Cities and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

A new form of communication exploded into the early twentieth century, wildly skewing the nature of human connectivity with a sudden force: mass media. The way humans have always related – face-to-face dialogue between neighbours and friends – was expanded by orders of magnitude. With this amplification, elements of the village, whether social or functional, took on new reactive properties, and the world shrank dramatically. Marshall McLuhan, one of the fathers of social media theory, described the universal connective paradigm as a global village: an entire planet of people living as neighbours, suddenly given the tools to speak – or shout – around the world. Humanity became connected from any and every location.

Yet in McLuhan’s time, the idea of the global village accounted only for unidirectional mass media like radio and television. Information streamed outward, from privileged content-creators to distributors to passive consumers. Universal communication functioned more as a megaphone than as a telephone, amplifying inherent tensions in society rather than promoting cohesion. McLuhan readily acknowledged that “the more you create village conditions, the more you generate discontinuity and division and diversity. Unidirectional mass media brought a clash of polemics on the global scale. The global village absolutely insures maximal disagreement on all points. It never occurred to me that uniformity and tranquillity were properties of the global village. It has more spite and envy. The spaces and times are pulled out from between people. A world in which people encounter each other in depth all the time. The tribal-global village is far more divisive – full of fighting – than any nationalism ever was. Village is fission, not fusion, in depth all the time.”

The Death of Distance

Unidirectional mass media brought a clash of polemics on the global scale. Soon after McLuhan’s time, a new connective infrastructure arose that would cause even more sweeping and dramatic changes. The bidirectional connective interface of the Internet became a jumble of top-down and bottom-up energy. More than could ever have been possible through television or radio, people began to share ideas, thoughts, work, obsessions, and intimacies to the widest extent of the network. The choke points of media providers were opened (though not obliterated), and content was democratised to a certain extent. Media became dialogue rather than monologue, and it was at this moment that humanity began coming together as a real village, with shared culture, ideas, and discussion. People were unified by a pervasive ‘space of flows’. “There is a new spatial form characteristic of social practices that dominate and shape the network society: the space of flows”, wrote Manuel Castells, the sociologist who coined the term. “The space of flows is the material organisation of time-sharing social practices that work through flows. By flows I understand purposeful, repetitive, programmable sequences of exchange and interaction between physically disjointed positions held by social actors.” That is, physical space can no longer be considered absolute. It cannot be divorced from its digital dimension.

The Future of Physical Cities

Neither could this new system be neutral. The space of flows refers to a merger of virtual networks and material space – one in which digital and physical configurations were poised to actively influence one another. But how? What effect would the space of flows have on the physical city? In the looming shadow of the ubiquitous Internet, would the specificity of place have any significance?

A prevailing opinion at this crucial moment in human’s cultural history was that distance would die. Physicality, it seemed, would lose all relevance as it was subsumed by the connective fabric of the Internet. The argument held that if information can be instantaneously transferred anywhere, to anyone, then all places are equivalent. If I am connected, why does it matter where I am? “The post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence upon being in a specific place at a specific time, and the transmission of place itself will start to become possible”, wrote the MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte. Work is a simple example: why commute to the office when the office will come right to your home?

The Internet was expected to neuter place in every dimension of human habitation, from entertainment to employment. Many of the tools for interaction, commerce, and information management were digitised and dematerialised. They became efficient, accessible, and – most significantly – aspatial. The economist Frances Cairncross followed this trend to its logical conclusion with an overt hypothesis that she called the ‘death of distance’. The Internet would usher in a “communications future… in which distance is irrelevant”.

These are resounding predictions, but history (so far) has proven them wrong. Over the past two decades, cities have grown as never before. Urban space has flourished across the globe as humanity rushes headlong into an urban era. If I am connected, why does it matter where I am? Some calculations suggest that the urban population is increasing by a quarter million per day, amounting to a new London every month. The year 2008 was a decisive turning point – when for the first time more than half of humanity lived in cities – and growth has only accelerated since. Statistics from the World Health Organization suggest that seventy-five per cent of humans might be city dwellers by 2050, and in China alone, the urban population has risen by more than 500 million during the thirty years since economic liberalisation – the equivalent of the populations of the United States plus three Great Britains. Even by conservative estimates, this constitutes the biggest and fastest shift of humanity that the planet has ever seen.

Headfirst Into the Urban Era

More than ever, cities are human magnets. Why? It seems that in the collective frenzy of the network, the death-of-distance theorists forgot something crucial to human experience: the importance of physical interaction between people and with the environment. “E-topia”, written in 1999 by the architect and academic William Mitchell, signified somewhat of a repent. Mitchell, head of the MIT Media Lab’s Smart Cities group, illustrated his point with a humorous vignette about a man living at and running a business from the top of a mountain. The man was no less efficient for working at one of the most remote places on earth, but Mitchell concluded “what normal person would want to work in that way?” This insight is intuitively clear, but it can also be corroborated empirically. Researchers at the Senseable City Lab analysed telecommunication data and meetings and found that people who communicate digitally also tend to meet in person. Some calculations suggest that the urban population is increasing by a quarter million per day, amounting to a new London every month. People fundamentally want to be with other people, they want to be in a beautiful place, they want to be at the centre of it all: people want to live in cities.

“Traditional urban patterns cannot coexist with cyberspace. But long live the new, network-mediated metropolis of the digital era.” Today’s reality is a powerful collision of physical and digital that augments both – a triumph of atoms and bits. “To pursue this agenda effectively, we must extend the definitions of architecture and urban design to encompass virtual places as well as physical ones, software as well as hardware.”

Rather than the network subsuming and replacing space, the two are becoming increasingly enmeshed. In short, the digital revolution did not kill urban spaces – far from it – but neither did it leave them unaffected. The introduction of the Internet, the space of flows, the connective tissue that theorists from Cairncross to Negroponte expected to kill physical proximity, has indeed had a profound impact on cities. Instead of flows replacing spaces and bits replacing atoms, cities are now a hybrid space at the intersection of the two. The physical and the virtual are fused through a productive collision, where both propinquity and connectivity play an important role.

The Smart or Senseable City

The new domain of digitally integrated urban space has come to be known as the ‘smart city’. Ubiquitous technology is suffusing every dimension of urban space, transforming it into a computer for living in (paraphrasing Le Corbusier, the early twentieth-century Swiss architect who crystallised the spirit of his time with his iconic concept of machines for living in). The new city is a fundamentally different space – one where digital systems have a very real impact on how we experience, navigate, and socialise. What is happening at an urban scale today is similar to what happened two de­cades ago in Formula One auto racing. Up to that point, success on the circuit was primarily credited to a car’s mechanics and the driver’s capabilities. But telemetry technology completely changed the competition. Digital systems allowed a vehicle to communicate instantaneously with its ground crew. The car became a ‘computer on wheels’, monitored by thousands of sensors and optimised for performance in real time. Formula One winners now work together with ‘intelligent’ vehicles that sense and respond with lightning precision to the conditions of the race. Today, winning is as much about the team behind the computers as it is about the driver behind the wheel.

The Formula One car effectively became a real-time control system – a loop with both sensing and actuating components. The sensors give constant information about conditions and performance, and the actuators can, in turn, have an effect on performance. As sensors and actuators inform each other, they work together toward optimising the system. In the case of the Formula One race car, they might deal with weather conditions and acceleration in a curve – but something similar can now happen in cities.

Intelligent Space

Already in 2001, a report from the National Research Council noted that “networks comprising thousands or millions of sensors could monitor the environment, the battlefield, or the factory floor; smart spaces containing hundreds of smart surfaces and intelligent appliances could provide access to computational resources”. In smart cities, an ecosystem of sensors collects information from urban space, and an array of network-enabled actuators can, in turn, transform that space. People fundamentally want to be with other people, they want to be in a beautiful place, they want to be at the centre of it all: people want to live in cities. Data-­driven feedback loops turn the city into a reflexive test-bed and workshop for connected habitation in enmeshed digital and physical space, with a common platform of ubiquitous computing. Within the field of smart cities, a plethora of approaches to theory and practice have emerged, addressing crucial topics from civic hacking and data management to programmable architecture and even autonomous, sentient space.

Those new modes have repercussions in digital space: almost every contemporary action and interaction creates data. Broadband fibre-optic and wireless telecommunications grids are supporting mobile phones, smartphones, and tablets that are increasingly afford­able. At the same time, open databases – informal collaborations between citizens and governments – are aggregating and revealing all kinds of information. The resulting profusion of urban big data opens a fertile ground for research, theory, and practice. What could formerly only be inferred from basic surveys or expensive observational studies during the analogue era can now be ‘sensed’ immediately, on a tremendous scale. From social science to mathematics to economics, we can now use these data to address deep questions about how humanity lives. Citizens are empowered to think, act, and transform their public space; they are creating a groundswell of urban innovation that is only just rising today. We are witnessing a “reorientation of knowledge and power” in the city as profound as the transformations that the anthropologist Christopher Kelty has described in the virtual world. This is a new era for the global village: an Internet-mediated space of communication and habitation.

Industry 4.0

We have seen that what is often called the ‘smart city’ is but the application in the urban realm of a broader technological trend – the penetration of the Internet into the traditional domain of architecture – the physical space. As the Internet is becoming the Internet of Things (IoT), it allows us to create a myriad of sensing-and-actuating loops that were not possible before. Applications can be manifold: from waste management to mobility, to energy, public health, and civic participation. So vast are the possibilities in this scenario that, in the span of just a few years from when the label ‘smart city’ was first coined, in the early 2000s, another term has emerged to dub the technological advancements, and it is an even more ambitious one – the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Observing phenomena as diverse as drones, self-driving cars, or virtual assistants, many definitions have been given of what the 4IR actually is. In a nutshell, we might say it is what happens when the IoT is matched with the latest advancement in robotics. In fact, even though it might have gone unnoticed, robots have become so integrated into our lives that we could hardly imagine our existence without them. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, a robot is “any automatically operated machine that replaces human effort”. For the sake of this article, however, we will adopt a more restrictive definition: we will call a robot a unit that has some sensors, some intelligence, and some actuators. In other words, it can read the world, process that information, and then respond in a purposeful way. By our definition, a robot could be many different and perhaps unexpected things at the same time. A thermostat is a robot. A car on driving assist is a robot. Our oven is a robot. A bracelet that measures our physical performance as we exercise is a robot. Even a bike can be a robot. That is, if it incorporates a device such as the Copenhagen Wheel, which converts any bike into a hybrid vehicle, able to collect data from our daily rides. And our omnipresent smartphone, too, is obviously a robot.

The Interaction with Humanity

Based on the above, our definition is very different from traditional views of what constitutes a robot, at least in artistic and literary circles – views that often involved a certain degree of anthropomorphism. The term ‘robot’ comes from the Czech word robota (‘forced labour’ or ‘serf’), coined in 1920 by Karel Čapek in his play “R.U.R. – Rossum’s Universal Robots” to describe the possibility – and above all the threat – of extremely skilful and apparently submissive automated workers. The idea of the robot was thus embedded in a framework of interaction with humanity: so deeply embedded indeed, that the concept – from the dulcimer-playing automaton “La Joueuse de Tympanon” in the eighteenth century to Hanna-Barbera’s animated series The Jetsons – is almost inseparable from the idea of the android.

To be sure, the conspiracy-laden landscape of films such as “Terminator” (1984) and “Robocop” (1987) and even the more recent “Automata” (2014) appears much more compelling than the existence of apps that monitor our jogging habits, the temperature in our bedroom, and the gradual cooking of a stuffed turkey. Yet this does not mean that contemporary robots have no impact on our exis­tence. Quite the opposite. From social science to mathematics to economics, we can now use these data to address deep questions about how humanity lives. It may seem paradoxical, but the more discreet the presence of robots is and the more ‘natural’ our interaction with them, the more powerful their actual influence becomes. This is the new universe in which we exist, every day. Take Nest, the thermostat which allows us to remotely control the temperature in our homes and which – if it comes into sufficiently widespread use – could have a major impact on energy consumption in buildings. The characteristics of Nest are barely noticeable, almost humble even – so radically remote from any flamboyant design gesture that it compels us to invent new ways to express it. We came to understand the challenges of such an approach a couple of years ago while developing our project for the renovation of the Agnelli Foundation’s headquarters in the city of Turin. In the overall scheme of this project, the most notable innovation is located in the heart of the company’s office rooms. Yet it is a rather intangible one. We are talking about a control system for heating, cooling, and lighting in the workplace – a system that can potentially follow people around inside the building, automatically synchronising to their needs and preferences. To allow the client to appreciate the design, we resolved to craft the visualisation of an individually tailored ‘thermal bubble’. But we know that, even behind so anthropocentric a metaphor, there is a vast battalion of tiny sensor-robots.

Surrounded by Artificial Intelligence

Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, has provided a historical framework to the emergence of the 4IR, writing that “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century.” Ultimately, the 4IR is “characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”. The words of Schwab brim with a sense of possibility: “Already, artificial intelligence is all around us, from self-driving cars and drones to virtual assistants and software that translate or invest. Impressive progress has been made in AI in recent years, driven by exponential increases in computing power and by the availability of vast amounts of data, from software used to discover new drugs to algorithms used to predict our cultural interests. […] Engineers, designers, and architects are combining computational design, additive manufacturing, materials engineering, and synthetic ­biology to pioneer a symbiosis between microorganisms, our bodies, the products we consume, the buildings we inhabit.” Schwab continues: “The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, ­energy storage, and quantum computing.”

New Production Models and Their Impact on Cities

We have seen that the industrial revolutions of the past centuries reshaped cities. Today’s decentralised fabrication might have no less profound implications for urban form. The 4IR will change how we produce and consume, and its impact on city life will be dramatic – from new forms of manufacturing to artificial intelligence and the sharing economy. Digitally controlled machines, 3D printers, open-source software, and new sharing devices allow almost everyone to draw and give shape to their own products, ideas, houses, or working spaces, often using data to personalise their experience of the built environment. Production could be realigned with daily life as manufacturing exits the factory. Society is returning to a preindustrial model, one that is local and user-centric. New domestic typologies for the twenty-­first century might recall medieval cottages in Great Britain, Peranakan shop houses in Singapore, or machiya in Kyoto’s artisan districts, combining dwellings with fabrication. If not in individual homes, a dispersed urban platform for community fabrication activity may be spread throughout the city, establishing an open infrastructure that turns community members into makers and becomes the centre for sharing knowledge, creating, and socialising.

In fact, even though it might have gone unnoticed, robots have become so integrated into our lives that we could hardly imagine our existence without them.

This vision, that is the ultimate capitulation of industrial-era zoning, is surely relevant for many countries in the world but resounds particularly close to the German situation, and more in details to the geographic distribution of its population in a network of mid-to-small cities. The city fabric would be reconstituted as the workplace and the home collapse into a hybrid unit and as a more social, community-based model blurs formerly distinct urban districts. The city may come to life in new ways. “One potential outcome of all this, where zoning and other policies allow it, is a clustering of the new-style live/work dwelling in twenty-four-hour neighbourhoods that effectively combine local attractions with global connections. These – not isolated, independent electronic cottages – will be the really interesting units in the twenty-first century urban fabric.” Not only will design and production respond to local conditions in a sustainable and targeted way but the city will become more liveable. Spaces of human habitation will become functionally intermixed to the point of being broadly homogeneous yet vibrantly active. When the factory is everywhere, cities will be productive on a fine-grained (human) scale.

Three Main Transformations are Taking Place

The first is the possibility of creating material forms through digitally controlled additive processes – that is, by laying precise deposits of material to build up a shape – using 3D printers. Not only does this allow for much more complex geometries than have ever been possible, but it also shatters the established laws of mass production and economies of scale. Industrial-era factories churned out large quantities of identical objects, reducing cost through repetition. According to that model, a bespoke item – say, a customised Rolls-Royce – was extremely expensive. For 3D printing and digital fabrication, on the other hand, there is effectively no difference between creating identical versus unique objects. Items can be manufactured for about the same cost, whether by the thousands, by the hundreds, or for a single unit. This is a complete reversal of the Fordist factory lines that churned out identical products according to the ironic mantra “You can have any colour car, as long as it is black.” Digital fabrication will usher in an era defined by individual control. “The factory of the future will focus on mass customisation – and may look more like those weavers’ cottages than Ford’s assembly line.”

It may seem paradoxical, but the more discreet the presence of robots is and the more ‘natural’ our interaction with them, the more powerful their actual influence becomes.

The second transformation is the possibility of fluent transition from digital outputs to physical objects. Thanks to subtractive CNC machines (computer-­controlled machines for drilling, cutting, carving, and more), and additive 3D printers, digital code can become physical material or action with a click. In much the same way as personal printers allowed people to create documents in their home offices, the production of things is quickly becoming customisable and immediate. As the boundary between software and hardware is blurred, custom fabrication will be carried out on demand. The act of making objects will become more like compiling and executing code than like laborious, specialised, and time-intensive woodcraft in a carpentry studio.

The third transformation – a result of the fluency between the digital and the physical – will be social. Using intuitive software, anyone can create and upload a design online to be shared with friends, communities, or the public at large. The architect David Benjamin is pushing the boundaries of physical material and social process. Defining the cutting edge of the field, he writes, “It’s much easier to use [digital] tools and the equipment is cheaper, so the projects are getting more interesting. But most importantly, the community around these projects has grown: people do a project, publish their process and results, and then other people ask questions about how it was done and discuss the project. Once there’s that community of people sharing projects with an open source ethos, that’s kind of unstoppable. It’s not really the technical stuff; it’s the social stuff.” A marketplace of downloadable and printable objects could displace or redefine professional designers through an alternate economy driven by either financial or social transaction. The fabrication process itself could happen domestically, in individual homes – if 3D printers become as ubiquitous as inkjet printers – or in neighbourhood-­level fabrication facilities.

A Worldwide Network of Communities

Building a worldwide network of local communities around neighbourhood fabrication facilities is the vision of Fab Lab, a program that began at MIT. Since the doors of the first Fab Lab were opened in 2001, new shops have cropped up around the world, from campuses to inner cities to rural villages, offering tools for digital and physical fabrication. The projects coming out of them have a local inflection, as communities come together to solve problems and generate new ideas – at a Fab Lab in Norway, for example, shepherds put together radio-frequency ID tags for tracking wandering sheep. The founder of Fab Lab, Neil Gershenfeld, explained the idea and genesis of the project in a TED presentation. “Instead of talking about it, I’d give people the tools. Digital fabrication will usher in an era defined by individual control. This wasn’t meant to be provocative or important, but we put together these ‘Fab Labs’. And they exploded around the globe… The real opportunity is to harness the inventive power of the world, to locally design and produce solutions to local problems.” This is a new form of empowerment – Fab Labs allow people to modify or ‘hack’ the world around them, rather than passively absorbing information and products. As people design and construct technology themselves, it becomes localised, instrumental, and practical.

Fab Labs are places not only for production but also for learning. Crucially, each lab is the nucleus of a fabrication-focused community. Many labs host weekly classes, workshops, and social events. “The message coming from the Fab Labs is that the other 5 billion people on the planet aren’t just technical sinks, they’re sources”, and they are propelled by a new possibility of merging education, experimentation, and making.

The Future of Cities

How We Must Act

How can governments implement smart-city policies? This question is high on the agenda in Germany and many countries around the world.

  • Governments should steer away from the temptation to play a top-down role. It is not their prerogative to decide what the next smart-city solution should be – or to use public money to bolster the position of any tech multinational operating in this field.
  • Different levels of public authorities could use their funds to develop an organic ecosystem geared toward smart cities, similar to the one that is growing in the US. This must go beyond supporting traditional incubators and aim to produce the regulatory frameworks that allow innovations to thrive. Considering the legal hurdles that have been plaguing applications like Uber or Airbnb, this level of support is sorely needed.
  • That is not to say that governments should take a hands-off approach to urban development. Governments have an important role to play. This includes supporting academic research and promoting applications in fields that might be less appealing to venture capital – unglamorous but crucial domains such as municipal waste or water services. The public sector can also promote the use of open platforms, which would speed up adoption in cities nationwide.
  • The overarching goal should be to focus on innovation ecosystems and letting citizens take actions. They are in the best position to make decisions that will have an impact on urban life.

Prof. Carlo Ratti (47) teaches at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Laboratory, and is a Founding Partner of the international design and innovation practice CRA. A leading voice in the debate on new technologies’ impact on urban life, his work has been exhibited in several venues worldwide, including the Venice Biennale, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, London’s Science Museum, and Barcelona’s Design Museum. He is currently Co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Cities, and served as a Special Adviser on Urban Innovation to the European Commission, between 2015 and 2018.