David Lewis

David Lewis

Partner, NBBJ
David is a partner in NBBJ’s London studio and an architect with more than 25 years’ experience. His view is that the best designs can be distilled into a simple diagram, no matter how complex the building. Although David lives in London, was born in London, studied in London and works in London, he’s still not a proper Cockney.

Look Both Ways: A Virtual Roundtable Exploring Well-Being Trends for the Healthcare Workplace

December 16, 2021

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, NBBJ hosted a virtual roundtable with leaders from healthcare systems in the UK and the US. This post identifies four key points from the conversation—investment in technology, the need to take a break, balancing beds with support spaces and encouraging healthy choices—that are important contributors to the well-being of healthcare workers. By considering these four factors, healthcare organizations can provide a more supportive environment and mitigate stress and burnout for staff. The ideas in this post have been condensed and reprinted with the permission of the participants.

Look Both Ways Virtual Roundtable Participants:

  • Tonia Burnette, Senior Director, Architecture and Planning – Johns Hopkins Health System
  • Carin Charlton, Director of Capital, Estates & Facilities Management – Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Amanda Mewborn, Vice President, Planning, Design and Construction – Atrium Health
  • Deirdra Orteu, Head of Design, Engagement and Operational Commissioning – Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Doug Spies, Senior Director of Architecture and Engineering, Corporate Construction and Real Estate – UPMC


Invest in Technology: The Promise to Do More with Less

A shortage of labor in the healthcare industry means an increased reliance on technology. While this issue is not industry-specific, healthcare technology is expensive and changes rapidly, and generational factors are also at play. Therefore, healthcare organizations must consider how to balance the cost of technology with the cost of labor.

As more and more healthcare workers, like doctors and nurses, retire, healthcare organizations are forced to weigh the operating costs of hiring people to replace them, or investing in technologies such as central bed control centers and centralized patient monitoring. While technology promises to do more with fewer people, it often costs more than labor, and evolves more quickly. For example, organizations struggling with hiring and retaining staff in back-of-house areas may consider leveraging Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) to deliver patient meals and transport supplies. But, while robots don’t take sick days, they are often more expensive than human labor, and may require upgrades or become outdated or obsolete over time.

“We’re framing the use for technology incorrectly. We need to think about how it can enhance people’s lives and experiences, rather than using it to ‘plug the gap,’” says Deirdra Orteu of the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust in London.


Take a Break: The Need to Pause to Prevent Burnout

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased stress, fatigue and burnout in healthcare workers. However, workplace culture and a sense of duty prevents many caregivers from taking a break to recharge during a shift. Because burnout can decrease performance and cause errors, not to mention take a toll on the mental and physical well-being of frontline workers, healthcare organizations must encourage staff to pause during the workday for increased resilience.

“If you take care of your staff, they’ll take care of your patients,” says Doug Spies at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. But considering what constitutes “wellness” and what it is that people want is the first step. Small changes such as better respite spaces, improvements to shared spaces like bathrooms or common areas, or the installation of rest pods are easier to implement compared to more traditional solutions due to their small footprint and relative convenience. A large, central break area like a wellness center or café is more difficult to execute—and it may not be what people want. Instead, providing each department with a 250-square-foot space to use as they see fit to meet respite needs on their unit, or the creative use of small alcoves or leftover spaces—such as the informal opportunity areas off stairwells or corridors—brings spaces to rest or take a break into the units when staff can’t step away.

Gathering and presenting data and employee feedback and stories on the impact of burnout and lack of respite space (for example, people napping in their cars or using the bathroom as a break room), can influence decision-makers to provide improved respite spaces. “We also need to come out of the Covid wake and see what the long-term effects are, and what the long-term strategies might be,” says Tonia Burnette of Johns Hopkins Health System. However, workplace culture is perhaps the greatest contributor—or deterrent—to staff taking time to pause during shifts. While organizations may be supportive, “Frontline caregiving is not a culture of taking breaks,” says Amanda Mewborn of Atrium Health who is also a registered nurse. “I don’t want someone else to have to cover for me.”


Balance Beds with Support Spaces: How to Spend the Square Footage

Reconciling budget with square footage has become increasingly challenging as costs rise and building footprints shrink—especially in urban areas. In addition, years of focus on patient environments has led to sub-optimal solutions for caregiver support spaces. Enabling staff to be comfortable and happy means they will deliver better service, but achieving return on investment for these spaces requires healthcare organizations to be strategic in their planning. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘How are our existing buildings going to serve us for the foreseeable future? How do we scale ourselves up to relate to, provide and plan for these needs?’” says Carin Charlton of the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

Measuring ROI starts with the building’s initial programming. Decreased square footage often means a less-than-ideal experience for staff—beginning with limited access to daylight and compressed support spaces. This is especially true of stacked hospital designs, where much of the perimeter is dedicated to beds and leaves little room for staff. “It’s a conscious exercise of ‘how to spend the daylight,’” says Tonia Burnette. On floors with operating rooms (ORs), placing the OR inboard with corridors at the perimeter allows staff to have access to natural light during the day. For inpatient units, it is a matter of making a conscious decision around access to daylight from the start by incorporating space for staff respite on the perimeter or, in new buildings, applying creative geometry and providing opportunities for light to penetrate staff areas.

In addition, changing guidelines continue to increase room sizes. More space for patients can mean increased travel distances and the need to duplicate support rooms for staff, resulting in decreased efficiency. Another challenge is that of people working in the old building or portion of the hospital wondering why they do not have the same amenities and space that those in the new facilities do. “Ninety-five percent of what we are doing is renovations rather than new facilities, so small gestures go a long way,” says Doug Spies. Creating a standard for provisions in staff break areas on different units, refurbishing staff furniture and assessing access to daylight are simple ways to elevate the staff experience.


Encourage Healthy Choices: Nutritious and Convenient Food Options

Often rushed and faced with decision fatigue, choosing healthy food and setting aside dedicated time and space to consume it is rarely a possibility for healthcare workers. Encouraging healthy choices and providing quick, simple options for nutritious food that can be eaten at work or taken home can improve healthcare workers’ well-being.

In contrast to the corporate workplace, where amenities can serve as an incentive for people to step away from their desks or remain on the premises after work hours, “most healthcare workers would prefer to go home after a long shift rather than taking advantage of a gym or cafeteria,” says Amanda Mewborn. Healthy food options that can be ordered and delivered to a floor or unit, or grab-and-go meals to take home are more appealing. Some organizations are exploring solutions such as satellite food lockers, mobile ordering apps and meal programs that offer discounts for healthy food choices. “We started talking about the ability to get and deliver food before Covid, but the conversation has moved so fast in the past year and a half,” says Tonia Burnette.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

Going Up: Why Vertical Hospitals Might Be the Next Frontier in Healthcare Design

November 1, 2021

Partner, NBBJ

As cities densify, land values increase and the need for outpatient care services rise, hospitals are increasingly challenged to find space to expand. While true in many regions, this is especially so in cities like New York and Singapore, where vertical hospitals are a viable, and in some cases the only, option for significant hospital expansion.

At NBBJ, we practice primarily in urban centers and specialize in healthcare design. So, when faced with this challenge for a project in London, we designed a vertical “healthcare village” concept that focuses on greater efficiency and experience. In this article, we’ll explore the opportunities and challenges of high-rise hospital design, as well as the main ideas and themes we considered when designing the new medical facility for the heart of London.

Opportunities and Challenges
The concept of healthcare villages—multi-use environments that integrate healthcare with commercial, residential and other services—has evolved for over a decade. The first healthcare village in the United States, the Metro Health Village in Michigan, opened in 2007, and Guys and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in the UK refers to various spaces within the hospital’s Cancer Centre using this terminology. But the concept of vertical hospital design and vertical villages has only recently gained popularity.

Part of the need for a high-rise hospital village concept is the increasing co-location of clinical and research functions. This trend creates more travel between buildings and campuses, which then leads to an inconvenient and unproductive experience for staff. Tall hospitals can contribute to a better experience by minimizing the movement of patients throughout the building, locating key equipment and services closer to patients and bringing more services to a diverse population. And, because they are often located in urban environments, vertical hospitals can tap ancillary revenue streams like leasing out ground floor retail or building in conference or meeting space to bring retail and other services to neighborhoods.

Compared to the Low-Rise layout shown above, a High-Rise hospital layout simplifies wayfinding, creates efficient travel distances and provides greater access to daylight and views.


However, high rise structures are complex and designing for healthcare brings additional challenges. Airflow, MEP equipment and structural engineering must all be considered. Healthcare environments are also likely to experience future expansion and adaptation, so considerations like building load capacity in columns and floors, fire proofing and utilizing a modular grid must be addressed to ensure that the building is flexible. And, without the benefit of separate buildings for separate practices, creative wayfinding, connection and patient and caregiver flow solutions are important in the design of vertical healthcare environments.

A Series of Vertical Villages
When tasked with designing a vertical hospital village in London, we applied our expertise in designing both healthcare environments and high-rises to redefine what a city center hospital can be. Different villages or hubs for education, private and inpatient care, maternity, critical care, pediatrics and imaging are located on separate levels and defined by greenery, winter gardens and landscaped terraces and walking paths throughout. Technical considerations such as efficient vertical transportation and core size, as well as employing off-site and modular construction for select elements, are key to maximizing the available footprint. Three main design aspects guided our vision and successful implementation of the vertical healthcare village:

Form and Function
In our concept, the villages are given different identities but possess the same ingredients in terms of access to the outdoors, greening, and collaborative and family spaces. This differentiation also helps to break up the overall mass and provide visual interest, and simplifies wayfinding, creating a sense of place for staff, patients and visitors. Individual elements of the facade vary according to orientation and use within but share an inherent verticality collectively benefitting the proportions. Finally, all heavy equipment is housed in the lower levels, with the less technical floors situated above. This contributes to a stronger structure to counteract vibration and offers flexibility within both the structural environment and technical spaces.

Staff and Patient Experience
Diverse environments within the space support normalcy for patient families, emphatically integrating caregivers and families into the care process. Amenities like yoga and dining, and places for respite with access to nature and views nurture staff’s well-being as well as that of the patients and their families. And, short vertical distances are prioritized over long horizontal distances, which means more efficient travel for both patients and staff.

A Healing Environment
The internal experience for staff, patients and families explores the relationship between health and physical space to streamline operations, enrich the staff and patient experiences, and improve outcomes in healthcare delivery. Considerations such as enhanced access to daylight and views to most of the floorplate, as well as improved air quality and reduced noise benefit the healing process.

The tower’s stacked volumes are separated and articulated by vertical and horizontal greening, with atriums that create respite hubs every two to three patient floors.


With gains to be made in staff and patient experience, excellence in clinical delivery and build efficiency from modular construction of towers — especially in tight urban environments with limited space for construction—going up may be the way forward for healthcare provision in urban environments.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

How to Design a Nightingale Hospital to Be Operational in One Month

Five Lessons in Rapid Hospital Construction

May 11, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s note: Our healthcare clients are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. We seek to support them as they courageously care for the sick. So we’re posting design ideas based on work with them, in the hope that we can contribute from our base of expertise to help combat the epidemic. From all of us at NBBJ to the many doctors, nurses and support staff in hospitals and clinics, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.


To deal with a potential surge of inpatients due to Covid-19, many healthcare organisations around the world are constructing “Nightingale Hospitals,” named after the founder of modern nursing Florence Nightingale, in which patients are typically housed in open wards instead of private rooms.

Designing, building and commissioning these hospitals quickly is a major undertaking. But lessons learned from recent projects [download an infographic about the construction of one here] provide insight into how to deploy them elsewhere in the future. Here are five ideas to consider when developing a temporary field hospital:

Choose a simple structure: Because making quick decisions is imperative, opting for a prefabricated shell ensures a hospital can be quickly erected and demountable. For example, a spaceframe roof can be assembled at ground level with a hydraulics lift to put the roof into position. In some cases the shell can be erected in as little as five days.

Care for the caregivers: Provision of staff respite spaces is incredibly important during this stressful time. These facilities may include a staff lounge with views of the outdoors, a space for pause and reflection, as well as staff changing facilities and a dedicated staff entrance into the hospital. Space should also be furnished for changing into and out of PPE, with strategically placed PPE top-up facilities throughout the building.

Ensure patient privacy: Preserving dignity is important to patients, particularly at such a traumatic time and in such a large open space. Folding screens and fixed “wing walls” can create a sense of privacy that helps put patients at ease and enables them to recover faster.

Create a clear segregation of flows: Arranging the wards as 30-bedded units with a centrally placed nurse base and medication facility at the centre of each provides good views to patients. Placing clean and dirty utilities at opposite ends of each ward provides ease of access and segregation of flows.

Standardise for quick construction and easy navigation: Standardising bedheads for acute care, including oxygen provision but not invasive ventilation, is a good way to save time during construction and use.

When creating a Nightingale Hospital, all established ideas about designing healthcare environments need to be rethought. Solutions must be developed, first from principles and patient services to fire strategy and the coordination between the design teams, site teams and the client.


To learn more about how to construct a nightingale hospital, click here to download an infographic overview of a recent one in Jersey. 


How are you and your healthcare organisation dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at socialmedia@nbbj.com.




Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

What Does the Future of Urban Healthcare Look Like?

Thoughts on a ‘Healthcare Quarter’

August 6, 2018

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post derives from an NBBJ-hosted breakfast talk at the British Library in London focused on the future of the NHS. NBBJ Partner David Lewis was joined by speakers Jodie Eastwood, Chief Executive of the Knowledge Quarter; Peter Ward, Director of Real Estate Development at King’s College London: Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation; and Richard Darch, Chief Executive of the healthcare consultancy Archus.

As we celebrate the 70th year of the NHS, the future of healthcare in the UK has arguably never been a hotter topic with no shortage of debate on how the world’s largest publicly funded health service will survive.

The people who work and care within the NHS remain its most valuable asset and they will continue to shape national pride in what polls have shown symbolises ‘what is great about Britain’.

But what about its places? How is the public healthcare estate adapting to the demands of an ageing population, new technologies and severe financial pressures? And how will it look in 10, 20 and 30 years’ time?


Creating ‘health engines’

Healthcare estates should be spaces where everyone comes together for the benefit of healthcare. Not in some utopian dream but in the form of ‘health engines’ that combine and convert the power of healthcare, research and development and industry to deliver positive progress. Instead of selling off surplus land for residential use and reducing the NHS estate, there is potential to create health ‘eco-systems’ in our cities — healthcare quarters with hospitals acting as anchor tenants surrounded by layers of research and wellness services, step-down care, commercial tenants and public social spaces.

These aspirations chime with the concept for a ‘health return’ from public assets, land and buildings to promote healthy lifestyle and wellbeing.


Everyone needs good neighbours

The Cambridge Biomedical Campus and Royal Liverpool University Hospital demonstrate how healthcare, research and commercial developments can benefit from being co-located. It’s important that spaces knit healthcare sites back into cities and their urban context, promote synergies between healthcare and education and create societal hubs that encourage public access and community use.

This is the point of view championed by Jodie Eastwood of the Knowledge Quarter, a partnership of more than 90 knowledge-rich organisations based around King’s Cross, St Pancras, Bloomsbury and Euston. Jodie espouses the power of cross-disciplinary partnerships saying “the real value of collaboration comes when you cross sectors.”



At the Quadram Institute in Norwich, researchers and clinicians collaborate around an open atrium overlooked by research labs and balconies. (Photo courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ)

Science on show

However, co-locating sectors alone is not enough. We must create buildings that actively promote formal and informal collaboration; spaces that showcase health and science in one place.

Blurring spatial boundaries can bridge the gap between fundamental research and application in practice, allowing those differing aspects of innovation to drive each other.

At the same time putting science on show, making it accessible to the public, helps to demystify scientific endeavour, while sowing seeds for education and future talent.

The Quadram Institute in Norwich is a case in point, incorporating an environment in which clinicians work alongside scientists at the forefront of food science, gut biology and healthcare research under one roof with one shared identity and entrance.

Bringing together the Institute of Food Research, the University of East Anglia and the gastrointestinal endoscopy facility of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, the Quadram Institute conducts bench-to-bedside research and clinical care related to health and diet.

Within a hierarchy of spaces, the clinical research facility and patient treatment areas are more private to protect patients’ and participants’ confidentiality, whilst the research space is open to showcase the science within.


Future proofing and flexible facilities

There are also many lessons the NHS needs to learn from when designing the next generation of healthcare facilities and buildings.

Purely clinically-led design isn’t working and must be supplemented by research-led thinking that inspires sustainable, adaptable buildings offering operational flexibility.

We must also champion strong and proven healthcare, research and technology hubs, such as the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto and UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay, as the best breeding ground for future start-ups and world-leading innovation.

Yes, many garage start-ups have turned into multinational powerhouses but most new ventures will have a higher chance of success from being based in well-connected places that benefit from local cultural and heritage amenities.


Technology drives talent

Finally is the undeniable importance of digitalisation and AI to the future of healthcare and driving the talent that will drive healthcare forward. It will be fascinating to see how emerging technologies will advance the practice of medicine, improve health and empower patients to be active participants in their own care. Trends in digital diagnostics, robotics and data are allowing hospitals to put the human experience first.

For example, many hospitals in the United States are already being designed with extra-wide corridors, allowing robots to deliver medicine and other critical supplies directly to patient rooms. Meantime, IBM’s Watson is being utilized to diagnosis illnesses — especially those that are hard to detect — which then impacts the experience of patients and the quality of care they receive.

The NHS needs to sell a vision of the future now, instil public confidence and demonstrate it has a plan to create a future for itself. What’s needed is true collaboration, openness and innovation, inclusivity, community and a need to think flexibly. Don’t let’s design for just one need but let’s create a sustainable health and wellbeing community for the next 70 years.

Banner image courtesy of Timothy Soar/NBBJ.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

The Health Economy Is a Local Economy

Clustering Healthcare Services Isn’t Just Good for Patients, It’s Good for Local Communities — Like Liverpool — Too

March 2, 2015

Partner, NBBJ

For the latest in our ‘Lab’ talks in London, a panel on ‘The Health Economy’, we posed a question to a gathering of designers and healthcare professionals: how can healthcare developments impact the health and wealth of our cities?

The question comes at a time when the National Health Service (NHS) faces significant challenges in delivering effective local care, as John Kelly, director at Healthcare Partnering, told the group. The NHS, he said, is influenced by opposing forces, which he dubs ‘centrifugal’ and ‘centripetal’. The centrifugal forces — capacity, romantic localism, resilience and more — encourage the decentralisation of care services, whilst centripetal forces — NHS culture, individual behaviour, procurement routes and more — favour centralised care. (Forces such as finance and politics also compete for influence, but their effects are less predictable, encouraging consolidation in some instances and dispersal in others.)

Since the Health and Social Care Act 2012, the relationship between NHS hospitals and their local economies has worsened. The lack of connectivity between hospitals, social care and the community creates a wide gap in the quality of health in many areas. This would seem to argue against decentralisation.

Yet it is clear that the older, simpler model of the NHS and its organization — the centripetal, centralised model — is no longer applicable either. The NHS needs to take a wider view, to be more encompassing, more flexible and better networked. It will need to move beyond centralised healthcare if it truly wants to provide integrated, personalised services for patients.

Kelly quoted Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, who produced the NHS Five Year Forward View to articulate what this change might look like. He proposes multi-specialty community providers, viable smaller hospitals and specialised care, with the goal ‘to dissolve the artificial barriers between prevention and treatment, physical health and mental health, and the historical silos of primary, community, social care and acute care — and the professionals who work across them’.

Fortunately the new Royal Liverpool University Hospital is moving in this direction, reported our second speaker, Helen Jackson, the Director of Strategy and Transformation for the new Royal and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust. Although Liverpool has some of the most deprived areas of the UK — life expectancy in the Kensington area is 10 years less than Kensington in London, and there are huge variations within Liverpool itself, in some places of up to 14 years — the new Royal represents an opportunity to build on the assets of the city and improve health and wealth.

The £1 billion development covers not only the hospital, but also research, education, public space and other opportunities for future growth. Its vision of an integrated campus is attracting key services and institutions such as the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre. The aim of the Trust is to build a knowledge quarter: the hospital and the university will be closely linked to the cultural centre of Liverpool and the shopping district, making it attractive to researchers and clinicians alike.

And by siting research and healthcare on the same campus, the opportunity for clinical advancements is greatly increased. For the Trust, this represents a significant step change in the way they deliver services.

As Jackson puts it, the ambition for the new Royal is that job creation, investment, development, co-location and significantly improved health services will together improve the health of the city of Liverpool. Even more significant, if successful it will provide a roadmap for resolving the centripetal and centrifugal forces currently pulling healthcare in contradictory directions. In doing so it will provide a model for healthier, wealthier communities throughout the UK.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

Let’s Get Back to Drawing

A Photo-Essay from a Panel and Exhibition on Architectural Drawing in London, 28 October

November 6, 2014

Partner, NBBJ

Last week we hosted an event in NBBJ’s London studio titled ‘Let’s get back to drawing’. We have noticed that, when it comes to design, clients and the public are ever more demanding in their requests for realism and photo-realistic CGIs. But we wanted to see if, as architects, we still need to be able to draw.


Today we work in 3D to generate images and coordinate design. It’s practical and it’s visual. We’re constantly evolving and our tools are becoming ever more intuitive. We use computational design to rapidly prototype designs: these complicated algorithms allow us to explore multiple options for our clients so we can design the best building we can.

Crucially though, we still always start with a drawing. Sketchbooks and pencils are still very much part of the tool box; computational design is simply an additional tool. Drawing is a way of thinking through and working out problems. It too allows for rapid prototyping. And it’s a clear communication tool: we demonstrate a thought process, the evolution of an idea and a solution.


Richard Rees, The Society of Architectural Illustration

Our guest Trevor Flynn, founder of Drawing at Work, often finds that architects are afraid of drawing. His classes, held in-house at practices, aim to dispel this fear. He uses a series of exercises to free his students up. Freehand drawing is a form of interpretation: he calls it ‘selective inattention to detail’. He might ask his students to sketch a subject 20 times in an hour: a kamikaze approach, fast and with a high failure rate. But out of this plenty he is looking for scarcity. The most simple of lines can offer the clearest view.

Our second guest, Richard Rees, former director of BDP and now President of the Society of Architectural Illustration, said the purpose of a drawing is to make you see the essence of something. The best drawings can be the most simple, a few lines which allow the viewer to interpret to form the image. CGIs, in all their accuracy and finesse, can dull a subject down: too much information and the mind doesn’t need to work. Flynn is concerned we have lost the idea of the present; we’re always looking down (usually at our phones) and missing something. He asks, ‘where did the view go?’ His goal is to reengage our spatial and visual intelligence, rewire us and help us draw once again.

Drawing is the ultimate communication tool. Since the time of the caveman, drawing has been used for thinking, recording, explaining, imagining, questioning, recollecting and expressing. It makes us inherently human.


Installation view at NBBJ London.



Worm’s-eye view axonometric of City Court, David Lewis, 1989.



Flipping through Drawing on Architecture, a publication by Richard Rees and the Society of Architectural Illustration.



Watercolor and pencil sketch of Dulwich College, Christian Coop, 2014.



Listening to the panelists.



Detailing for NBBJ’s iAlter installation at 100% Design, David Doody, 2014



Listening to the panelists.


All images courtesy of Ming Lee/NBBJ.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

The Serendipity City

The City of the Future Won’t Just Be Smarter, It Will Make Us More Creative

April 17, 2014

Partner, NBBJ

There’s been a lot of talk recently about ‘smart cities’ — certainly we discussed them often at a recent New Cities Foundation meeting I attended in Stockholm. But I wonder whether the smart city is an incomplete vision of urbanism.

In Stockholm, we discussed the good city of the future, and two themes emerged. The first was the base environment: a good city meets basic needs for safety, education, proximity (that is, the ease of getting around), transport and so on. And the second theme, which we called the ‘soul’ of the city, included things like heritage, a free and creative environment and successful public spaces such as cafés. When you put those two things together, it forms a catalyst, the spark for chance encounters to happen.

That’s when we hit upon it: the goal isn’t a ‘smart city’ at all. The smart city is simply a means to an end. The actual goal is what I call the ‘serendipity city’.

Once the basic elements are in place, the serendipity city becomes about chance encounters and how people network. Data can make cities more efficient, but the differentiator of good cities has always been how they promote chance and new ideas. To use an obvious example, if you are sitting in a café and overhear something that interests you, that may lead to a new insight. Public spaces enable these chance encounters to happen.

Then data enhances public space to provide the infrastructure in terms of connectivity, in terms of getting ideas out and also collecting information. Here is where the smart city comes in. For instance, it’s estimated that 30 percent of traffic is people looking for a place to park. So if you could use an app to find parking, as they’ve started to implement in Barcelona, it would reduce driving. Using information in this way points not only to a safer city, with reduced traffic making it easier for people to walk around, but it also allows you to be more efficient in your day and free up more time for serendipitous encounters.

Data could enable encounters in other ways too. Take an office building, which is usually occupied only from 8:30 to 6:30. If that building constantly gave updates on whether the rooms were available, and if building management made that data public, it could open the space to a wider audience. Sensors already adjust temperature and lighting based on occupancy, but if that information were available more widely, who knows what kind of unexpected interactions would occur.

The best part? The serendipity city layers easily over existing cities. The built environment differs, in terms of time-scale, from data: it lasts a hundred years or more, instead of days or even minutes. Compared to the built environment, the information layer is relatively easy to implement. Where the serendipity city differs from existing cities is how it interacts with the streetscape and how it hands over its threshold to the public. In its physical context, especially at ground level, it offers more public space than private space, open to interaction with more people.

In a knowledge-based economy, ideas are crucial to competitiveness, which is the true value of the serendipity city. By using information to help people negotiate the built environment more efficiently, it brings them into contact with more people and catalyzes new, unexpected ways of thinking. Now that’s smart.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

Share this:  envelope facebook twitter googleplus tumblr linkedin
Comment Follow nbbX

Follow nbbX