System Approach – City as a Platform

When things connect seamlessly they not only solve big problems but also create a pleasant experience.  Don’t we all love apple’s ideology where the iPods, iPhones, IMacs, iTunes, and its web apps are all in sync and are all designed to enhance the user experience.

At the beginning of the era of telecommunication and information technology, urban planners began to foresee the end of public space and thus the doom of cities. The ideas of the creation of a “spaceless world” (Knoke) prevailed in which we will all inhabit “electronic cottages” (Toffler) and indulge in teleconference.

Instead technology coupled with design has played a great role in making information accessible to everyone thus even improving mobility in cities through mobile apps and websites like Walkscore, and Mapquest. Sites like everyblock and changebyus, have provided a platform for community participation that leads to meaningful conversations about particular communities. Designers like Candy Chang have combined street art with urban planning and social activism. Cities now have networked civic utilities like parking meters, trash cans, train and bus shelters. Yet all these efforts are occurring in isolation. There lacks a common thread that connects all these wonderful ideas and builds off them.

The role of city planners is to envision new futures and create strong foundations that will nurture these futures. Over time the field of planning has become absorbed in solving the devils of the past instead of foreseeing the opportunities of the future. We need to ask ourselves, are the principles and practices of planning equipped to support and benefit from the more complex and technologically advanced societies of the future? I believe that the future of cities lies in visualizing it is as a platform for interaction. It lies in creating a multi-faceted network that enables public access to information at both virtual and physical locations. In the future, information provided by both the city agencies and through crowd sourcing would be tapped into by locals to create innovative products and services for the people. Currently we try to use technology like mobile apps as external plug-ins to the system but wouldn’t they work better as integral parts of its plan.

These platforms of interaction should not be seen as technologically focused ventures but as interdisciplinary attempts to bring together innovations in various fields. We need to integrate products, services, technologies and design to create a better city of the future. Amazon has become an even greater success after it shifted its strategy from product based (books) to building itself into a platform. This has allowed Amazon to position itself such that it could benefit from advancements in other fields (it is now able to sell and rent online video as well). It invested in the future by laying the foundations today. Cities have been collecting large amounts of data for a few decades, but it took IPhone apps to make us realize that the information we hold in our separate departments when interlinked offer great solutions for people. This use of information is not limited to smart phones but is accessible from computers and laptops as well, which have been around for a few decades.

The task might seem too complex but then as Sue Zielinski would say “One could imagine in the process of the creation of the human body saying “it’s all too complex – you have a choice – it’s going to be a heart or lungs – what’s it going to be?- you have to choose?” Obviously the human body needs a heart AND lungs AND a pituitary gland, and a few other things, and it needs them all to work together seamlessly.” Having said that, the task doesn’t need to be(and can’t be) undertaken solely by the public sector. We need to create an integrated platform that allows for different private, public and non-profit entities and players to contribute their expertise towards a more sustainable, connected, equitable and livable future.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration


Urban design is the language of the city. It is defined through a confluence of ideas produced by people across fields and backgrounds including architects, planners, developers, business, people social activists and citizens. My master’s studio in urban design at the University of Michigan taught me the value of such collaborations. It included students with varied professional backgrounds and representing varied nationalities with a broad range of social and cultural perspectives.

I have been fortunate to be involved in many urban projects, both in the industry and in academic research. Through my work as an architect and an urban designer, I have realized that you really have to be a collaborator/innovator who hopes to mediate dialogue between various interdisciplinary fields if you want to bring about sustained changes in them.

We need city development be a collaboration of fields like urban design, urban planning, transportation planning, architecture and landscape architecture, but also interaction design, information technology, engineering, anthropology, and psychology.

One such example is THE ISSUE’ (Transport Health Environment – Intelligent Solutions Sustaining Urban Economies), which will support scientists, engineers and development agencies from several different European regions to work together, using the latest space and information technologies, to develop more effective methods of easing road congestion and improving the urban environment. It is hoped that the final research outcomes will be used to influence future policy and the implementation of traffic management systems that benefit public health and safety.

Equitable Development

Equitable Development

The urban poor are the most dependent on the city resources and often have the least access to technology. How can digital literacy be achieved and information made accessible to every strata of society? The success of the solution also lies in adapting to both the developed and the developing world.

With the growth in technology, more number of smart phone applications are flooding the market. A lot of these utilize Real Time information systems, GPS tracking, Near field communication etc. But access to these technologies is only by small segment of the society. We must design our systems to be more inclusive and cater to the needs of all sections of the society. We must find ways of making these technologies accessible to all. As of now cell phones have become extremely popular in both developed and the developing world but most of these users don’t have mobile internet access available to them. As per a UN report, in India there are 545 million working cell phones, a number expected to reach 1 billion by 2015.

Couldn’t cell phones play a major role in linking the various civic and transport facilities with the community initiatives in a city? Could the planners and designers in India have foreseen the rise of the cell phone and created policies to make better use of it when it happened?

Some entrepreneurs have tried to tap this market by services that can be accessed through basic mobile phones. Ideophone, is one such company that is doing great work in providing transportation based information to anyone who owns a phone. Their phone applications include a wake-up alarm service based on train arrival schedule and a auto/cab metering system to calculate tariff for the journey.