Today I meet Bill Mitchell, head of MITs ‘Smart Cities’ group. Bill’s an avuncular, friendly Australian who has a rather charming habit of saying incredible insightful things that seem remarkably obvious until you realise you haven’t heard anyone say them before. Originally from the Australian bush Bill’s come a long way, to be one of the world’s most respected thinkers on how cities evolve and how they can serve their citizens and the planet (including being part of the solution to global warming). In his native land his lectures sell out instantly. He’s become something of an architectural celebrity.
One of his key themes is the cycles of ‘fragmentation and recombination’ that manifest as new technologies arrive on the scene. For instance, the village well loses its ‘focal point’ status when you get piped water. Now the focal point becomes the tap. It used to be that if you wanted to hear a song you had to go to see it performed, but technology advanced so you could listen to it on the radio, and now you can carry it around (along with a million others) in your pocket. In fact today you can pluck almost any song out the air (don’t you just love ‘Spotify’?). Years ago, if you wanted to make a telephone call you used to have be where the telephone was, now you can talk anywhere there’s cell phone coverage. The architectural shrines we made to facilitate private conversations (telephone boxes) are slowly disappearing. The role of the office is evolving too, as mobile technologies make the need to be next to your paper filing cabinet no longer an imperative. The office won’t completely disappear of course – humans need to get together – but it will become “a much more humane, collegiate space”. “When any place can be a work place there’s no excuse for making it anything other than a human, people-centred wonderful place,” says Bill. “You need to build environments that encourage serendipitous interaction, that encourage people to bump into each other. It’s important to make a great café for instance. I’ve a very strong belief in the potential of people to do amazing things if you just get out the way. We now have technology that is good enough to just work, but get out the way”.
I wonder what technologies are coming down the line that will drive further fragmentation and recombination? One is likely to be power generation, particularly as solar power becomes cheaper and more efficient. When you can generate your power where you are and take your building, your company, your house, yourself potentially ‘off-grid’ another beneficial untying from a fixed, mandated framework occurs, another one of Bill’s ‘fragmentations’. In the back of my mind a thought starts to niggle… ‘When might something like this happen to our political structures?’ Indeed a thesis about how an increasingly networked world interacts with archaic hierarchical bureaucracy and government is beginning to form… maybe it’ll be one of the themes in the book. Networks subvert hierarchies, and our networks in many spaces are growing and becoming more responsive…
Naturally there was a lot more we talked about that I’ll cover in the book, including the coalescence of Bill’s work with that of Cynthia Breazeal – and how our buildings may become sensate social beings that know us and work with us, dynamically adapting to our moods and needs. We also talked about how becoming less tied to infrastructure allows us to connect more readily around values. We also discussed how old cities can be adapted over time to become smarter, Bill talking about various doses of ‘urban viagra’. Indeed.
Returning to my hotel I meet Kris and Arthur at the bar – a lovely couple from San Francisco, along with a gay couple (I didn’t get their names) who taught me the phrase ‘full frontal nerdity’. Arthur works for Google, being one of the brains behind their ‘Android’ mobile operating system. He’s interested in the book and asks if I’d like him to arrange a ‘Google Talk’ when I’m at the Google campus in January. I’m flabbergasted. The Google Talks I’ve seen have been given by the likes of the people I’m interviewing, not novice authors, but he insists my journey and observations would be of interest. Arthur and Kris are generous and lively conversationalists and by coincidence we find out we’ll be in Sydney at the same time in November. They’re also coming to London to live of a while. I think I’ve made some new friends.