The Serendipity City

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

April 17, 2014

Principal, 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.

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