Future Urbanism: Unlocking Equitable Urbanism via Human-Scale Tech

Dan Hill and Yuichiro Takeuchi 2023

1. Introduction

Cities emerge when tangles of culture, community, and commerce interact with natural systems. They articulate local culture, nature and value, yet they are also knots within planetary-scale flows.

So buildings, infrastructures and other urban technologies may be enablers of cities, but they are not the point of cities. The ‘smart city’ movement has repeatedly misunderstood this, by focusing on simplistic instruments rather than emergent complexity, operational efficiency rather than thriving cultures, control rather than conviviality.

As Brian Eno wrote, a truly smart city would be built around the intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness of its inhabitants, human and otherwise. This city is expressed via its culture, its interactions, its relationships. And adaptive urban technologies can powerfully tune systems to produce such diverse, open, and adaptable cultures—or they can inhibit them, producing the opposite.

We are interested in collectively sketching out a future urbanism enabled and ennobled by interactive technologies for conviviality, co-producing cities that are just, healthy and regenerative due to enduring qualities of emergence, adaptation, urbanity, and thriving diversity. 

2. Japanese and Australian cities

Japanese towns and cities in particular describe this possibility of emergent urbanism and adaptive systems, continually embodying the interplay between advanced technologies and enduring cultures. Ancient and modern at the same time, they also offer a particular proving ground: exploring positive responses to an ageing population, with Japan at the front line of the global population slowdown.

Australian cities are at a front line too: that of the climate crisis. They articulate the social and economic challenges of extreme environments, urban sprawl, housing affordability, car dependency, and public health—yet with the possibilities inherent to highly diverse growing populations, living amidst the complex systems capabilities of over 65,000 years of Indigenous Australian culture.

3. Prototype infrastructures of everyday life

In an unstable complex system, small islands of coherence have the potential to change the whole system.

Ilya Prigogine

Learning from both past failures and successes, we will best approach and conjure these possible futures not through grand yet abstract urban visions, but through sensitive and grounded strategic prototyping. When produced with care and attention, as well as transdisciplinary design thinking and practice, these prototypes can nonetheless produce large-scale systemic change.

We read the city as an assemblage of culture, nature and technologies. We believe that cities are best understood and exerted through the intimate, embodied scale of neighbourhoods, yet recognising that these tightly interwoven knots are nested within interconnected complex systems. We will explore how interactions at the scale of the door handle, say, help form the fabric of emergent conditions at a neighbourhood or district scale, as well as systemic flows at the broader scale of the city region. 

We dwell on the patterns and infrastructures of everyday life—articulated, for example, in the way we grow, cook and eat food, build a home, make art together, remember our dead, play or pray, move around or generate energy, decide what to commemorate or argue about or share. These located practices embody our wider cultures, whether we work with or against nature, and the values of our urban economies and politics. 

These practices are fundamentally interconnected, woven together as one and the same thing, a shared material stretched and patterned across multiple scales. By actively recognising this complexity, working with the details of urban interactions in particular places enables us to explore meaningful urban transitions at global scale.

4. Eclectic technologies

Technology is the active human interface with the material world. But the word is consistently misused to mean only the enormously complex and specialised technologies of the past few decades, supported by massive exploitation both of natural and human resources. This is not an acceptable use of the word.

Ursula K Le Guin

We take an eclectic view of urban technologies, considering those built of water and trees as well as silicon and code. Nonetheless, our present era is marked by increasing technological capabilities of the latter kind, the digital and computational, whose double-edged nature is now in clear focus.

The recent waves of ‘techlash’ have served as useful correctives, reminding us of the folly of unbridled technological optimism. The online world, at its best, can be a magical place of discovery and exchange, but it can also be an all-encompassing system of surveillance and control. Smartphones may promise to have turned us into ever-productive superhumans, but they can also be devices of isolation, steadily detaching us from the here and now. 

Technologies continue to make their way into the urban realm either way. Self-driving vehicles are nearing some kind of maturity, promising radically transformed mobility for humans and objects alike. Yet equally, the humble e-bike indicates how to augment rather than displace people on the move. Software makes empty rooms and buildings addressable and accessible. How might this be done equitably? Inexpensive sensors can now be installed city-wide, giving us access to precise digital representations of our cities, vast flows of data updated in real time. But what kind of data, produced by whom? The rise of artificial intelligence has the potential—still largely beyond our understanding—to fundamentally alter the ways in which cities are designed and experienced. But as our cities describe what we stand for, to what end?

Such emerging technologies can benefit our urban future, but they must be designed and integrated in ways that recognise broader values of inclusion, health, and sustainability. This requires an approach founded on interdisciplinary cooperation and rich historical perspectives, informed by thousands of years of urban and technological development, as well as diverse arrays of possible futures.

5. CSL x MSD

In this light, Sony CSL and Melbourne School of Design have come together to discuss and explore future urbanism, given their particular capabilities, perspectives, and interests. Bringing them together provides an impetus for an exploration of a ‘Future Urbanism’, as a salve to the dead-end of smart cities, with collaborative research projects that work as a ‘live sketchbook’ for possible futures that balance culture, nature, science and technology in harmony.

Sony’s history with technology foregrounds culture, interaction, engagement, connection. As a company, it is distinctly different from many other large technology corporations, who have often focused on infrastructure and engineering, but rarely with a human touch, or with an aspiration to creating and cultivating culture. Sony has repeatedly demonstrated how technology can support harmonious interaction and engagement between people, and the creation of culture.

Yet Sony’s research also interacts with cities directly and indirectly: from the possible infrastructures enabled by advances in mobility, energy, agriculture and sensing tech to more direct interactions around identity, community, culture, environment and place. Sony’s research is also increasingly oriented around public health, sustainability and biodiversity, ‘grand challenges’ in which cities are the key pivot points and in which the culture of everyday infrastructures is a key component, just as much as science and engineering. 

Melbourne School of Design, and the wider University of Melbourne capabilities that it can help integrate, is building transdisciplinary design-led approaches to research, which can form in the shape of complex challenges rather than traditional academic silos. In the first instance, these combined groups draw from the University’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, Faculty of Engineering and IT, Faculty of Arts, and Faculty of Science. Their perspectives include urban cultures and urban systems, anthropology and governance, planning and design, urban data and autonomous systems, building and fabrication, agriculture and food.

As projects evolve, they can tap into further research perspectives from researchers as required, from across the University. The University also has almost one million square metres of land of differing campus environments to work with as living labs, as well as ‘real life’ testbeds through its partnerships. Each provides a unique context, including Parkville’s ‘university campus as living lab’ environment, Melbourne Innovation District campus-adjacent urban retrofit opportunity, Burnley, Dookie and Creswick’s ecosystem and agricultural research environments, and Fishermans Bend’s post-industrial urban regeneration location. MSD’s research agenda is increasingly focused on Asia-Pacific, given Australia’s location and demographics (including staff/student composition and interests).

This combination of Sony CSL and MSD makes for a unique collaboration environment, capable of exploring the complex systems of everyday life with imagination, care, and purpose.