Digital downtown: will human and robot workers coexist in the city?

AI, automation and smart infrastructure won’t just change our workplaces – they will reshape our cities as uninhabited digital facilities jostle with shops in urban districts

The future of the city will be defined by automation, artificial intelligence, urban intensification and smart infrastructure. We need to recognise that the traditional sectors and individual building types familiar today will no longer exist or operate in the way we’ve been used to. We’re on the cusp of a future in which technology-led development will have the most significant impact on urban form and on the cultural aspects of how people inhabit spaces.

City authorities still evaluate the success of a development on the basis of how many jobs will be created, but there appears to be no distinction between human or robotic workers. With automation, however, that must change. The resilient city must be capable of adapting and responding to all future challenges.

A symbiotic coexistence

What kind of real estate can futureproof a city and sustain its economic future? Scott Brownrigg’s Advanced Technologies team, which launched in 2015, is addressing this issue by creating Digital Real Estate – sustainable environments populated by humans and machines symbiotically co-existing, and using big data and emerging techniques to promote technology-led development in cities.

We may see an increase in buildings and infrastructural elements which are not designed for or inhabited by people. These digital, productive and energy generation facilities will not just be located on the periphery of the city but also downtown. As younger citizens migrate back to live in the city centre, they will increasingly find themselves co-existing with machines. The transparent daylight, cooling, signage, colour and texture we associate with inhabited built structures will be contrasted by the translucent, ambiguous, secure, non-stop, ubiquitous presence of digital real estate.

‘A translucent, ambiguous, ubiquitous presence …’

Traditional concepts of urban design and place making will give way to a re-programming of space, where non-cultural entities shape and inform spatial design. Smartness by its very nature will disrupt real estate with financial services and retailers remodelling the central urban core as new anchor tenants.

Edge computing and high-rise data centres are just two aspects likely to jostle with experiential retail, blended with last-mile logistics, additive printing and other clean processes. Repurposed or new, radically different buildings for ‘prosumers’ (producers and consumers) will reflect pattern shifts to ‘try and buy’ and ‘click and collect’.

Edge developments

Taking the example of London, its ‘cluster postcodes’ such as Tech-City (E1) and FinTech hotspots (EC1V, EC2A) are a good example of a city’s ability to attract and accommodate both innovators and smart investment. Edge developments such as the Knowledge Quarter at King’s Cross, Imperial West at White City and UCL East at Stratford are competing with the ‘City’ to harness the potential of clustering science and technology companies with world-class research institutions and development finance to drive growth and real estate value.

This is also mirrored on London’s South Bank by a new wave of FinTech ‘disruptors’ benefitting from lower rents. The oncoming problem for institutions is that the volume of data being produced outstrips the speed at which technology can store it; urban prototyping and production will raise demand even further.

Following where art leads

There could be several beneficial effects of this disruption, for example FinTech and EmTech (Emerging Technologies) will increasingly provide finance to generate social enterprise, the arts and by extension quality of life for urban citizens. Conversely, the arts are already providing methodologies, future scenarios and interventions, whether at a macro or micro level, which suggest technology may soon follow where art leads.

Layering value by mixing uses previously separated, yet now capable of blending, is increasingly recognised as a smart approach in cities. But 20th century planning and 19th century building codes are struggling to keep up with this rapid change in market demand for new types of real estate.

We remain convinced this will change as smart, productive activity is re-inserted into the city’s fabric whether via media, new materials, fashion, clean tech, R&D, prototyping, final assembly and other compatible uses. That’s why we’re developing research tools with our partners looking into consciousness, new aesthetics, human and technology-centric activity and urban scenography. As the city is retooled, we need to put the right measures in place.

  Darren Comber is CEO of architects Scott Brownrigg and Iain Macdonald is Director of Scott Brownrigg’s Advanced Technologies team.
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