Urban Environments and Interactive Technologies

Welcome and Introduction

Friday, Sept. 25, 1998
9:00-9:30 am

Speaker: William Mitchell

[These are edited summaries, not complete transcripts.]

William Mitchell: Why are "digital cities" interesting to discuss, and what sorts of questions demand our attention? Let me suggest an answer by telling you about my recent trip to the City of Srinagar in Northern India, one of the great icons of modernist city planning. The city provides an interesting reflection on what cities are today, and what we need to do to make cities work. To crystallize my point, I will talk about these two monuments which are on opposite ends of the city.


The first monument is a famous "open hand" that extends Srinagar's welcome to the world at the northern end of the city. It is a beautiful and moving piece, but in many ways, it is a failure. It is in the middle of a monumental plaza in the government quarter which is completely deserted, except for an occasional cow. It does not establish the intended connection to the world.

On the opposite end of Srinagar, in an industrial outgrowth of the city, there is another monument that is about 4 days old. It is a satellite-earth station. This electronic "open hand" does establish a connection to the world. It is part of an effort in India to build software parks around such satellite-earth stations. Like oasis' around water in the desert, software enterprises develop that use sophisticated local talent, but plug into the world market to generate thriving software export businesses. These environments look a lot like Silicon Valley, and in a real sense, they are as much parts of Silicon valley as they are of the local environment.

This illustrates a larger point about how high speed telecommunications infrastructures will allow cities to take new forms and begin to function in new ways. If you look back through history, you see that with the emergence of each of the network infrastructures of the past, such as roads, canals, railroads or electricity, cities have taken new forms and functioned in different ways.

The reason that the topic of digital cities is suddenly so important is that a new form of infrastructure is being set in place world wide, and we are starting to see some of the very dramatic effects it is already having, and we can expect to see even more in the future. However, this infrastructure is not like the interstate system, where you take up lots of land and build very visible interventions. This is a stealth infrastructure that is almost invisible physically, but its effects on how cities really work and the forms that begin to emerge in relation to that will be profound. How is it going to develop? That is what going to be discussed today, but let me suggest three major effects of this new infrastructure.

  1. In imagining how the pieces of the city link together to make a totality, architects and urbanists must consider both virtual and physical ones. They need to consider telecommunication linkages as well as adjacency and transportation. Traditionally, adjacency has been a scare resource, since more things needed to be next to each other than you could actually put next to each other. High speed telecommunications linkages will extend linkages in the same way as transportation did when it was introduced.

  2. A more subtle point is that we need to consider the mappings of the digital to the physical and the physical to the digital. For example, Global Position Systems (GPS) technology is now being put into automobiles. A CRT shows a map of the city that you are driving through, and it updates automatically, so that you have a dynamic mapping of the physical to the digital and the digital to the physical. Another example is the use of urban spatial metaphors in digital places. It is amazing how many on-line digital places take the representation of a digital city.

  3. Finally, every time you have a digital facility, there is a complex set of physical implications on the ground. The server that you hook into is somewhere. For example, Amazon.com is also a very large physical warehouse in Seattle. There is an extraordinary connection to the logistics of transportation.

When you see something that is taking a digital form, such as an on-line bookstore, virtual community, or virtual workspace, what does it mean on the ground? How does it work itself out in physical space?J The answers to these questions are very interesting, and I suspect have profound implications for our cities.

Compiled by Mary Hopper

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