The RSA



Digital media and urban spaces

By the end of 2012, it is predicted that networked devices will account for a fifth of internet traffic, logging and processing in various ways the ‘behaviour’ of the street. Barbara Anderson FRSA argues we all share a responsibility to shape how these technologies will shape our lives.

Over the last few years, we have seen a huge variety of familiar objects and surfaces – from televisions to bus shelters – transform into networked sensors that gather, process, store and display information.

Cities are now producing and collating information about our activities, movement and behaviour. Leading development projects pre-suppose a fully sentient environment. This means every resource – from private buildings to public spaces and their individual parts– will have an IP address (the unique identifier for a networked device) and potentially an interface that makes the information generated visible and accessible. The vision of the future is one where responses are dynamic, and constants become variable: for instance, where a building’s membrane can respond to CO2 levels, or a road can respond to traffic.

Inhabitants of these new environments are engaging in their curation: the way in which digital assets are created, preserved and maintained. Browsing one minute, searching the next, we move seamlessly from private to shared information environments, offering insight into packages of urban experience. We can rate an interactive work of art, or get the inside track on where to get shirts ironed fast and cheaply. In London, we can even use a smartphone at a Tube platform to find out which carriage will deposit us closest to our exit at the next station.

If all this sounds a bit ‘Big Brother’, it can also be seen as the natural conclusion of a free market of information. However, if civic authorities, businesses and designers take collective responsibility, this presents a huge creative as well as commercial opportunity. It could even save money for some: use of urban digital media, on both a temporary and permanent basis, may to some extent remove the obligation on different parts of a city’s services to establish and fund their own communications and promotional networks. It could also help to measure and improve environmental impacts, safety, and navigability, and generate additional income streams. Of course, as more of us use digital urban media, our personal experience of cities will change; these are new tools available to designers and patrons to regenerate city spaces and enhance urban initiatives.

It does not take a huge leap of imagination to visualise the services available today, to see more fluidly integrated experiences becoming available. Imagine an arrow that appears on the pavement or on your sunglasses to tell you which way to go, or even a docking station that unfolds as you approach to lock up your bike. The logical extension of this is an architecture that moulds itself to the activity within a space. An exhibition organised by the Architectural League of New York, Toward the Sentient City, explored art and design projects with just this theme back in 2009.

When completed in 2015, New Songdo City in Korea will be a test bed for new technologies, with the city’s infrastructure intended to exemplify a digital way of life. Dubbed a ‘ubiquitous’ or U-City, it will be one of the largest scale examples in the world where all information systems (residential, medical and business) are linked, and could provide the prototype for the cities of the future.

But social network models for sharing information can be problematic: too much information on your neighbours can serve to undermine a community, limit conversation and prevent cohesion. Knowledge that is too explicit – for example, the political or religious affiliations of a community – can dissolve the diversity and richness key to new developments.

Furthermore, the expense of these ‘new tools’ has meant that many of us associate large-scale urban digital media exclusively with digital advertising hoardings. These are often (though not always) ugly and disrespectful of the surrounding urban fabric, and rightly invite challenge regarding their profit motive, light and information pollution, and energy consumption.

Regardless of whether we think it best to have all the information available all of the time, the pace of these innovations is very likely to continue, with financial imperatives already driving implementation. Experts believe that the best of these digital city concepts are the ones that enhance the people, networks and institutions that are already on the ground – ones that use technology to build the social capital that is already there.

On a less dramatic scale than the Korean project, a number of European cities have realised the benefits of the creative and digital industries to aid regeneration. Some of the more successful examples of this in the UK include Glasgow, Sheffield, Huddersfield, the Northern Quarter in Manchester and Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, as well as the Barbican and Southbank in London. The UK 2012 Olympic Live Site programme now has 22 urban screens over with three million viewers in the UK.

The mediated environments, such as certain areas in Glasgow, are clearly the most successful because they reflect (and are shaped by) people’s actions. In these examples, designers and patrons have considered the possibilities of urban digital media in the broadest sense, and have properly exercised their duty of care.

We all share a responsibility to shape these technologies and see that they are used thoughtfully for the benefit of all, sensitive to the moral hazards that they bring. In particular, designers and developers need to work together to take up this challenge. If they do not, we risk seeing our urban spaces undermined by poorly considered experiments. If they do, Digital Media has the potential both to change the way our cities run for the better and to improve the quality of life for their inhabitants.


Barbara Anderson FRSA juggles a career as a non-executive director with advisory roles to art and design organisations with a social and environmental purpose.

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