Designing the century's first digital city

NYU scientist Anthony Townsend will help South Korea build a city developed with an eye toward the production and consumption of new digital technologies. Is it a harbinger for the rest of the world or something out of SimCity?

11 min read
The closest most people get to designing a metropolis from scratch is by playing SimCity. But New York University academic Anthony Townsend is getting a crack at the real thing some 6,800 miles from home.

Townsend, a research scientist at NYU's Taub Urban Research Center, joined a team of professors from MIT who received a commission from the South Korean government to turn an undeveloped parcel of land on the outskirts of Seoul into a city whose raison d'etre will be to produce and consume products and services based on new digital technologies.

A monumental task, but one for which Townsend is well-prepared. With a grant that NYU received from the National Science Foundation, Townsend has studied the effects of information systems on cities, their design, and how new technologies are changing the face of urban interaction.

Townsend spoke to CNET News.com about some of his research findings, the progress of Seoul's digital city, and the expected impact of wireless communications on the design of the 21st century's urban landscape.

Q: What's your single most striking finding so far?
A: The most striking finding in a very broad sense is that today's network technologies--fiber optics, wireless--are not unique in history. A lot of people are starting to figure this out now, as the telecom sector has disintegrated. I was up at the NYC public research library looking at a book on the history of the telegraph, and it reads exactly like the recent history of the fiber optics sector or wireless sector. So I think the important finding is that history repeats itself, and there's a lot to be learned about what is happening now from what happened with previous technologies.

So what are the lessons? Based on history, what do you foresee happening in the telecom industry?
A lot of consolidation. The biggest trend until recently was that telecommunications was going to cause the death of distance, which was a very popular idea that a lot of pundits were putting out in the late 1990s. That is really not true. Rather than eliminating the differences between places, communications technologies are now being used to make certain places even useful and more functional. That is a fundamental shift in how this communication technology is going to be used. Wireless hot spots that are popping up are differentiating important spaces from those that don't necessarily have to be connected.

Businesses look at a variety of factors before opening factories or offices in particular areas. How big are connectivity considerations in that formula?
Only recently, in the past 10 to 15 years, was telecommunications connectivity added to that formula. Companies always had to think about whether they had a railroad or interstate or an airport nearby. But it's not the kind of thing that attracts firms to a particular location. The "Field of Dreams" idea of "build it, and they will come" doesn't seem to work. A lot of isolated rural communities have built incredible communications grids but no one has come, because they don't have all these other things. I think it's more of a least common denominator. Still, the places that didn't get wired in the second half of the '90s are going to have major problems competing for the next 10 or 20 years.

Like the ghost towns that appeared after the railroads bypassed them?
Yeah, the towns that had the railroad stops or interstate exits have done fantastically while the bypassed towns just withered.

The advent of the automobile changed how--and where--people could live. Are advances in telecommunications actually changing the definition of what a city is or should be?
All types of wireless technologies or, more generally, mobile technologies that are coming along, like position systems, location-based applications that they can support, 3G, etc.--they are really changing the capacity of cities to support face-to-face interaction. If you think about it, people with a mobile phone can use their time much more efficiently. They don't have to go to that meeting if it's been canceled and then waste their time getting back. It permits people who live in cities to be much more flexible and adaptive, and as a result, more gets done. It makes the city more efficient but also more dynamic.

Half of designing a city is going to be information spaces that accompany it because lots of people will use this to navigate around.

There is some really interesting work being done. Howard Rheingold--who's known for his earlier work on virtual communities--referred to what's called "swarming behavior." This is the idea that mobile technologies are creating much more mobile, dynamic communities that more closely resemble swarms than the way we've done things before.

He doesn't do this, but if you extend it to what'll happen in cities, it means that you are going to need different kinds of spaces to accommodate people who are moving and communicating and using space differently. Waiting rooms become something of an anachronism because no one really waits anymore.

This is what you referred to in one of your papers. You describe a city in a way that never occurred to me, though it seems so obvious now: "Much of the form and function of cities, in both a social and physical sense, is designed to minimize the time and cost of searching for people and information. The whole host of wireless applications will dramatically change the 'cost structure' of the city."
Yeah, that's sort of what I was referring to, but that statement was referring more to location-based services and location-based applications and the idea that they would greatly enhance the ability of people to find things or people in cities. So (we're) combining wireless communication with geographic data. There is a convergence of three technologies: wireless communications, positioning technologies like GPS, and location-based systems that are coming together very quickly to fundamentally change urban form. Half of designing a city is going to be information spaces that accompany it because lots of people will use this to navigate around.

Any concrete examples you can point to?
If you've ever traveled to Dallas or Houston, those are very difficult cities to navigate; they don't have many physical landmarks. They don't describe themselves very well like New York City or Boston, but a lot of people who visit those cities will use whatever navigation system is in their rental car. It's very difficult to get around those cities without navigation technologies.

Vindigo, which is an entertainment guide, is another good example of how technology is changing the way people perceive cities. Go to the East Village on a Friday night and you will see people using it to figure out where to go. That raises all kinds of questions, like who chooses what goes into Vindigo. If Vindigo only has information about retail, what if you need to find a police station, or hospital, or a community center? The same issues you think about when you are designing a physical city carry over to the information city.

Is there a disconnect between how telecommunications technologies for cities are developed and how architects and urban planners design the cities where this technology is being implemented?
There is almost no interaction. Of the examples where you see some crossover between information design and urban design, there're probably only a few worth noting. And those are mostly novelty spaces and a lot are in New York. Traditionally there's just not any interaction between the hardcore engineering community that develops these technologies and the architects who largely see themselves as artists than engineers. There's a big disciplinary divide, but it's starting to change slowly.

This again repeats older patterns and how urban planners have dealt with technology. The way urban planners reacted to the automobile was to deny its existence for decades. What happened was the companies who developed the automobiles, and all the related technologies, became the ones to define what the automobile city was going to look like. Los Angeles today is the result of the city of the future that General Motors put on display at the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

The PC and the Web let citizens gain more access to government services without having to enter those dark, gloomy buildings with long lines at each counter. Is wireless technology going to have an even larger impact on the relationship between citizen and government?
I actually testified before the New York City Council about this in June. Yeah, it is going to make it personal; it is going to make customized; it is going to make it relevant. There's a huge potential for governments to interact with its citizens where the citizens want to do the interacting. But it's a very, very, very early stage. I am referring to services, not interaction with politicians. It is much harder to get a response by e-mail from an elected official than it is to get one by phone. That's a pretty bad precedent.

What are you trying accomplish with the Digital City project in South Korea?
Basically the Seoul metropolitan government was trying to come up with a development plan for the last undeveloped land in Seoul. They wanted to build a planned city, and like many countries in Asia, they had thought of building a high-technology district or cluster, like Silicon Valley Asia, if you will. But they realized that there was already too much competition. Korea is a much more developed country and they have much more to offer than low-cost manufacturing like production of silicon chips. What they decided to do is to get into digital media.

What was the rationale?
Korea has probably the largest domestic video game market in the world. Two of the biggest multiplayer online games are Korean, with millions of players all over the world.

It is much harder to get a response by e-mail from an elected official than it is to get one by phone. That's a pretty bad precedent.
Seoul, last year, had more broadband lines than all of North America. And there's something like a million 3G wireless users there. Basically, South Korea has fulfilled a lot of the hype that a lot of people were touting was going to happen here in the United States. They have a culture that now revolves on producing and consuming digital media.

So it was an interesting place to think about how you would design a city from scratch that would take advantage of the technology and the social acceptance of the technology.

Like General Motors' city of the future?
Absolutely. But our team helped them be a little more realistic. The hardest thing we had to do was to convince them that the way they had built cities since the end of the Korean War wasn't necessarily the right way to go, which was to build identical super-block apartment buildings. If you go to any post-war neighborhood, every high-rise has a huge number painted on the top of it and that is because it is so hard to tell the buildings apart.

One of the exciting things about these technologies is that they can help you break up functions so you don't have to put all your office space in one gigantic building. You can stick them into smaller buildings scattered around an area. The ability to be connected through a digital network can make that kind of structure work. We were aiming to mix-up residential space, working space, academic space, and other types of spaces to really create a community whose reason for being was produce and consume digital media products.

Where can we reproduce something like this in the U.S.?
I think that the possibilities are different, depending on if you have a clean slate or you are trying to retrofit. In the United States, there are lots of possibilities because we are building new cities. Las Vegas tripled in population in the 1990s and is also a very intensive digital media space. But then there are cities like New York, which have completely transformed themselves in the last 10 years to take advantage of these technologies.

My view on these technologies is that they let people do what they want to do rather than backing them into a corner by saying "you have to live 30 miles from your work because we need room for a highway" which is what the automobile tended to do. But the automobile also let people move out of the city. There are freedoms, and then there are consequences that won't show up for a long time.

What's a consequence you anticipate?
I think one of the big outcomes coming from wireless technologies is that it will increase something like a tribal segregation of people. In the sense that people tend to reach for the umbilical cord of their cell phone when they are uncomfortable in a strange situation or place. I think that reduces the chance of interacting with people outside your group. There are others.

The Sept. 11 attacks played havoc on New York City's telephone lines. Because of an underlying fear people have of another attack on concentrated areas like cities, are we going to see a push by telecom to make suburbs and outlying areas more wire and wireless rich--that is, a shift away from global wired cities to a more diffused layout?
Communications technologies have been supporting decentralization for a long time. The possibility is there. What has to happen is that companies--and this will be led by corporations as most big changes in urban spatial structure are--will have to figure out if the cost of protecting, securing and insuring central locations is greater than the cost of decentralizing. Basically, the question is this: Is New York that much more productive because it is such a big concentration of talent and services that it's worth paying the price to be here? That has been the question for companies for a long time when choosing to locate somewhere expensive.

Can you be a Goldman Sachs if your people are spread out across the countryside, or does the company not work the same way if people aren't in the same building. The consensus is that it's very difficult to have a far-flung organization that works well together and has all the synergies. I think there's a strong future for densely packed cities. But in certain circumstances and for some businesses, it might not be worth the risk. The New York Stock Exchange is a type of business that has a short-lived future as a concentrated physical place. It's a gigantic target, and there's no good reason, apart from tradition, for them to be an actual physical trading floor.

So what's telecommunications in a city going to look like in 2012?
I think it's going to be a lot more complex. The most interesting thing about it will be that you won't be able to see it all at once because all these data structures, computational devices, digital networks and cyberspaces that are built upon those components will be invisible unless you have the password or unless you are a member of the group that is permitted to see them. Every day, things are being added to those digital urban spaces, and they are accumulated into a mass that is eventually going to be more significant than the physical space that they are attached to.

Anything else you're working on in the wireless sector?
We've learned a lot about the economics of building out wireless LAN infrastructure. One of the lessons is that compared to the cost of taking out the trash or polishing elevator buttons or any of 1,000 other daily chores any owner of commercial space must do, providing wireless connectivity is very inexpensive. It also adds a lot of value to the property, and real estate managers are very aware of this.

Based on some of the lessons, myself, and NYCwireless co-founder Terry Schmidt, and a couple of commercial real estate professionals recently started a company called Cloud Networks to build out free wireless hotspots around the country. Just as the wired LAN has now become standard commercial building infrastructure, wireless LAN infrastructure is poised to become a prerequisite for attracting serious commercial tenants.

There are millions of buildings out there that still need to be unwired, and landlords and tenants willing to pay for it. We plan to focus on New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco at first, then expand nationwide.