For this interview about the Smart Cities, we met Therese Tierney who is director at the Urban Research Lab, a research group that explores the intersection of emerging technologies and the built environment. Therese Tierney is also an assistant professor of architecture with a designated emphasis in new media at the University of Illinois Urban Champaign. Following her participation in Paris last June, Therese explains to us that unlike historical, fixed infrastructure, mobile communication and information networks enable a personal infrastructure that is becoming increasingly embedded within everyday interactions.

  • What is the urban lab? How do you inform architecture with new media uses?

URL: Urban Research Lab investigates how networked technologies connect people, places, and practices within an urban context.   For the Lab, new media refers to ICTs – Information & Communication Technologies, applied at numerous scales: from the scale of the individual to the mega-city.  For example, at the scale of the individual, we design mobile apps, while at the scale of the building, we design responsive enclosure systems, and at the scale of the metropolis, we analyze and advise on sustainable mobility systems. We are also interested in how culture can participate in the discussion and deepen or intensify urban experience, perhaps even introducing new pleasures and surprises to everyday practices.

  • How do you define a smart cities to your student, on what aspects do you focus?

Smart Cities has a number of definitions, but generally speaking, it refers to the integration of Information & Communication Technologies with urban infrastructure.  ICTs (through sensors) offers better data collection which can contribute to a greater understanding of dynamic urban processes including energy use, water, or transportation.  Data analysis can also guide resource management towards recycling or other sustainable practices, resilience and future growth.

There is also another concept floating around the smart cities discussion primarily in CS circles, that it is possible to optimize the city in the same way one optimizes elements in a laboratory experiment, or video game, for example, SIMCITY.  I find this concept at once fascinating, provocative and a little disturbing!  Why? Because the city isn’t a closed system – the qualitative experiences of the human actors have been left out of the equation, as well as the inevitable messiness of life.
URL is different because it combines a bottom-up design approach with top down implementation.  We begin with the end user by employing social science research to initiate empirical studies on everything from apps to architecture – along with more traditional top-down strategies for improving urban living.

  • How do you want architects to build tomorrow’s cities?

What we do know is that the entire post-industrial project needs to be reconsidered, as well as our relation to the personal automobile.  At the same time, the historical city is not going to disappear and must be part of any new solution.  Actually, much of the historical architecture qualifies as “sustainable” in the sense that it utilized passive energy systems.
With that said, however, the US city with the smallest carbon footprint is Manhattan – in that way, New York is already an example of tomorrow’s city.   What can we learn from highly populated urban models?  Densification offers many benefits, one of which is walkability.  A densely populated city can offer more transit choices, including public transit, biking, ridesharing, etc.   Another important realization is that most traditional zoning ordinances established during heavy industrialization are not necessarily contributing to a sustainable environment.  As an alternative, mixed use such as micro-industries, for example, the electric Lit Motors mixed with Transit Oriented Housing or Live-Work developments allows urban dwellers to be less dependent on the private automobile.

There are many other areas of exciting research, especially in materials science that hold  promise for architects and engineers in that some of the previous assumptions for building materials and construction methods can now be revised or rethought.

  • In what ways is a smart city also a sustainable city?

One of the crucial areas is non-renewable resource management.  Another is resilience, using computational modeling and simulations to understand the city under duress – be that weather, population change, or even an event such as the Olympics, and how the analysis of large data sets (Big Data) can assist with planning for adaptation and recovery.

  • What inspired you in France during Future en Seine? As a result, what new vision/ideas do you have?

I was most impressed by initiatives sponsored by the Paris Region EDA and by the City of Issy-les-Moulineaux.  Their experimental prototypes represent an implementation of theories and provide valuable feedback as a means to refine future designs. Both urban prototypes  – Gare du Nor and Issy Fort – successfully demonstrate holistic urban models by addressing multiple interrelated concerns: sustainable energy, emerging talent (both architecture and software design), enhanced neighborhood culture and identity, in addition to technology research & development.
In the Gare du Nord district, our delegation visited the Pajol Hostel, continuing along Rue Ordener to Paris Region Innovation Lab, noticing an Autolib Bluecar station.   Along the way, Vincent Roumeas, Paris Region EDA, discussed some interesting facets about the economic and social history of the neighborhood. I was already familiar with the urban infill housing projects since UIUC has an international exchange program with Ecole d’Architecture du Versailles and a few of the instructors had been awarded small housing contracts in Paris.  It was incredibly exciting to see how beautiful and well designed the projects were in person, and how well they fit in with the existing context.

Those examples, whether social housing or car sharing, constitute a set of urban acupuncture points with the potential to stimulate economic and cultural development. Whether a solar powered hostel in a brownfield site, Transit Oriented Development, electric vehicle leasing,  or Cleantech incubator buildings (PRIL) all contribute to economically activating the neighborhood.

Another successful example of sustainable planning and design principals was the Eco District  at Issy-les-Moulineaux. Although located on a former military base, the project was essentially conceived within a tabula rasa allowing for integration of systems and architecture, including the first Paris Region Smart Grid demonstrating optimal energy usage.  The recently completed project included new solutions for sustainable architectural design, geothermal power and waste recycling.  With the decommissioning of military bases in the US, as well as new community developments, Issy eco-district is stellar model for future sustainable development.

  • Following your participation to the Smart Cities delegation, what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of Silicon Valley? Of Paris Region?

Speaking from a humanist perspective, one area that could be strengthened in Silicon Valley is broadening the research adgenda to include a human-centered approach. Another weakness is that there is not enough time spent on exploring the unintended consequences of inventions.  Thus, designers–both urban and software–have a shared responsibility; they should not only concentrate on problem solving, but as Stanford professor and consultant to IDEO Barry Katz says — also reflect on the social, political, and environmental consequences of their design decisions.

This is the area that PRIME exceeds in:  using holistic thinking for urban problem solving. For example, at the Futur en Seine Conference, workshop panels emphasized a strong link between policy, sustainability and technological development. By linking environmental concerns to issues of urban identity, Parisians are introducing new solutions like the Eco District and Incubator Spaces.

Another ingenious strategy was explained by Christophe Arnaud, IER Responsible Ligne d’activite, Lieux Publics.  It is very exciting that he will be participating in a forthcoming implementation of an electric vehicle/recharging/regenerating prototype in Indianapolis, Indiana next year.  IER’s system has the potential to alter the future history of energy generation and consumption.  This innovative mobility project was incredibly inspiring!