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Digital evolution

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COMPUTING: Planners need to consider how the natural world has evolved when designing the hi-tech cities and buildings of the future

Planners are ignoring the challenge of the digital age, a leading geographer told delegates at the RIBA's E-Futures conference on Monday 4 June.

Andrew Gillespie, professor of communications geography at the University of Newcastle, said: 'Someone might be planning the future digital city, but it certainly doesn't seem to me to be the planners.'

Planners, with their emphasis on recreating urban density, are ignoring the impact of the digital age, he argued. 'Digital lifestyles are pushing us to hypermobility and extended metropolitan regions.'

Tele-service centres tend to be sited out of town, with all emphasis on road access rather than public transport, because they are too large for the urban grain, need lower rents and their staff work unsocial hours.

There is also a tendency, particularly outside London, said Gillespie, for 'client-oriented professionals' to move out of town.

Professor Bill Mitchell, author of E-Topia, concurred: 'The rise of digital communications forces us to refocus on urban designs.' Like every other technological innovation, the digital age would change our cities.

'Some traditional building types disappear, others transform and new building types and neighbourhood patterns emerge.' This, he argued, has happened with every advance in technology.

Writer and erstwhile academic Sadie Plant also emphasised that change will happen, and that we cannot be sure what form it will take.

'New mobility changes experience of the city, ' she said, 'but will it also change its architecture? For many people their internal map, not just of the city but of the world, is changing.'

She spoke about the fact that none of the academics studying the new digital age a few years ago, herself included, had recognised that the major transforming experience would be the introduction of the mobile phone. 'It is the only hi-tech device to feed into so many people's hands so fast, ' she said.

But the conference was about individual buildings as well as about cities.

Projects tended to the complex, exemplified by Foreign Office Architects' Yokohama Terminal, a technical puzzler that could neither have happened nor developed without IT. But philosopher Manuel de Landa proposed another model of design, the approach that architects will need to adopt if they want to take advantage of the genetic algorithm in their designs.

The strength of this approach is that, by simulating evolution, it allows architects to select the best of a number of random alternatives.

But this will only be a creative activity if architects' thinking about buildings changes radically. 'In order to profit from the genetic algorithm, you have to bring in ideas from biology, thermodynamics and mathematics, ' de Landa said. 'Digital thinking cannot be used in isolation.'

In a sense this requires architects to go back to basics, to design buildings by thinking about their connectivity rather than about the individual elements. This is the approach in nature, he explained, that creates one pattern, for example, for vertebrates, and then allows such diverse results as the giraffe and the rhinoceros.

Evolutionary design also requires architects to adopt the approach of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, concentrating on the 'intensive', rather than the 'extensive', properties of their buildings. 'Intensive properties' are those that cannot be divided simply - temperature, pressure and speed - in contrast to the simply divisible extensive properties of volume, area and length.

'Within architecture, ' said de Landa, 'intensive properties are handled mainly by the engineer - they are mainly distributions of stresses.' And lastly, he said, the genetic algorithm demands the use of 'population thinking' of groups of designs collectively, since an isolated design has no potential for evolution.

One of the common threads that came from de Landa and from other speakers was of a future of increasing uncertainty, where neither the architect, nor the planner, nor the urban designer can dictate. Coming from a number of different angles, speakers all produced an image of an architect who intervenes, who steers, who adapts and has an effect but is not the ultimate and only decision maker.

And who will know how to take advantage of this new, less absolute but fascinating role? Judging by the audience at the event, not today's practitioner. The conference was well attended, by an engaged audience consisting almost entirely of students. The practising architect, it seems, is too busy wrestling with quotidian problems to pay much attention to E-Futures.

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