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The best books on Future Cities

recommended by Davina Jackson

Data Cities: How Satellites Are Transforming Architecture And Design by Davina Jackson

Data Cities: How Satellites Are Transforming Architecture And Design
by Davina Jackson

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We are a city-dwelling species. Our urban existence creates both opportunities and challenges, as the recent pandemic has illustrated. One thing seems clear, however. Understanding the way we interact with our built environment is becoming an increasingly data-driven enterprise, as Davina Jackson argues compellingly in her book, Data Cities. Here, she shares the five books that best explain the technology behind the urban planning of the future.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Data Cities: How Satellites Are Transforming Architecture And Design by Davina Jackson

Data Cities: How Satellites Are Transforming Architecture And Design
by Davina Jackson

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We live in what has been dubbed the Anthropocene, although the ‘Metropocene’ might be an equally apt moniker, as we are overwhelmingly a city-dwelling species.  Future cities is our topic, and you have focused on creative technological applications in urban contexts, as surveyed in your book, Data Cities. Elsewhere, you’ve coined the term ‘viral internationalism’ to describe the way architectural concepts gain currency around the world. How does one relate to the other?

When I wrote a 2005 essay titled “Viral Internationalism: Mutation by Infection” I certainly wasn’t anticipating a coronavirus pandemic! The theory still seems topical and relevant not merely for the current crisis, but because the very reality of data cities is that everyone is globally connected. The subtitle of my most recent book Data Cities gives a clue: ‘how our satellites are transforming architecture and design’.  The only way to really understand the future of cities is to understand the future of mapping the world. The vast majority of maps that we use for communication, travel, commerce, meteorology or any number of applications in the 21st century are all mediated by satellites. And this has implications for public health as much as architecture and the many fields that inform urban policies and politics.

Data Cities is the culmination of two decades of research I’ve done into the future of urban development after the internet. In the mid-nineties, I was asked to sub-edit an anthology of 39 academic essays that was compiled by Peter Droege, then the urbanism professor at Sydney University but also from MIT, Tokyo and Munich universities. It was a thrill to intensely focus on so many serious texts about the potential impacts of technology on cities. This was in 1995, when we had only just begun using email. The internet was being described as an ‘infobahn’. Very few people knew about the World Wide Web and the term ‘smart cities’ hadn’t been invented.

“ Just as the future for architecture was to model the building virtually on the computer before you actually went on site…so computer modelling would need to be applied to planning and designing cities of the future.”

Separately, as editor of Architecture Australia, the journal of the Institute of Architects, I spent the nineties getting excited about coming digital technologies, talking to international architects who were big on what was then called CAD or CAAD (computer-aided architectural design) and is now called BIM (building information modelling). These systems, driving robotic machines, were obviously going to have massive implications for architects and building in the 21st century. I’m always after the next big story – a newspaper journalist trained to develop a ‘nose for news’ – and as an editor and a trend-spotter writing for design magazines, I thought ‘wow this really is a big movement … but what exactly is the story?’

It was very difficult at the time to clarify all the different things going on – sorting out who were the serious achievers, which new advances would be historically important, and what bits of rhetoric seemed crucial. And it was also difficult to deal with all the naysaying about technology. Most of the eminent architects in my country Australia were furious, there’s no lesser word for it, at the very mention of the world ‘digital’, let alone the internet and related technologies. Yet in my mind, the profession was destined to go through a massive revolution of its methods and meanings.

Meanwhile, I was learning a lot from very advanced architects like the Dean of Architecture and Planning at MIT, an Australian named William J. Mitchell; Bill to his friends and students. His 1990s books City of Bits, E-Topia and Me++ inspired me greatly. Not just because his work was so informative about the cutting edge of architectural research – which MIT is famous for – but also because he had an incredibly luminous way of writing. His prose really carries you forward, and you can’t help getting engaged with the content just because of his stylish wordplay.

I came to know Bill quite well, along with other leading protagonists in America and in Britain. At that time, I just would lap up anything they had to say about the future of computer-aided design. But when I left Architecture Australia in 2000, I decided to look at the future of urban development rather than just architecture because I felt that progressive architects were ahead of technology, but cities offered the real potential for dynamic, networked applications. These applications seemed to be super-effective but invisible: the new information architecture was not about sculpting awesome forms in the traditional concept of architecture. But there was a real gulf between the theory and the practice and the disciplines of architecture and planning. Most planners I knew in Australia seemed not even hostile about post-internet technology potentials, just wilfully ignorant. Gradually I learned that just as the future for architecture was to model the building virtually on the computer before you actually went on site, making your mistakes and improvements in the model, so computer modelling would need to be applied to planning and designing cities of the future.

Are you referring to ‘smart cities’?

In the years around Y2K, the term ‘smart cities’ was not yet in currency. Bill Mitchell didn’t invent the term, but he popularised it in the early 2000s, when American designer Will Wright also released Sim City the computer game. In the mid-to-late 2000s, several global corporations – Cisco, IBM, Siemens and the engineering firm Arup – began to exploit the term ‘smart city’ in order to win massive government contracts for installing broadband cables and new telecoms equipment at suburban to metropolitan scales. They went ruthlessly after a global market worth many trillions. But just installing cables didn’t seem to me to be inherently ‘smart’. It seemed that this was just the first step to enable actors in cities to access what Bill Mitchell called ‘bits’ of information. As a journalist I understood the notion of gathering ‘facts’. But computer scientists were using the word ‘data’, which seemed to have the potential to become most prevalent. Later I discovered an organisation called the International Society for Digital Earth that was essentially a neo-Buckminster Fuller organisation, based at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, but including remote sensing and geospatial science leaders in Europe, Russia, Japan and even North Korea. This society was determined to promote the idea – from Bucky via Al Gore’s 1992 term ‘Digital Earth’ – that we needed to use sensors and scanners aboard satellites to help monitor and model all the world’s environmental systems. This was not just SimCity but SimPlanet!

Where early Mediterranean cartographers had talked about mapping the world by land and sea exploration, Bucky was the first to imagine mapping the world by observing its behaviours from space; we include in Data Cities his famous 1927 drawing and quote his 1970s and early 80s ideas of using electronics to help auto-pilot what he called ‘Spaceship Earth’. Al Gore updated his Digital Earth theme during his presidential campaign in the late 1990s.

“I would go further and say that it is as important as the invention of the steam engine and is transforming the world to a similar degree. Satellite technology and the data it mediates is literally at that scale of innovation.”

Since the late noughties, I’ve been promoting to many Digital Earth science boffins the idea of ‘data cities’ being a crucial subset of their goal to observe and visually simulate the world. But I’ve also tried to persuade urbanists – not always successfully – that they have to understand how global Earth observations methods are fundamental to understanding  cities and the ways we inhabit them today.

This is where satellite-mediated data comes in. While meteorological satellites have been around for decades – clarifying tomorrow’s weather on tonight’s TV news – telecommunications satellites are now essential for all our networked devices – ranging from smartphones to drones. Now we have satellites equipped for different types of Earth observation: receiving and beaming all the waves of the electromagnetic spectrum to detect surface temperatures, vegetation states, soil types, and the locations, heights and sizes of landforms, buildings, structures and vehicles. We’ve got scanners filming and sensors pulsing from squillions of aerial, nautical and terrestrial vehicles and fixed structures. All the data they capture flows through satellites in orbit. This is how our world is being surveyed today – and throughout history, architects and planners have always relied on survey data as the basis for designing every new development. From this major revolution in the history of surveying must come an equally major revolution in the history of urban design.

So the satellite is to our generation what effectively the Mercator Projection was to prior generations?

I would go further and say that it is as important as the invention of the steam engine and is transforming the world to a similar degree. Satellite technology and the data it mediates are literally at that scale of innovation.

Before we move on to the other books about future cities you’ve selected, tell us a bit more about ‘viral internationalism’. You coined the phrase originally as a way of describing how architecture develops both aesthetically and within cultures, and how architectural information or ‘bits’ of architectural culture are passed on between people across space and time.

I wrote that article on request by Virginia McLeod, an Australian architect who is the architecture editor for Phaidon. In the early 2000s, she was looking for a writer to represent the southern hemisphere among a group of prominent critics for a new edition of their popular 10 x 10 tome surveying 100 contemporary architects. I had studied a lot of architectural theory for my masters thesis titled @home: Another Revolution in Architecture’s Theory of the House and I’d got an idea that in the internet age, it would be essential for Australian architects to revise their commitment to Kenneth Frampton’s then-pervasive theory of ‘critical regionalism’. Instead of designing buildings as isolated objects related only to the conditions of their site, they needed to understand that occupants of buildings now would be constantly connected around the world.

“My instinct was that after the internet, you simply could not try to resist globalism. Wherever you are based, as an architect or urban planner, you are going to be ‘infected’ by ideas, events and trends. Post-internet culture would be virally transmitted.”

I felt that the internet was going to transform the theory of architecture. The term viral internationalism came spontaneously, and seemed like a logical antidote to Ken Frampton’s famous theory. Ken is a lovely human and great scholar. He was often invited to Australia by his friends and former students to speak on critical regionalism and its importance for Australian architects.

But as I said in my Phaidon essay, his idea seemed fairly Marxist: a call to critically resist the relentless pressures of the global media and capitalism. It seemed that his message to architects, in practical terms, was to avoid mindlessly copying foreign ideas and to instead represent your particular place of building. You could refer to foreign magazines and other influences, but you would have to consciously decide what you believed it was appropriate to emulate.

My instinct was that after the internet, you simply could not try to resist globalism. Wherever you are based, as an architect or urban planner, you are going to be ‘infected’ by ideas, events and trends. Post-internet culture would be virally transmitted.

I’m reminded of an article by social scientist Richard Florida in The Atlantic. He said the world is spiky. The world is not flat. A current argument at that time was that globalisation is flattening the world, and Florida pointed out that if you look at it on different metrics – innovation, technological advances, even economic development – it’s actually very spiky. The spikes coincide with cities or conurbations. Talking about future cities, this seems to me to have important implications for the way that we look at global problems and their concentration in centres of population.

I met Richard Florida and attended a number of his lectures in Australia. At the time that The Rise of the Creative Class came out, it seemed that he, like me, was very influenced by what was happening with some of the first 3D mapping and modelling of cities, looking at data relating to cities beyond population-density spikes. Cities came to be depicted visually as mountains based on population data for particular places on the map of the city. It was an approach that became very popular in architectural circles, and particularly via Ricky Burdett, Professor of Urban Studies at the London School of Economics. He exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale some wonderful urban ‘mountain’ sculptures that had been 3D-printed from BIM data files. A team of academics in Tokyo did a wonderful video that’s online called PopulouSCAPE: A night flight around an urbanising world, showing UN population data for different cities as soaring up to the sky. Manuel Gausa, a Portuguese architect living in NY, was another pioneer of post-internet data visualisation.

Metapolis seems like a good future cities book to discuss next. Here’s a book that seems to put a new spin on the concept of an urban dictionary. 

It’s a thumping tome with a sexy, tactile, red vinyl cover. When I first came across it, I was flabbergasted by its exciting content. At a time when I was straining my brain to understand vastly diverse angles about the future of urbanism, this dictionary came to my aid. As a writer I found it especially valuable to clarify the origins and meanings of many words that were emerging in progressive discussions and publications, but which were novel to me.

Here are some sample words from the dictionary that I wanted to understand: anarchitecture; impermanences; a-couplings; ad-herence and ecomonumentality. Although the authors are Catalan architects, the English translation was exemplary. Although these words are not viable in writing for a broad audience, it was exciting to read the concepts, and for a while this book was my bible.

“Really cities are as much about flows – of information and behaviours, and about intangible ‘stuff’, not only tangible ‘things’.”

The authors of Metapolis were the founders of one of the world’s most innovative architecture schools, The Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. They lead the continuation of Barcelona as one of the world’s most fertile cities for progressive applications of urban theory. They aligned with a publisher in Barcelona called Ramon Prat who runs a company called ACTAR. Jointly, they produced an extraordinary series of ‘boogazines’, that were rich in theoretical articles, student design concepts and urban research case studies.

What strikes me is that a lot of this vocabulary seems to reflect the physical forms that architecture has been taking in recent decades. There are architectural manifestations being built that defy traditional building technologies and engineering practices that often follow organic strictures. A prominent example is the late Zaha Hadid’s practice. The very shapes of these buildings seem to require a new vocabulary to describe it. So it seems fitting that there should be a volume like this to orient us in this new architectural culture that’s been developing, spurred on by technological innovation.

Zaha Hadid was in partnership with Patrik Schumacher, perhaps the world’s most prominent exponent of parametric architecture. This was a term that he promoted as a context for computer-literate architects to debate how you would structure a building information model. The parametricists, including a group called smartGeometry, spearheaded the BIM revolution in architecture. However, I felt that they were caught in thinking about the model of the building and were not really considering how their real buildings would function as nodes in networked cities. To me, parametric architecture seemed (then) to be mainly about designing stocks of fluid-looking yet static structures. Really cities are as much about flows – of information and behaviours, and about intangible ‘stuff’, not only tangible ‘things’.

The city is certainly a dynamic, not static entity. One of the future cities books in your selection that captures that dynamism very well is the history book, Cities in Civilization, another thumping tome. 

This is the masterwork written by the world’s greatest 20th century scholar and historian of cities. Peter Hall was a professor working mainly at University College London, but he travelled widely to learn and lecture on how cities developed and operated. This book details how cities of the past were innovative for their day, and how technology changed them. If anyone wants to understand cities of the future, our topic here, it’s critical to understand what future cities from the past can teach us.

Hall writes about some of the cities that were cradles of European civilisation, but he extends his study to major cities of the Industrial Revolution such as Manchester and Detroit, and then more recently to technological centres like Palo Alto, which heralded the information age. What cities today do you think will earn the title ‘City of the Future’, say, looking back from a vantage point in a hundred years?

The ‘City of the Future’ is an evolving concept that’s predicated on evidence-based design and planning and a policy and regulation methodology that depends increasingly on data visualisation. Look at how everyone has become fascinated by the colourful and often dynamic graphs of statistics revealing the local and global progress of the coronavirus pandemic. Without those data visualisations showing the need to ‘flatten the curve’, governments simply couldn’t have persuaded so many of their citizens to stay at home.

“The ‘City of the Future’ is an evolving concept that’s predicated on evidence-based design and planning and a policy and regulation methodology that depends increasingly on data visualisation.”

Today’s cities leading the data revolution seem to include Barcelona and London; and American centres of innovation like San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Cambridge, Massachusetts. In Asia there are Tokyo, Singapore and Seoul. And in the Middle East, there have been considerable advances made in Dubai, but usually by imported architects, and now its seems Saudi wants to be the next heroic node of imported architecture. European geodata research is underpinned by Switzerland’s ETH university system and CERN; the European Space Agency and joint research centres in Italy, and various spatial surveying and planning research centres in the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia.

Cambridge, Massachusetts, looms large in your selection of books about future cities.

City of Bits is the book that really kicked off my inquiries towards data cities, way back in 1995. It was one of the most important of a group of publications that showed the internet was going to rock our world. Bill Gates wrote one, and another notable book was the seminal Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte, another professor at MIT Media Lab. I chose Mitchell’s book for its greater focus on the urban, and because it is beautifully written.

The critical thing about City of Bits is its structure of subheads that reveal many dichotomies between the old world and the post-internet world. Some examples are ‘synchronicity versus asynchronicity’, ‘narrowband vs broadband’, ‘contiguous vs connected’, ‘human muscles vs robotic actuators’, ‘human brains vs artificial intelligence’ and ‘economics 101 vs economics 0 and 1’. In doing so, Bill literally reversed the meanings of many accepted situations, and thereby showed that ‘infobahn’ technology was a truly transformational episode in architectural history. And pretty much everything he wrote before the turn of this century has turned out to be correct.

Another favourite book by MIT professors is The City of Tomorrow by Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel. Carlo was a student of Bill’s at MIT: They set up the Smart Cities Lab together and worked on a project called the City Car, a technologically advanced vehicle that could be parked in a tight chain, like supermarket trolleys, and could be rented, like today’s car-sharing services. After Mitchell died in the early 2000s, Carlo carried on pioneering sensor-enabled urban research experiments as head of what he called the SENSEable City Lab. I discovered his genius at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2006, where the Italian pavilion was filled with big, transparent screens showing dynamic maps of pedestrians and buses moving around ‘Real-Time Rome’. These floating, frameless, holographic screens were a gob-smacking sight in Venice – years before we saw them in Avatar – and still are fantastic visualisations of data from smartphones. Carlo’s videos culminated with these amazing crescendos representing crowds at the stadium, sending messages on their phones at the height of a soccer match or a Madonna concert.

Carlo’s Real-Time Rome exhibit really galvanised my focus on researching and promoting data cities. I later organized for Carlo to come to a Metropolis (major city governments) conference in Sydney, where he gave an impromptu speech at the launch of a networking project that I had catalysed called D_City. This idea evolved into a report called D_City: Digital Earth | Virtual Nations | Data Cities that was sponsored by the Group on Earth Observations in Geneva in 2013.

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Carlo is a great inventor and many other things but seems not a great writer, which I guess is why he collaborates on books with Matthew Claudel, the head of Civic Innovation at MIT. In The City of Tomorrow, they present some profound advances achieved in the first 10 years of what I call the data city movement. Carlo coined the term SENSEable City – alluding to human and artificial sensing. He suggests we don’t start with technology, that we start with the human needs, experiences and desires, and then use sensor devices to help deliver solutions. One of his latest projects is fitting sensors in city sewers to detect traces of drugs and other substances in human effluence. Government agencies can use the sensor data to detect where there is alarming use of prohibited substances or other indicators of health problems – including warning signs of a pandemic.

On the face of it, one might think ‘well, you know at the end of the day, we’re still talking about physical human beings that was all fine and well, but people still need to be fed, the trash still needs to be collected. … who has time for technology when there are more basic needs to be met.’ This book shows very clearly that data-harvesting can improve even these very basic features of city life, perhaps inordinately.

The book includes some fascinating case studies. One thing about Carlo is that while he’s one of the world’s most advanced engineers and data scientists, he also comes from Italy’s strong humanistic tradition. He seems to imagine what humans need long before many people – and governments – are thinking about them. His experiments are always very civic-minded.

Speaking of research, the final book in your selection, Local Code, has a very innovative and intriguing structure. It comes across almost more like a research proposal than a conventional book, including a range of hypothetical case studies relating to possible projects in San Francisco, LA, Venice and New York, which are sandwiched between historic essays by three important figures. I was delighted to find conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark in these pages, and surprised to discover that in his work he was thinking in almost proto-digital terms. 

The author Nicholas de Monchaux is the son of Jean-Pierre (known widely as John) de Monchaux, the dean of architecture and planning at MIT before Bill Mitchell. The younger de Monchaux is also something of a prodigy, and while he’s certainly benefited from his upbringing in a prominent architecture family, he is a formidable planning theorist and now the professor of architecture and urbanism at Berkeley. This book is impressively illustrated with many speculative urban design projects by his students. These are visually stimulating and glamorous.

However the book’s best content in my view is three key essays by Nicholas which give unprecedented biographical histories of Gordon Matta-Clark, Jane Jacobs and a data cities pioneer from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, named Howard Fisher. At Harvard, Fisher developed a data-mapping system called SYMAP which relied on typing Os and Xs to visualise geographical terrain. This system was revolutionary in its day – too far ahead of its time. But Nicholas now has clarified how that system emerged from Harvard via one of Fisher’s graduate students, Jack Dangermond, to become ubiquitous in today’s environmental mapping industry. Dangermond organised to take Fisher’s SYMAP methods out of Harvard and into his own entity called the Environmental Science and Research Institute, ESRI. Under Dangermond, Esri  has grown into a global multi-billion dollar software company, the world’s leading GIS (geographic information systems) provider. Today, anyone in urban planning who needs to map anything – including for example the spread of the coronavirus epidemic – needs to use Esri maps and often its data to produce their visualisations. It’s more or less a global monopoly that originated with Howard Fisher. He made not a penny from his invention – but that’s how sometimes these things happen.

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Esri as a private company is now encouraging universities around the world to develop ‘geodesign’ programs that are dependent on using Esri tools. Geodesign is data-mapping, but it extends well beyond cities to include natural regions, resources and realms like forests and lakes, and even to the scale of the whole ‘Digital Earth’.

Mayors of many cities in this current pandemic crisis seem to be stepping into what looks like a leadership vacuum. Some might go so far as to say that municipal government seems to be having something of a golden age. There are initiatives like the National League of Cities in the US, the League of Mayors globally and the C-40 network, which is all about how cities can deal with climate change.

Initiatives like these will need to focus on data mapping to understand how 21st century cities actually work. This is integral to the vision of the Digital Earth movement now. Anyone with a serious scientific interest could refer to our ‘Digital City’ chapter in the new Springer open-access science anthology, Manual of Digital Earth.

I love the way the title echoes the title of Buckminster Fuller’s foundational text, An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.

The Digital Earth movement really coalesced around Bucky’s 1928 diagram of the world, a fabulous image of the Earth pulsating with electronic waves. It presages a digital understanding of the world well before the first electronic computer was even a notion, well before the Enigma coding machine. We are all on Spaceship Earth together, needing incredibly powerful new tools and systems to help pilot our planet more safely.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Davina Jackson

Dr Davina Jackson is an international writer and promoter of creative applications of post-internet technology for urban development. She is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Royal Society of Arts, an honorary academic with the University of Kent and an honorary life member of the International Society for Digital Earth. She was a founder of Sydney’s annual Vivid light festival and lead editor of the first manifesto report on the Geneva-led Global Earth Observation System of Systems project. Her latest book is Data Cities: How satellites are transforming architecture and design (Lund Humphries, 2018).

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Davina Jackson

Dr Davina Jackson is an international writer and promoter of creative applications of post-internet technology for urban development. She is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and Royal Society of Arts, an honorary academic with the University of Kent and an honorary life member of the International Society for Digital Earth. She was a founder of Sydney’s annual Vivid light festival and lead editor of the first manifesto report on the Geneva-led Global Earth Observation System of Systems project. Her latest book is Data Cities: How satellites are transforming architecture and design (Lund Humphries, 2018).