A New Approach to Designing Smart Cities

David Galbraith
Design Matters
Published in
8 min readJul 23, 2017


One day, I’d like to design a truly modern, functional city with the character of a medieval hill town.

Rather than a blueprint, I’d like to design a series of recipes for how to create it, from the community to individual human level, from street plans to door handles. This outlines how and why that approach could work, compared to how cities are designed today.

The most useful skill I learned as an architect was the ability to zoom in and out of scales, to be able to care about the design of a door handle or a masterplan at the same time, by keeping a map of everything in mind at any one time. In other words, to ‘grok’ things.

If you designed a fruitcake the way buildings are, you would specify the coordinates of every nut and raisin. Every cake would look the same and there would be something distinctly non artisanal about it.

Nobody designs a fruitcake by specifying the coordinates of its ingredients.

But cakes aren’t designed, they are created from recipes and the end result is slightly different for each one because of the action of the person applying the recipe and subtle variations in the environment. The more a product made from a recipe is connected to individual human interaction and its local environment, the more local and artisanal it looks, and people often pay a premium for hand made artisanal products rather than factory made ones.

To summarise: things made from a recipe rather than a design have more character, and hand made things made from recipes have even more character, still.

Mass produced cakes don’t tend to be premium products in the way that, say, iPhones are.

Things created by recipes rather than by design have characteristics that are similar to the natural world. DNA is often described as a blueprint for organisms, but it’s not — DNA is a recipe. There is a genuine connection between recipes and organisms, and recipes are at the heart of organic 'design’.

In natural, ‘organic’ systems, where the output is from a recipe, everything is slightly different but based on the same pattern and decoding these patterns allows recipes to be uncovered. Some of the patterns we see in the built environment, and how they relate to each other were famously described by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language. Alexander’s patterns codify not only the objective attributes about form and function but the subjective and emotional ones. For example, one pattern explains how pools of light directly over tables in restaurants create intimacy. Because the patterns have diagrammatic and verbal descriptions, they codify the human made environment so it can be recreated, like recipes. Also, because the various patterns describe how they relate to each other, they form the syntax of a type of language — a pattern language.

A Christopher Alexander pattern. Alexander is more highly regarded among software designers than architects as he is often used to show how some of the concepts of object oriented programming are applied in other disciplines.

People often feel more at home in organic environments built up over time following patterns rather than sterile, overtly planned design. Jane Jacobs understood this well and it drove her efforts to protect the organic character of Manhattan’s West Village.

A balance between design and recipes.

Not everything should be organic, however. An artisanal iPhone wouldn’t have sufficient scale for it to be functionally great and non high-tech aesthetics would tend to be kitsch by being skeuomorphic — ie having a form that pretends to be something it isn’t such as being made of wood. Some things actually become disturbing when they are organically designed and David Cronenberg created good examples of this in the film eXistenZ. Like most things, there is no hard and fast rule and the design of cities works best with a balance of geometric design and organic vernacular that offset each other. There is no better example of this than New York’s Central Park with its simple rectangle containing a romantic landscape.

Not all organic design is pleasing. The organic games console in the movie eXistenZ looks like a deformed new born still connected to its mother by an umbilical cord. It has aesthetic qualities that are instinctively disturbing as they sit in the uncanny valley between natural and designed.

For examples of how highly geometric or minimalist modernism work well when balanced with an organic environment, the trees or sculpture in a Mies van der Rohe design are critical components, and an elegantly designed building created from standard industrial parts such as the Eames’ house works best surrounded by the dappled light from trees.

Mies van der Rohe designs wouldn’t be as effective without the very deliberately selected organic elements such as figurative bits of sculpture or trees.
Trees are an integral part of why the Eames’ house design is so successful. The same building in a barren industrial estate, surrounded by similar, albeit less elegant, sheds wouldn’t work so well.

Why industrial era cities haven’t been created from recipes.

New cities haven’t tended to be designed from scratch, from recipes because of the constraints of infrastructure. Medieval hilltop towns that grew organically were difficult to justify as blueprints for transport and utility networks. This functional need for highly ordered city plans is changing, however, as information technology allows communication that is independent of the physical environment, and intelligent automation allows point to point physical movement in self directed pods rather than mass transit on fixed arteries. Specifically, ubiquitous, GPS enabled smartphones remove entirely the concept of ‘getting lost’, and route programmed self driving cars and mesh network power grids enable organic city layouts to replace grids. Cities of the industrial age looked mechanical, cities of the information age can look like fractal networks — like nature.

The city of the future: Provence with wifi. Future, packet switched flows of physical goods and information mean that cities can be designed using recipes that create environments designed to serve well understood emotional needs for wellbeing. They can be designed to specifically facilitate healthy interaction at multiple scales from individuals to overlapping layers of community and belonging, from the feel of a doorhandle to an event space.

Doing away with street plans that solve industrial infrastructure needs means cities can be designed with forms that primarily serve our emotional and aesthetic ones. By making these forms be derived from well understood recipes and patterns, they will go way beyond the superficial attempts at organic style planning that typified garden suburbs. These looked natural on the surface but were based on blueprints not recipes (i.e. designed like a cake with specified co-ordinates for its ingredients).

Not this. I picked the random, contemporary city masterplan on the left (Zowara in Libya) to illustrate what I don’t mean by organic. This city may have superficial attributes associated with natural elements, such as lots of curves and green stuff, but it is obviously artificial. The Zowara plan has more in common with the planned 20th Century suburb on the right than the truly organic layout of many medieval towns.
Central Rome is one of the few cities that has spaces that hint at what recipe based cities could create in terms of a balance between geometric and organic, although this is a function of layers of history, preservation and decay, where nice decay with character = patina. Rome has plenty of patina.
Not all decay is patina, some of it is just dirt, such as this picture from the New York subway. The reaction against this kind of organic decay is what led to the idea that areas like Greenwich Village could be destroyed, much like tenements in poor neighborhoods of cities from Glasgow to New York.
The decay of ‘organic’, slums created the impetus to sweep the poor up and deposit them in tidy modernist towers. When these decayed there was neither character nor hygiene.
Modernism needs high quality materials and maintenance as its aesthetic doesn’t age well. It’s not about natural forms that introduce themselves as nature creeps in with age, just as a dented and scratched car isn’t desirable in the way that a scratched and worn wooden farmhouse table can be. The Barcelona Pavilion, shown here, used sturdy, expensive materials such as onyx walls, stainless steel columns and travertine floors, items that weren’t used in the tower blocks above, where modernism on the cheap aged disastrously. Note the figurative sculpture (this could very well be a tree) modernism balances organic things well and enhances them, like a picture frame around a landscape.

Just as Christopher Alexander’s Pattern language is a hierarchical list of recipes, a masterplan for a recipe based city would consist of a series of connected recipes for different scales and types of interaction, from community to household to human level. This would allow the city to have character at every level from door handles to street plan, to have meaning and detail at every level and for there to be connections between them.

Parakesh by Christoph Holz Johann Watzke. This is a great example of a recipe based city. You could not have designed a town like this from scratch before ubiquitous computing for two very different reasons: 1. it would have been an impossible labyrinth to negotiate with maps rather than, say, smartphones. 2. Its design requires computers to calculate the visual output of the recipe. This city has been generated by computer from some rules about courtyards and water flow. The end result looks like a desert Oasis town (hence the name, a pun on parametric and Marrakesh) — I would like to live here.

Bringing back decoration to modern architecture without being historical pastiche.

For a long time, modernism stripped decoration from architecture as it didn’t fit the idea of rationality in the ‘modern’, post industrial world of science and technology, and so would appear fake, dishonest and unergonomic.

Postmodernism was an attempt to bring back that meaning, through decoration, but the translation from theory to reality missed the point entirely. The theory realised that theme park style places like Las Vegas that weren’t concerned with ‘honesty’ as they were all about selling fantasy, retained the idea of meaning and narrative in the built environment to and didn’t have a problem with decoration. In short, decoration was still there, but it was advertising not architecture. The seminal post modern architecture book was called ‘Learning from Las Vegas’.

The problem was that when architects started to build post modern buildings, they basically produced crappier versions of classical ones, sterile blocks with ancient Egyptian or Greek style geometry that was cheap to do, if you skipped the carvings. These buildings said nothing, they had less to say about the world of today than a neon Vegas sign.

Vegas signs are more iconic and have more meaning than post modern architecture.
If Vegas was theme park hell then Disney was theme part heaven, a perfect place for post modern architects. However, this classical rip off, complete with seven dwarf caryatids, by a famous architect, for Disney has far less architectural resonance than Disneyland’s main street USA.
Decoration and modern architecture has been around us all the time, we just didn’t notice. Ridley Scott did, Blade Runner’s vision of the future included corporate logos and giant floating moving advertising.

Decoration is intertwined with the notion of recipe based cities for two reasons: 1. The embedded meaning in decoration is important for forms that are designed to satisfy emotional needs. 2. Decoration is part of what makes pre-modernist architecture seem organic as natural things tend to have detail at all scales, whereas pure geometric forms don’t.

Today, due to computed recipes, we have an understanding of how to create geometry with detail at every scale through repeated, fractal algorithms that are exactly the same as how nature produces them. We can combine this with an understanding of meaning through association (advertising style decoration as art not advertising), to introduce meaning and decoration into recipes for a modern city.

Meaning in architecture, without ideology. The art of the science of planning and the science of the art of design.

The profession of city design is called planning and city planners are more often characterised as civil servants or bureaucrats seeking efficiency gain rather than as artists. However, the mechanism by which planners often operate is through recipes rather than design. Planners often create rules (recipes) for how cities can emerge organically rather than drawings or blueprints that specify exactly how. By merging the social science process of planning with the explicit artistic aims of architecture, planning becomes something entirely new.

Dappled light. An example of how an understanding of human behavior may enable us to create design patterns that solve emotional needs. This flat geometric wall would evoke a very different feeling if it was shadowlessly lit on a cloudy day in a housing estate in Northern England. It’s possible that dappled light is not just a cultural design pattern but a genetic one, that we evolved for millions of years seeking the shade of trees and therefore are reassured by the pattern of light filtered through moving leaves.

This isn’t just a question of social science embracing art, however, it’s also a story of social science becoming hard science in order to codify how to serve irrational but human needs and behavior. Just as a true science of economics is emerging based on understanding markets as being irrational because there are humans involved, while understanding exactly what that irrationality is, the same science of behavior can be applied to serving our needs for the built environment.

The incredible collaboration of Tversky and Kahneman helped unlock the potential to make soft sciences hard sciences through a rational understanding of irrationality. This has the potential to make us combine artistic and scientific needs in the way that a city plan for people’s emotional and physical wellbeing would need to.

If recipes for cities leverage recent, scientific understanding of human behavior they can serve people’s needs from a psychological rather than just functional perspective, to serve spiritual needs that are an accepted fact, without needing to be tied to a particular ideology or religion. We can create recipes for new cities that make people happy, by design, not just house them.

Sublime decorative, geometric architecture for the cupola of the Sindone Chapel, Turin by Guarini. For hundreds of years, consciously decorative styles have been attached to religion, ideology or selling things. They should be everywhere, embedded within the recipes of our cities.