“We need to upscale”: How architecture, behavior and technology blend

How can we make cities more livable and sustainable using digital technology? This is the question raised by the PRIX BLOXHUB INTERACTIVE open call, a new cooperation between BLOXHUB, the Alexandra Institute and Ars Electronica. Find out more in this interview.

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Using digital technology to create value-based, human-centered, sustainable urban spaces might not be common practice in architecture and urban design just yet – but it is on the horizon. A very near one, at that – at least according to Liselott Stenfeldt, founder of PRIX BLOXHUB INTERACTIVE. In the newly launched open call accompanying the initiative (deadline February 15, 2019), architects, engineers, tech experts and creatives are asked to submit their projects and ideas that show how digital technology could be used to create more livable cities.

In this first part of our interview series about PRIX BLOXHUB INTERACTIVE, founder Liselott Stenfeldt talks to us about the intersection of architecture, behavior and technology, the need for an initiative like this, and how designing urban space using digital technology requires social responsibility. You can find out even more about PRIX BLOXHUB INTERACTIVE – or submit to the open call – by clicking this link.

What is missing now which makes an initiative like PRIX BLOXHUB INTERACTIVE necessary in your eyes?

Liselott Stenfeldt: There are two answers to this. One is that we see the need for a new, different vocabulary that can be used instead of “Smart City”, a word that, I would say, is to a high degree influenced and shaped by Silicon Valley. We need to create something around effective ways of organizing cities, all the while looking at social parameters, and put this into a word. Even if this ends up being another buzz word – we need to talk about using digital technology in a new way, across countries and disciplines. We want to activate more disciplines than only tech companies, we want to involve architecture, engineering firms and creatives as well.

The other part is that there are not many examples right now that show how to generate revenue with a digital, sustainable approach. How can we know that investing in using digital technology in an innovative way will be economically profitable? We are talking about risk taking here. For a smaller company it is really important to protect the risk-takers, to find out how we can go from risk to a feasibility.

These are the two needs that we are starting from. A third one is the UN Sustainable Development Goals. If we want radical change, if we want to make a difference and actually have more sustainable cities within the next ten years, we need private companies to invest. It cannot be only the public taking care of this change, it cannot be governments and cities only. It has to be both, public and private, investing in this radical change.

Credit: Rasmus Hjortshøj

One objective of the initiative is to break up conservative bonds in architecture. Why is that?

Liselott Stenfeldt: We are all living in social hubs around the world. It is a fact that urban planners are no longer alone in planning cities, the field is getting more interdisciplinary. I think that this is both good and bad, because it makes the field very wide. It affects and involves everyone. There are also a lot of aspects to consider, from planning large-scale traffic infrastructure to designing small-scale urban street furniture, this fact alone makes us very focused on finding new work methods for urban planners, architects, tech companies, and creatives. However, since urban planners and architects, who have been alone in this field for many years, might use more traditional methods, they have big ownership of this particular challenge. Especially in a country like Denmark, where the design and architecture traditions are really strong and something we are proud of. So how can we actually use digital technology without compromising this strong tradition? And how do you still make it value-based?

Architecture has to be context-specific, value-based, and coming from a human-centered-perspective. So how can we embrace this model using digital technologies? How can we make architects or engineers see the value in using digital technologies in new innovative ways without compromising what they believe in? This is a challenge in Denmark. Many architecture companies are hesitant to use digital technology when it has not been tested for years. Of course – when you come from a field where what you build should be around for a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years, digital technology can seem too novel. It is not considered timeless. Being an architect myself, I think this is where it becomes very interesting: If you can talk about using digital technology in a way where it supports a need and a function that we all recognize, I believe digital technology can become timeless. The key is not the novelty of the technology itself, but the use of it.

I think this could move the discussion from being very technology-based to being more human-centered. The built environment has been a victim of this word, “Smart City”, which has destroyed many possibilities. Smart Cities, Big Data, it’s all very technology-focused, whereas I think that with this cooperation between us, we can move in a much more value-based direction. We want to look at how we can challenge the way we live, the way we create, the way we work together.

You work right at the intersection of space, technology and behavior.

Liselott Stenfeldt: This is the triangle that we are focused on. It is very important to understand the use of our space. There has been so much talk about gathering data, collecting information, but out of all the data that we are accumulating, only a very small fraction is actually being processed. The simple fact that over 40% of all IoT sensors will be in the built environment, in our urban space, makes us responsible for investigating how we can use the data in the best way possible. I think it is important to do this in a way that is easy to talk about – and it’s easiest to talk about something that is tactile and visual. It is important that people across disciplines can look at something and understand how this is affecting their lives and the way they act as human beings, together with other human beings. It’s a very basic question to ask, but essential. However, I think that somehow, in all of this, people have forgotten about that question. How do I want my life to be? How is my everyday life in urban space going to look like?

I am not afraid of data gathering, but I am afraid of the wrong people gathering and using it, in the wrong way. It’s important to showcase positive examples and projects, to show how digital data can actually create really cool spaces or behaviors. Could we confront how socially challenged areas are designed? Could we design them in a more proactive way? Because we now know what to look for? There are so many aspects that will make our urban space more interesting and livable. For all of us! To make sure it is relevant for all of us.

In the end, it’s a lot about the reciprocal nature of tech and society – how technology influences culture, and vice versa. And how this creates a social responsibility…

Liselott Stenfeldt: Exactly. Up until now, innovation has been the big word, also in Denmark. When everything is being outsourced to other countries, what is left behind? Well, we have our brains, we can create innovation. But I would like to go with responsible innovation instead, we can’t just do any kind of innovation. So when we gather data, we should look at the cultural aspects of this, at the religious aspects, at the behavioral aspects. We need to upscale.

Submit to the PRIX BLOXHUB INTERACTIVE open call until February 15, 2019, here. Or find out more about the initiative on their website.

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