This is the third dialogue in a series in which Architect in Residence Do Janne Vermeulen has an email conversation with people from different area of expertise in order to exchange ideas between two disciplines.
In this third dialogue Do Janne is in conversation with architect and urban planner Antonio Gomez-Palacio of Dialog Canada, a multidisciplinary design agency from Canada consisting of architects, urban planners, interior designers, engineers and landscape architects.
Dear Antonio, we met in Toronto. Dialog and Team V are often in contact, sharing ideas about building in timber, creating neighborhoods and smarter ways to design. When it comes to Smart Cities, the discourse focuses mostly on arguments like efficiency and sustainability. After all, an efficient city with fluid infrastructure and clean air improves the quality of life. Yet, it seems to me that designing cities is about more than that; social factors such as facilitating interaction between people, generating social networks and creating space to live, to stand still and contemplate are equally as important. What do you think? And do you believe it is possible to design a smart city that is not (necessarily) efficient (or sustainable)?
You are absolutely right Do Janne. The promise of “smart cities” has been the ability for better planning and better designs. The logic being that better information results in better decisions. In many regards, this is true. I do believe that we will be able to make better decisions if we have the benefit of evidence. But in some regards, it is also a hyped-up promise. Numbers are only numbers if there is no sense of purpose, or if they are politicized for ulterior motives. We have experienced this with the robustness of traffic engineering, where the depth of knowledge and computing has led to a self-aggrandizing of traffic as a priority to solve over many other social issues.
I made a short video in which I address the issues regarding the use of data technology in decision making and city planning:
What should we do then? Two things, I would suggest. One, let us continue to develop the tools and techniques for collecting data at a city-wide scale, fully considering the privacy, social, and political conflagrations. Two, let us continue to refine the sense of purpose that drives the formation and implementation of smart-city know-how. On both these accounts, we have been working with a cross-sectoral network of organizations to develop a Community Wellbeing Framework. The idea is to focus specifically on a series of indicators (collecting data) targeted at “meaningfully improving the wellbeing of communities”. In the same way that data has allowed the global community to develop strategies around global warming, we believe that wellbeing is the next generation of knowledge-based purpose-driven city-building.
Thank you Antonio! So if I understand correctly, you suggest the gathering of data helps to assess the wellbeing of communities and can help outline ways to improve it. Can you give a practical example? If I remember our dinner-conversation you spend a lot of time physically in various communities, gathering or communicating non digital information as well as working with a broad scope of digital data: how do you believe the two worlds work together? Does the direction come from the data analysis or more out of community gatherings?
One thing we discovered, curiously, is that the answer to your last question is context specific. Some places and problems are best engaged through extensive conversations, this is especially true when trust needs to develop between parties or when creative solutions are required. In other instances, informing the conversation with hard evidence is what is most helpful. Most projects will ebb and flow between both. Ultimately we always need to keep in mind that good data is not intended to ‘make’ the decision for you, rather to ‘inform’ the decision. You asked for an example. I’m reminded of when we worked in a small town in Ontario that was struggling to redefine their relationship with the local hospital. It was only when folks were confronted with data on the actual nature of the state of health of the community, that they were able to rethink how the town could respond, trying to be more proactive on health initiatives. As a result, both town and hospital developed joint master plans, and developed a new model for a continuum of care. Extremely inspiring – it would not have been possible without both the evidence, and the robust conversations that unfolded. You might enjoy this video of the conversation I had there:
Do Janne Vermeulen:
Thank you Antonio! A good explanation of the benefits of both analogue dialogue and digital evidence. It seems apt that you write that, if we use data, it should be to inform us instead of to make decisions for us: it highlights that we should not sit back as designers in a time of digital information, but utilise the data-output to spark meaningful action.
It will be interesting to see how hospital and city will collaborate and find each other in the next ten to twenty years, and whether data-exchange will play an even larger role. We will follow up and find out.