Increasing pace of interactions in our cities

In Life in the Real-time City: Mobile Telephones and Urban Metabolism, Anthony Townsend deals with the implications of new mobile communication on contemporary urbanization. Unlike preceding technologies such as automobiles or telephones, Townser argues that mobile phones may not results in "enormous physical upheavals" (such as suburbian low-rises or CBD skyscrapers). What may happen is rather that mobile communication may rewrite the rules of spatial/temporal communication turning decision-making in everyday life as something more complex and less predictable. This will eventually lead to more decentralization, more interactions... which will "speed the metabolism of urban systems" with more "activity and productivity". Hence a situation where we have a "real-time city in which system conditions can be monitored and reacted to instantaneously". What are the consequences of this situation according to Townsend? Some excerpts:

"Mobile communications technologies reinforce the competitive advantage of central city business districts by making them more efficient, yet at the same time make megalopolitan automobile-based urban sprawl manageable and livable. This dramatically complicates emerging internal conflicts within the field of city planning on issues such as New Urbanism and urban sprawl by undermining the existing technological space-time regimes that have both driven the trends and framed debate.

Second, and far more importantly, massive decentralization of control and coordination of urban activities threatens the very foundations of city planning – a profession based upon the notion that technicians operating from a centralized agency can make the best decisions on resource allocation and management and act upon these decisions on a citywide basis. "

Why do I blog this? Townsend's idea of the "intensification of interactions" as a consequence of mobile communication is interesting, and different form people who keeps advocating for a so-called "end of space/world is flat" motto. While some people are trying to find the material impacts of mobile phones on cities (new building forms, etc.), his insistence on a qualitative influence is interesting.

What is then pertinent in this paper is Townsend's proposal for urbanists to go beyond classical tools ("the widespread bit-by-bit reconstruction of cities is going largely unnoticed by planners accustomed to visualizing cities through aerial photographs"). Classical tools are also problematic because of their centralized perspective approach, which will prevent urbanists to grasp the ever-increasing changes of city metabolism. Therefore, there is a need for new paradigms in urban planning such as more complex models of swarm intelligence (he mentions StarLogo but there might lots of other and more advanced models).