If cities evolve, what will shape their evolution over the next few decades?
Salon has an interesting article today about the use of wireless technologies as the drivers for urban change. "Urban Renewal, the Wireless Way" (subscription or brief advertisement required) looks at the realization that embedding networked technologies in urban spaces isn't dehumanizing, doesn't "eliminate geography," but can be enriching both socially and economically. Cities have long been home to dense social and information networks -- in the ethnic and artistic subcultures, in the patterns of business and commerce, in the every day communication of millions of people -- and digital tools make these networks both more accessible and more powerful.
Call it the "new new urbanism," a fusion of telecommunications technology and urban design that is at once a 21st century zeitgeist and a familiar riff on the age-old interface between cities and technology. "From an urban design perspective, a lot of technologists are just discovering public space," says Dennis Frenchman, chairman of the master of city planning program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's an old story that goes back hundreds of years." A consultant on Seoul's Digital Media City, Frenchman himself is part of a very new story. The DMC will incorporate all-digital signage, with programming capacity accessible to the public, personal positioning services, intelligent street lamps and transparent storefronts that will reveal a building's inner uses as well as real-time Web feeds from sister cities.
The overall purpose of the DMC design, Frenchman says, is to infuse life on the street with multiple layers of meaning. "We're in a transitional moment," he hastens to add. "Huge kinds of things are happening."
This renewed excitement about cities comes, at least in part, from a generation of technology developers and thinkers who have discarded the old canard that the online, virtual world should be a place wholly separate from the real world. Augmented reality is much more interesting, more provocative, more satisfying than virtual reality. And while ethnographer and WorldChanging friend Anne Galloway may not expect to see geeks replacing a "featherlight laptop" with ponderous urban theory texts, many technologists have embraced the notion that just as information technology enhances city life, city life enhances our use of information technology. Innovation thrives in the city; urban spaces are catalysts for creativity.
Although the Salon article argues that the urban infusion of networked tech is driven in large measure by high tech and telecom corporations trying to find new markets, this process of digitizing the city is already out of control. Intel, Digital Media City, Starbucks -- they didn't start this wave, they're just riding it. Too many organizations are out there building free WiFi hotspots, semi-subversive information nodes, and entirely new ways of taking advantage of existing technologies for unexpected results. Too many people see these urban technologies as triggers for experimentation, novelty, and creation. Intel and co. may think they've tapped into a terrific new revenue stream, but they may not quite know what they're getting themselves into.