incoming train, based on previous patterns for this train at this time, combined with the personal histories of each passenger on board this particular journey, combined with a few Active Requests at the last minute. Drosje vehicles seem to be here in greater numbers, their Norwegian Intelligences perhaps a little more attuned to the situation. Still, the average accuracy of this Prediction is approaching three 9s, meaning that neither Drivers nor passengers have to wait or negotiate; the Fit is virtually exact and the Idle is essentially zero. The station broadcasts to other Drivers within a 5 kilometre radius that this train has already been taken care of, just as the train’s long, slender body slides to a standstill at the platforms.
The Station’s curtain wall opens a series of Driver-shaped vents to allow them to sidle right up to the train at the appropriate points, as the entire side of the carriage lifts up to allow many of the passengers to step from their seats, almost directly into a Driver. The passengers’ Wearables ping the Drivers, negotiating a price in a few milliseconds; the destination is Predicted, for the moment; it can be calibrated en-route. The variously-sized Drivers swiftly wriggle their way back through station’s verdant landscape, never touching yet no more than a few centimetres from each other, skating through the crowds like Finns on an ice-rink full of Brits.
All except one Driver, that is, as a passenger from Stavanger has a Wearable that is struggling to Handshake with the Driver’s Intelligence. As the Idle for this Transaction starts ticking up from zero, the station’s Intelligence, distributed across a mesh of Beacons under the platform and supported by a Networking Drone overhead, quickly steps in to mediate between the Wearable and the Driver. (The Driver’s Intelligence needs an upgrade to deal with the new Wearable’s Protocols, a Norwegian extension loaded earlier that morning. The station’s Intelligence had been notified by the passenger boarding the train, and updated itself before they arrived, but the Protocol hadn’t fully propagated across the local Driver network.) Four seconds after the other Drivers, the straggler glides bashfully away from the Train.
Still, the Idle for the month has now been damaged slightly, and irrevocably, and so this imperfect Transaction will generate some queries to be answered by a middle-ranking Station Operator a few weeks later. It will later be taken into account in the following months’ contract negotiations.
Draped over the balcony of one of the adjacent apartments, a tattered flag depicts the emblem of the city-state that temporarily existed here for 12 years.
In the distance, behind the Station, a skeletal set of struts sketches out a line for a few hundred metres, festooned with sub-tropical flowers and, occasionally, tomato vines and climbing beanstalks, and topped off with awkwardly-angled clutches of photovoltaic arrays. The structure is the abandoned ruin of Crossrail 4, a major transport infrastructure project cancelled due to advances in Predictive Transport. Like an algae-filled canal, it marks a shift in mode and the end of an era; the end, in fact, of constructing new transport infrastructure to deal with increased demand, in favour of optimising movement on existing streets via Prediction and Autonomy. It looks like no new buildings or hard infrastructure have been constructed in the last two decades.
Overhead, a drone shuttles over to an apartment block in the near distance, onboard sensors preventing it being buffeted by micro-therms and unpredictable gusts. It hugs the building’s rippling edge as it begins to descend, cleaning the façade’s faceted photovoltaic cells. The thin whine of its engines is audible to residents in the upper floors of the block, some of whom swing cameras around to film it in an instinctive defensive manoeuvre, assuming it to be Civic Insurance.
Further overhead, in the inky thermosphere in fact, various satellites serve this crossroads with real-time mapping. Tiny scratches of light embedded in the road below shimmer to convey their presence as they pass overhead. The light-fibres have been woven into all new road coverings after the Watchers’ Riots of 2036. There is a near-constant subtle twinkling to the road’s rubbery fabric.
Happy, excited chatter from a tarp- and tree-covered playground to the left of the street, as a class of schoolchildren crowd around a set of Slivers pushed together to make an impromptu larger display. They are watching the remote launch of a NanoSat for their collaborative project with a school elsewhere, having parent-sourced a few hundred euros to cover the cost.
A young woman enters from the left, glancing occasionally at the road markings, and the occasional drone buzzing around overhead. A bead of sweat runs down her brow, a snail trail over her hi-def make-up. The make-up is a form of dazzle camouflage, applied via an inkjet 20 minutes previously. It conceals her true identity from the city’s Intelligence, throwing it off her scent with subtle figments sketched across and around her eyebrows and cheekbones. As she weaves through the thin crowds, her digital wake is composed of a series of purposeful errors. This pattern ripples destructively through the Predictions, building exponentially just as traffic waves used to cause traffic jams. Each step constructs a form of data junkspace. She allows herself a smile at the small pockets of Failure Demand she is depositing around the city’s infrastructures.
The City’s Error Correction Intelligences can mitigate against substantial degradation of the Predictions, yet this form of algorithmic protest, embodied by simply moving around the city ‘incorrectly’, is throwing off Predictions with increasing regularity. Seconds after the woman disappears into the Metro, a patch matching the woman’s visage and vital signs cascades across the various Civic Insurance infrastructures in the vicinity. She discards a few ornamental wearables — Burners, all of them, also designed to create anomalies in the deep neural networks that comprise Blue Dahlia — throwing the trinkets into a scrubby foliage at the base of a banksia tree by the side of the road. Even the city’s new Quantum Intelligences can be rattled by an accumulation of these small acts.
Ducked down an alleyway to the left, in a charcoal incision between buildings, a slender man is also applying hi-def make-up, including Retinal Misdirectors. As most of the people in this part of the city tend to wear Imaging jackets, and so are constantly recording a cloud of video around their bodies, it could be that the slender man is trying to avoid being recognised.
The wall of the alley the slender man stands in is coated with an invisible membrane which logs the body-heat of any person standing there for more than one minute. Part of the City’s Designing Out Crime infrastructure, its wireless alerts a Civic Insurance drone a block away, which slips into stealth mode as it glides towards the alley, its pitch agitating a seagull en-route. The vague trails of NOx caused by the drone are greedily absorbed by the wall membrane.
Shuffling into the parklet across the way, three Civic staff are undergoing Empathy Training. They’re young, around 23 years old, but are wearing heavy exoskeletons, designed to give a plausible sense of what it is like to be around 90 years older. The tallest spits out an expletive as he suddenly barks a bit of exposed shin on a bench, the macular degeneration simulation having just kicked in. The other two almost topple over into each other, trying to turn around too quickly to see what he’s swearing about.
To the left, a cleaning robot scuttles in and out of view, its elongated form a little like a beached basking shark, made for dust rather than krill. It’s basically arrays of gill rakers in a tube, wriggling around accumulating dirt. It is servicing a row of refactored buildings, just as the block receives a new Prediction about its immediate energy needs. The buildings rapidly Handshake in order to shuttle energy back and forth, in and around the block. Two in particular have a brief argument over surplus solar energy, which each is trying to trade, several times per second, brute-forcing prices at each other. Neither wishes to be Idle.
On top of one of the buildings, a drone stabling yard requests another few kilowatt-hours as two or three drones swoop down from above for a check-up. The rooftops are the natural habitat of drones, just as for pigeons. A few Mechanics start engulfing the drones in their diagnostic cables, whipping fibres around the drones’ ticking fuselages while a few human supervisors look on, drinking tea and playing cards.
Several of the houses and blocks have been rebuilt with nanocellulose exteriors. These are slight, with street noise barely an issue, yet tough enough to withstand the extremes. Most of the buildings here date from the 19th and 20th centuries, but have been refactored to comply with Carbon and Idle targets. As sunlight falls across a glassy 1960s block, the algae in its facade blooms slowly to cool the building’s interior. Some facades appear to be no more than curtain walls, shifting colours, iridescent, shimmering in the breeze. The lack of noise and pollution in the street means building facades are not what they were; many are barely there at all.
Next door, however, the facades are largely pinned back completely, allowing sunlight to flood into the apartments, making the living room one large interior balcony. One of the block’s inhabitants, wearing only shorts, stands at the edge of his room and rather ostentatiously trims a row of rosemary bushes. Upstairs, a neighbour is working out — again, at the edge of the apartment, also as if to be seen — running on the spot, on a section of his floor converted into a running machine. Another neighbour, an older woman, carefully lowers a small dog in a wicker basket to the ground floor, from her third floor window, cooing at it as it descends in awkward fits and starts. Physical and augmented signage on the awnings over the ground floor state that these are Post-Privacy apartments, ‘Viewer Beware’. Inside the gardener’s apartment, it’s possible to see some body-forming furniture slowly unfurling on the floor. Outside of these reconfigurable elements, and a few Slivers variously displaying photos, long-reads, and movies, there are no obvious possessions to be seen. The rooms are small, but seem spacious as a result.
Next to the Refactored row, however, a more recent building shimmers in the gentle breeze. This building’s envelope is composed of a series of atmospheres. The boundary is little more than air, spun upwards from three sides of its louvred perimeter and recycled back down into the fourth. Inside the building, columns of variable temperatures create distinct microclimate cells. Infused with iridescent smart dust, the exterior air swirls delicately around the perimeters describing a loosely ovoid shape, semi-translucent such that a couple of figures can be glimpsed within. One of the figures lifts an arm and sweeps it across their body; the air instantly becomes thicker, opaque, as if smoke. It still shimmers in the sunlight, a Klimt-like veil, a haze of blue and gold specks.
Tonight, in the rapid build-up the Extreme, the building will bend in response to the wind, providing a loose sense of shelter until the storm truly kicks in. At which point it will disappear, leaving only the slim grid of flush louvres in the ground.
A construction robot is marking out several parallel lines elsewhere in the street, in and around the ruins of parking lots, the hints of further louvres to come. A further construction robot—a tall, gangling spidery arm, the love-child of a scaffold and a giraffe—is clinging to a more conventionally physical building next door, wrapping a girdle of vanadium battery packs around the facade’s waist.
Jammed into the other edge of the Parklet, a long table offers home-made soup and bread to a line of homeless people. A shared garden has been dug into one of the city’s many defunct parking lots here. A Sliver nailed to the fence depicts a league table of local residents, based on the total minutes they’ve spent in the garden this week. It also displays the amount and type of vegetables each can collect, in proportion to those minutes contributed. The league table indicates two clear leaders, whose names sit alongside cartoons of a vast haul of vegetables, followed by a long tail of occasional contributors, each of whom might expect a punnet of strawberries or equivalent.
Next to the Parklet, a New Aztec businesswoman is in conversation with a sign. She’s starting the process of obtaining planning permission for some kind of temporary business situation in the Parklet, and working her way through the city’s conversational AI to do so. As she does, waves of potential decision and debate emanate from the Parklet’s entry in the city’s spatial databases, ebbing and flowing as the business idea’s footprint changes in negotiation, until a core group of those affected by the scale of the decision have their opinions polled in real-time. Most of these opinions are transacted through presets, with a few individuals choosing to outsource their votes via the Liquid Democracy plugin this neighbourhood has installed. A few seconds later, the New Aztec woman scowls and turns on her heel. Permission not granted. “Racists,” she mutters under her breath.
Gliding along the edge of the line, no more than a few centimetres away, a longish tube of a vehicle pulls up outside an elegantly dressed woman who has just paused before the Parklet. The woman’s left arm stretches forward and she places a manicured finger on the skin of the vehicle for three seconds, Handshaking via the conductive ink in her nail polish. Under her finger, the bodywork glows orange, and then green, before a hatch opens on the side, the skirt lifting to allow a package to slide out onto the ground. The woman examines its label. She taps a smiley face printed on the side, eschewing the frowny or enigmatic alternatives positioned alongside. The outline of the smiley glows, and the woman wanders off with the box, a smile curling across her lips too. The DeliveryCo’s Intelligence records a successful pre-emptive purchase and delivery by its Predict-and-Collect service, and refines its Predictions accordingly.
A mobile Workplace appears to the right of the scene, nudging its way past the delivery vehicle. Many of the static Workplaces in these buildings appear to have emptied out, as much work has become unmoored from place. Yet a few workplaces remain, where either the quality of the space, or the nature of the enterprise, genuinely warrants a permanent physical location. Or, the work is of such low value that it is below Service Class or robotics.
Panning left, a line of illegal LED lighting — long since outlawed due to its High Carbon — can be glimpsed in a lower basement space. The lighting is bright, enabling several Romanian women to see the detail of the cheap fabric they are sewing by hand.
Above the walk-down basement, an unmanned high-end shoe shop, whose cobbler robots are fashioning footwear on-demand, spinning furiously, fibres forming around a young man’s foot, as images of this afternoon’s styles circle overhead.
The mobile Workplace, however, has been delivered to enable two people to agree a contract. A middle-aged woman and a young man step into the workplace, which senses their Identities as their hands touch the door-arch.
The Workplace’s Intelligence projects a series of template contracts. The woman scrolls through her various parallel careers and selects the appropriate business; the young man does likewise. The contract fills itself with a Prediction of the detail of the transaction, which the woman calibrates until the young man nods. The Workplace witnesses the contract, and its sensors log a biometric signature from each side, along with the time and place, and the new business venture swims into the great tide of transactions in the city. A celebratory glass of prosecco is dispensed by the workplace’s polished wood veneer drinks cabinet, and a freshly printed scroll, complete with quickly cooling wax seal, is dispensed as an entirely unnecessary physical token of the deal. The newly-minted business partners turn their back on each other and call their respective partners, who are dotted across four other workplaces — and in one case, a bar — elsewhere in the city.
Two large men are jogging along the street very slowly. One is essentially walking. Their running shoes, shorts and shirt are packed with sensors and re-mould themselves to the runners’ feet and the road surface with each step. Each stride is also recalibrating Predictions about the city’s health profile, in turn sending ripples through private and public sector budget lines, staffing profiles and contracts for the next few days.
The lead runner spots a friend ahead, and nods to his colleague to pick up the pace. His friends are sitting on milk crates outside a well-located yet tiny coffee shop, no more than a fissure in a wall. As the runner reaches them he smiles, striding past confidently before disappearing around the corner.
Around the bend, the runner grimaces and clutches his abdomen, breathing heavily as he staggers to a halt and props himself up against a wall. The building’s Membrane records the runner’s pulse via his hand, before taking a sweat sample, using both to issue a correction to the man’s medical insurance profile, a gentle ping indicating the Transaction is complete. The man grimaces again.
At the end of the row, a mycelium drone, its cargo bay empty, settles gently onto the top of the buildings’ shared compost heap as the aircraft’s batteries fade. The bacterial cellulose and proteins coating the drone’s rough-edged structure begin to slowly decompose. Within a few minutes, little will be left. The compost’s knot of rotting root vegetables is enriched by the drone’s bodywork/protein shake, something Lestrade duly notes and conveys …
The camera pans and pulls back, moving away from the cluster of activity around the overgrown canopy leading to the outdoor workspace, opposite the busy station at the other side of the frame, the jagged row of buildings in-between, up away from the lush street peppered with bikes, and the occasional flocks of Drivers, up through the trade routes of drones threading their way through the airspace above the rooftops …
As algorithms, responding to real-time data, begin to replace building codes, ordinances and plans, and models based around snapshots, our cities will be shaped, operated and experienced in entirely new ways. The ‘dark matter’ of regulation, planning, organisational culture that previously shaped the matter of our cities was, just as Townsend noted, “a matter of public record”, something that could be comprehended, discussed, challenged. So far, there is little reason to think that this will be the case with this new algorithmic city.
While there are clearly immense benefits to a city taking advantage of predictive and responsive code, we must ensure that the dynamics of those approaches, as complex as they are, do become a matter of public record; that they will be understood, debated and shaped, and not least by the disciplines that drove previous eras of city making. Again, sketching this street corner is not about predicting 2050; its goal is to implicitly ask questions of what could be entirely new aspects of urban design, architecture and urban governance — or a displacement of those things.
I’d argue it both ways — architecture and urban design needs to find a way to engage with these new urban dynamics productively and creatively (which will mean a fairly thorough reinvention of such practice); and equally, these new dynamics could use the positive influence and well-grounded stewardship of ‘the city as a public good’ that architecture and urban design can provide, in return.
But perhaps this is not about what could happen. The street is a platform for experimentation. The forces that may shape the cities of 2050 are being prototyped around us right here, right now. Now’s the time to engage.