How digital technology is turning cities into theatres

Hendrick Danckerts painting of the lost Palace of Whitehall, brought back to life by digital technology. Sort of. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Silicon Valley has transformed our experience of the built environment and the complex systems within it to an extent never before conceived by any planner or architect. Uber, AirBnB, Google, Trip Adviser, Twitter – all have drastically affected how we consume and experience cities.

Each of these companies addressed a single market problem via technological innovation, and succeeded by attracting a critical mass of users. Lines of code, intentionally or otherwise, have rapidly outmaneuvered the lines of architectural blueprints in programming our cities.

Imagine, then, the possibilities of cohesion between these two toolsets: of architects who are, theoretically, tasked with designing for a public good, using the tools that are actually redrawing our cities. I believe that designers, as programmers of spaces, objects and experiences, hold the potential to craft this emerging city cyborg, and more importantly determine its purpose.

In his 1994 thought piece The Generic City, Rem Koolhaas describes a city where “serenity... is achieved by the evacuation of the public realm”, largely as the result of “urban life[’s] cross over to cyberspace”.

To a great extent, urban life has crossed over to cyberspace. We can receive deliveries within hours, date through apps, know who is where, and no longer need to know the name of our neighbourhood streets thanks to Google maps. These are great functions.

But to avoid Koolhaas’s vision of a public realm devoid of social purpose, we must simultaneously design an environment that offers experiences greater than those offered through highly functional apps.

The Generic City was intended as a provocation. But a link between our reliance on apps focused on the individual, and our reliance on what the built environment and city has to offer, is undeniable. Designing for a digitally mediated city that aspires to invigorate and inspire the public realm, rather than bypass it – that uses the interplay between lines of code and the lines on architectural blueprints – requires the designer to consider both the physical and digital layers of the urban experience.


Back to the fun palace

An early example of the application of this type of thought was the “Fun Palace”, designed by British architect Cedric Price, theatre director Joan Littlewood and cybernetic scientist Gordon Pask. The project, conceived in 1961, aimed to create “unimagined sociality” through a large adaptive structure that blended learning, work, the arts and “fun”.

It was to be an automated set of public spaces, mediated by cybernetic algorithms, and actuated through a variety of spatial and interactive mechanisms. Gantry cranes would reconfigure spaces to meet the needs of a particular performance, while another space would be configured to support an educational workshop.

My practice, Chomko & Rosier, seeks to re­examine this interplay between architecture, technology and culture. Our studio is mid­way through producing “The Lost Palace” – a project for Historic Royal Palaces, which will allow visitors to explore the Palace of Whitehall, which was largely destroyed by fire in the late 17th Century. Taking place on the streets of contemporary Whitehall, this compression of several hundred years is mediated via a series of haptic, physical, audio and interactive mechanisms powered by digital technology.

Urban experience designers can draw upon these types of experiments, while also engaging with the immense critical narratives emerging around data and our use of technology. They can decide which problems to address within our cities, and pursue the far greater task of designing our digitally mediated urban experiences. They can craft mechanisms, spaces and systems that encourage, suggest and assist us, while providing rich urban experiences – whether local information, wayfinding, transport, events, history, socialising, or any combination.

Our studio was able to play with this idea through our public art project “Shadowing”. The project gave streetlights the quality of memory, allowing them to record the shadows of those who walk underneath to be played back for the next person. As an art piece Shadowing captures and then enhances the core quality of any city: the people who share it. As a piece of design, Shadowing offers a glimpse into the potential for technology to provide a layer of experience on our streets and infrastructure.

The tools available to designers through software are unprecedented. They can dramatically alter our perception of a space, a historical event or an entire city without laying a single brick. 

So as the Generic City surges forward, propelled by digital technologies, and we wander towards the theatre exit lights guided only by a backlit screen, let us attempt instead to turn the city into theatre.

Matthew Rosier is co-founder of Chomko & Rosier.

The Lost Palace is a collaboration between Chomko & Rosier and theatre company Uninvited Guests. It runs from 21 July to 4 September.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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