Design, research and use of landscape are all affected

Future is all change with digital technology

Digital technology is altering all aspects of landscape, according to speakers at the most recent Landscape Futures debate, ‘How will the digital future affect the urban landscape?.  It is affecting the way that landscape architects design, the way that they gather information and the way that people use the landscape.

Sophie Thompson, a director of LDA Design and the main speaker, talked about intelligent space mapping. Information gathered from smartphones for example can be used to understand better how people actually use cities. Projects such as Dublinked make vast amounts of data available for sharing.

Is this valuable for analysis, Thompson asked, or is it information overload? ‘It should enable us to understand more accurately how people perceive, use and move through the public realm and about the environment generally,’ she said. ‘As time goes on these datasets will become more accessible and easy to understand and also the different data sets are starting to be aggregated.’

Photo sharing
Alan Thompson of visualisation company Hayes Davidson gave an example of how this level of information can be used to help with planning. For instance, there have been presumptions about which views people really value, but analysis of Flickr photo sets shows that they are not always the ones previously considered most important.

This shows that people are using spaces differently as a result of digital technology. In Alan Thompson’s case the change in use is relatively trivial (although the implications are not) – simply that people take more photographs.

Changed behaviour
But Sophie Thompson sees quite major changes in behaviour. For example, she said, ‘There is potentially a perception that so many people are permanently plugged in now and connected to smart phones and Wi-Fi that they aren’t connecting with the real world anymore. The reality is that the external environment is becoming even more of an extension of the home or the office with growing free Wi-Fi in public spaces.’

Research by Professor Keith Hampton at the University of Pennsylvania which compares use of public space now and in the 1970s found, she said, that people actually use public spaces more today and are more engaged. The digital age is also reflected in the ways that people use space. LDA has looked at the use of parks in Moscow and found that people’s use of the space is both intense and fast changing. They move furniture around and will go from chatting to listening to music to working to hosting parties rapidly. Design has to accommodate these changes.

Designing remotely
The other change that Sophie Thompson discussed was in the technology actually used in design. She cited a project that LDA has done in Mumbai where it designed a complex seat for a park. The budget did not stretch to travel to Mumbai but the practice was able to send the digital files to a fabricator in the city who made it to the exact design.

In conclusion, however, she saw all tis digital technology as an additional tool, not a pressure towards a new way of working. ‘It is all still about people and places,’ she said.

Rick Robinson, executive architect for smarter cities at IBM, said that we should not underestimate how fast things are changing. Although there has been criticism of the smart cities movement, mostly of it being driven too much for the benefit of technology, there can, he said, be very real advantages.

Cutting crime
He cited the case of the Memphis police force, which managed to cut crime by 30 per cent by synthesising information about crime related to weather, traffic  and local factors and making sure that the police were in the places where crimes were most likely to occur.

A sophisticated road charging scheme in Stockholm has managed to reduce journey times and increase life expectancy by cutting congestion and the resultant pollution. Because it was possible to monitor and demonstrate these effects, a sceptical public was won over.

‘Politicians, businesses and urban designers need to understand the profound impact that technology will have; its risks as well as its potential; and the value and limitations of data,’ Robinson said.

Democratising design
For Alan Thompson advances in digital technology definitely offer new tools rather than new ways of experiencing space, since Hayes Davidson’s work concerns the representation of space rather than its actual design. For him the biggest change will be democratisation. He described the fact that as well as advanced simulation packages which take time and skill to learn, there are tools like SketchUp which anybody can use. And the University of Munich, he said, is developing an interactive design table which will make it possible for a group of people to manipulate 3D interactive objects together in real time. The implications could be significant.

We are still at an early stage in our digital journey. While much is unknown, it is evident that those who grasp the challenge and work to understand the implications will be the ones who prosper.

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