Hail a cab with your smartphone, set your office up in a cafe, or text your friends to agree on a location minutes before meeting: wireless communications have become embedded in our environment and spawned a new kind of a city, a digital urbanism. Urban life is now significantly shaped by our use of smartphones, embedded sensors, and smart systems that guide our decisions and offer new types of experiences.

Digital urbanism is an emergent understanding of city life shaped by the influx and pervasiveness of digital technologies including wireless broadband, GPS, Internet-connected sensors and devices, and an array of applications that change how we interface with the city and interact with each other. As massive amounts of data are now being generated, are we (urbanists, planners, technologists) effectively leveraging this data to build better cities and improve life for urban dwellers? Are we improving our understanding of the invisible systems that support us?

Technology has always played an important role in shaping cities. The 20th century city was influenced by an array of inventions including electrification, steel frame building construction, and the automobile. The automobile may have had the most impact on 20th century cities, and digital technologies will be just as influential in shaping the 21st century city. And while the impact of the automobile unfolded over the course of a century, the adoption of emerging technologies is occurring faster than traditional planning and policy cycles can keep up with them.

Digital urbanism is the interplay of multiple interests and actors in the context of the city, as mediated by information and communication technologies. Municipalities have embraced the use of digital technologies to deliver their services ranging from 311 to the provision of open data to their citizens. Community groups are increasingly using (and building) online platforms to participate more directly in design and development of their communities through initiatives such as Change By Us and SeeClickFix. Businesses recognize new opportunities to equip cities with digital infrastructure to optimize resource management and service delivery. And individual citizens, in the spirit of DIY movements with civic or artistic intentions, have used digital technologies to start re-imagining their city. The more that these groups collaborate, the greater our success in building a vital digital urbanism.

The tech boom of the past two decades has given rise to large companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook whose services are unconstrained by ‘bricks and mortar,’ and whose services are largely independent of geographic location. Yet at the same time, our digital and physical worlds are increasingly connected by mobile and embedded computing devices and wireless communications networks. Using data produced by digitally enabled systems embedded in the infrastructure of the city, a whole new set of opportunities has emerged that is simultaneously physical and virtual.

Digital urbanism is the attempt to define and understand these hybrid spaces, as well as new ways of experiencing and behaving in our cities. For example, you can now use your smartphone to access the use of a bicycle or car in many major cities around the world. This shift to access over ownership alters the requirements of a city and our experience of it. Another example of the shift to access over ownership is the new sharing economy where a room or apartment, or even the car in your driveway can be made available to others to rent or share.

The pace of change in technology and innovation makes long-term planning and policy development very challenging. It is imperative that we better understand the dynamics of digital urbanism and intervene and influence where appropriate to ensure the vitality and dynamism of our cities. Blind adoption of technologies in the name of efficiency or resource optimization may have desirable goals, but need to be balanced with a deep understanding of the various players, interests and ecosystems in the city.

Cities have thrived on diversity, dynamism and engagement of their citizens. The properties of digital technologies promise great advances and an improved quality of life. At the same time, these technologies have the potential to constrain our future choices and limit citizen engagement if they are not implemented thoughtfully and democratically. How are new urban technologies designed and implemented, and by whom? Who do they affect? How can citizens be empowered to participate in design decisions and how can we foster collaboration amongst a diverse group of urban stakeholders – including residents, planners, urbanists, technologists, architects, policy makers, community groups, businesses, entrepreneurs, artists, and activists?

As it emerges digital urbanism will provide us with a lens to understand the issues and opportunities, and to develop practices and methods to help build great future cities.


Urban+Digital is now Code for Canada