Our 20th-century, head-over-heels love affair with the machine has provided us with amazing progress. It delivered legions of people from poverty into cities with shelter, clean water and modern health services.
But at what price? Obesity, diabetes, cancers, heart disease and a host of other ailments are a direct result of an urban design and planning policy which is car-centered, not people-centered. The disconnection between people in the suburban developments has removed an enriching sense of community. Almost nothing built in this era will last the ages; we are beginning to see the economic impacts of massive rebuilds, un-insulated glass towers and shoddy tract housing.
If the numbers of people on our planet were not so large (and growing) we could change course through a return to simpler ways. But I believe it will require enlightened assistance from new technologies and machines to help us return to healthy living and a sustainable built environment. Ironically, it could be an enlightened and refreshed affair with the machine that could save us from ourselves.
We are currently at the threshold of an amazing paradox: a “new machine age” is unleashing the potential for a human-centered city, not a machine-centered city. Design technology is revolutionizing the way we make things and the way we measure the outcomes of our choices. These changes have the potential to reverse negative trends in health, community, long-term economics and people’s spirits.
Urban Design and Big Data
The new machine age will allow us, first of all, to measure the negative impacts of the cities of the first machine age. Data crunching and analysis can humanize existing cities by reversing and debunking decades-long traffic policies, inserting successful pedestrian recolonizing strategies, proving the economics of pedestrian-centered design, crowdsourcing design strategies and building political leverage. (See Copenhagen, New York’s Times Square and Jan Gehl’s work with enlightened city leaders in Melbourne.) Big data organizations like Google are also focusing their vast search and analysis network on transforming the city and how we move through it.
The new machine age will help us to recalibrate the performance of our buildings through data analysis and parametric design prototyping; to create buildings that are lighter in weight; to move past the elusive net-zero energy goal; to scale for optimal human interactions. Advanced digital optics will allow for seamless virtual reality pre-experience testing. These digital tools will also allow and compel us to reexamine the basic rules of proportion and beauty that centuries of research have proven and 100 years of machine-driven design have forgotten.
The new machine age has untapped the ability to effectively research and create advanced materials that are super-lightweight, made of cradle-to-cradle renewable materials and locally sourced and fabricated. The past era was built on crude industrial prefabrication and the economics of cheap fossil fuels for transport. The future will not sustain these practices.
Advanced prefabrication technologies and techniques will use dramatically less construction waste and create buildings for sustained longevity, not short-term financial gains. In the future we will be able not only to customize and fabricate all components of a lightweight and advanced building, but also to humanize the buildings we build, where ornament, scale and beauty are achievable, leaving the industrial coldness found in the modernist cities of the first machine age in the past.
The up-and-coming generation of designers and architects engaged in making our cities is extremely comfortable with this new digital technology and acutely aware of the destruction wrought by the first machine age. They are motivated to make big changes to lead us towards true sustainable cities and life on earth.
In short, this new machine age will allow us to build to the extent of our imaginations — not to the constraints of the machine.
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