How to map digital cities of the future

Silicon chips and Mother Nature have formed an unlikely partnership to improve our cities, daily lives and our collective future

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | February 19, 2014




Avant-garde urbanism conceptualises the city as an organic entity with an inbuilt and self-evolving consciousness. Very much like a human body. A city’s surface dotted with numerous monuments, lanes, bye-lanes, food courts, festivities and a riot of cultures and languages is its epidermal layer. It’s a skin of sorts that gives each city a unique character, flavour and colour. People interact with the outer surface of a city, and through this daily engagement create a set of imaginaries that range from the buzz of a Mumbai to the heart of a Bangalore. Humanising a city and imbibing it with idiosyncrasies allows us to bond with the urbanity of a city. The process that takes place is not very different from the social mathematics that subconsciously takes place when you meet another person, or bond with a friend.

In short, one makes split-second decisions based on epidermal cues. No one thinks of how the heart is beating or whether the kidneys are functioning properly or if the liver and the gall bladder are pumping out just the right amount of digestive enzymes. It’s the same with cities. Very few bother to look beyond its epidermal layers into the exoskeleton that holds up and gives form to the skin. Fewer still look at the nerve centres that generate specific impulses that get diffused throughout the urban body creating what we often refer to as the ‘soul’ of a place.

To creatively borrow from and paraphrase medical terminology, the health of a city lies in how well its internal organs are functioning in unison. The skin only reflects how strong or weak the system is. It’s a concept that’s increasingly influencing various aspects of urban planning and social enquiry into cities, in the process converting what was once an antiseptic, sterile and technical discipline of urban studies into one that is a more humane, organic and open to borrowing tools and concepts from other disciplines.

If a city is a body with its gears and pulleys and nuts and bolts hidden beneath its epidermis, then what exactly constitutes its entrails? Its exoskeleton, the framework that gives a city a certain form and shape, comprises of the basic infrastructure like electricity grids, water and waste management systems and public transportation networks. Its organs, so to speak, include institutions of governance, corporate bodies, community groups and civil society organisations. By working in tandem, all formal or informal institutional or non-institutional mechanisms creates a certain form of urban order, like how all the organs working together in a human body keep it running day in and out. Of course, people and their various permanent and temporary congregations, say a farmers’ market, form the connective muscles and tissues of a city. In those romantic moments, we call it the soul.

In conceiving a city as a living, breathing entity, every single historical and contemporary urban formation can be understood and analysed in a new light. In doing so new insights about intractable urban problems, and solutions, begin to emerge. It’s remarkable in itself considering that traditional and conventional urban planners have been at their wit’s ends to figure them out. Singapore, which has always been at the cutting edge of urban living, is already implementing traffic flow solutions that are patterned on how human heart pumps blood through our veins and arteries depending on how loaded our bodies are activite and working.

Similarly, the legendary and vintage Parisian sewage system, yes the same one that got a starring role in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables, first established in 1370 in Rue Montmarte, is currently taking lessons in fluid mechanics from free flowing streams and rivulets of forests to manage the water supply and waste water management of the city.

Now, it’s easy to pat our backs and credit human ingenuity for this new way of looking at our urban lives; after all urbanity itself is a human invention. But doing so would be more a matter of hubris than reality. Two reasons stand out for why we stumbled, so, upon this approach that defines new age urbanism today.

The first reason is actually a combination of three elements of miniaturisation, automation and hyperpixelisation that have created amazingly accurate measuring tools used in pure and applied sciences. Thank it for everything from the discovery of the elusive Higgs Boson particle to the application of the hitherto hidden secrets of nature – hearing aids inspired by the structural architecture of a fly’s ear and dragon-fly inspired autonomous micro air vehicle (MAV) DelFly Explorer, to just name two – to robots, traffic flow patterns, drainage systems and  urban design and architecture.

The second reason involves digital chips that made the first reason possible. It is arguably more important than the first, simply because the first one would not have existed but for the second. The data processing capability of the chips ensured that untapped data points – like ultraslow motion cameras that threw new light on fluid mechanics of objects and liquids and data modelling software that discovered the secret behind why groups of ants could display characteristics of both a fluid and solid at the same time – were harnessed and cross-tabulated with others, leading to evidence driven insights and discoveries that had applications across disciplines.

If a city is a body, then what exactly constitutes its entrails? Its organs, so to speak, include institutions of governance, corporate bodies, community groups and civil society organisations. By working in tandem, all formal or informal institutional or non-institutional mechanisms creates a certain form of urban order

Urban planning, architecture and design benefitted a lot; so much that today smart chips and systems are embedded in the most unlikeliest of urban structures: Did you know that several Swiss cities are deploying ‘tensegrity’ bridges developed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technologies that are adaptive? In short, these bridges carry out self-diagnosis and self-repair, like how trees grow back broken branches. They do so by using special cement (Calera) that harnesses carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a building block, exactly like how nature uses it to build corals. And guess what? These special self-repairing bridges know what’s wrong with them and when because, yes, they are embedded with smart, diagnostic chips. The future is already upon us, and with digital chips getting embedded in a city’s epidermal and exoskeletal levels, and also in its connective tissues, cities are increasingly getting digitally scripted and coded.

Acknowledging and understanding this process is critical for India, which has an ambition of building up to 50 new cities, and refurbishing close to 60 existing cities. In fact the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor has plans to construct 22 cities along the route, and has already roped in IBM to create what it calls ‘smart cities’. It’s a beginning, but if it has to be taken to its logical conclusion then there are three fundamental shifts that need to take place.
The first is to completely decommission urban planning as it exists today in India. The day and age of centralised and linear town planning approaches are over. Conceptually, the urban planners, architects, designers, builders and policy makers have to make conscious efforts to humanise urban planning to make it part of the larger ecosystem of social sciences.

Urban conglomerations are not just about infrastructure – let’s not fool ourselves by calling it hard and soft – but about people, services, systems of mobility and waste recycling networks. There is a lot to learn from nature, especially from the emerging discipline of biomimicry. For all sceptics, scientists recently uncovered a 50 square metre ant hill, a literal megalopolis with its own system of highways, canals, transportation systems and network hubs. It looks as if a human mind couldn’t have conceived it better. If we are to evaluate it in our terms, it is equivalent to the feat of building the Great Wall of China (For those interested in this particular anthill please see the documentary ‘Ants: Nature’s Secret Power’ at youtube.com/watch?v=Z-gIx7LXcQM).

Architects and planners with some foresight have already started borrowing ideas from nature, and the concept of parametricism is evidence of that perceptible shift. The defining heuristics of parametricism rejects rigid geometric shapes like squares, triangles and circles and repetition of elements, and considers all forms to be evolutionarily malleable, changeable and mutative in nature.  The Kartal-Pendik Masterplan of Istanbul in Turkey by Zaha Hadid Architects is an example.

The second is to understand that the embedding of digital logic systems is increasingly creating an emergent sociology of urban spaces; one that is redefining and imbibing the conventional socio-politics of exclusion and inclusion with a sociotechnical binary framework of inclusion (logins) and exclusion (logouts). It’s already being seen in some of the more advanced cities like Singapore where the travel smart card is already being modified to provide, modulate, or even deny, access to public spaces, payment system/gateways and social services. It’s a new form of urban sociology where digital inclusion plays a predominant role in determining other inclusionary or exclusionary practices. It’s only by integrating the emerging academic fields of social construction of digital technology, sociology and urbanity that new forms of urban politics and social ordering can be understood, analysed and tackled. The third is to understand the need to invest in new, and eco-friendly, urban practices. Singapore again, for instance, has an entire network of government departments, research divisions, companies and knowledge systems devoted to vertical urban farming.

The day and age of centralised and linear town planning approaches are over. Conceptually, the urban planners, architects, designers, builders and policy makers have to make conscious efforts to humanise urban planning to make it part of the larger ecosystem of social sciences


It’s the same thought process that has connected the open and green spaces of the city state through a unique and integrated pathway that allows for walkability and person-powered mobility. Interestingly, most of these ideas have come from citizens and people who are far removed from the ‘technical’ discipline of urban planning. It only goes on to show and prove that decentralised urbanity is the way forward.  There is no doubt that India is going to be urban. It is already well and truly on the path of ubiquitous digitalisation. Cities all over the world have come to the humbling realisation that nature does have the secret recipe for a good and sustainable life. If our policy makers can put their minds together, and egos aside, there is an opportunity to transform India forever and pull millions of people out of ghettos and give them healthier and sustainable lives.

Swaminathan is a National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI) Fellow. He is also a Senior Fellow in Observer Research Foundation (ORF). A dyed-in-wool digital native, he is one of the few surviving members of the original tribe of Internet crazies who used floppy diskettes, DOS prompts and WordStar.

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