Notes for the Connected Cities Conference, London, 15th September 2015.
How long has Space Syntax been going?
Space Syntax was established as a consulting company in 1989.
Why did you set it up?
Space Syntax was set up to exploit academic research at University College London: computer-based methods of analysing space in buildings and cities and predicting human behaviour. I joined the company to practise a new kind of architecture: one more attuned to human needs and one powered by new analytic capabilities that de-risk an otherwise data-light and judgment-heavy spatial planning process, one which has a history of social and economic failure.
What is its guiding ethos?
Space Syntax Limited’s mission is to enhance the social, economic and environmental performance of buildings and urban places by developing, disseminating and applying a science-based, human-focused approach to their planning, design and operation.
Our vision is of a built environment that works well for the people that use it. This requires the right balance of interconnectedness, movement, awareness, encounter and exchange at every scale. It means the delivery of places in which different kinds of human activity can thrive.
We exist to provide knowledge and leadership to support the development, dissemination and application of this approach.
How would you define a ‘connected city’?
A connected city is a natural human creation – it is the most effective machine for promoting human interaction and innovation. Traditionally the connected city is created through a grid of streets that provides the physical means of bringing people into contact with each other. Today, the physical grid of the city can be augmented by digital connectivity: social media, the internet, virtual reality. Being human is being connected.
Are city leaders and planning authorities currently embracing data driven spatial planning to its full potential?
No, but we are making progress. We embrace things we feel comfortable with. Many people, particularly people over the age of 45, are still not comfortable with computing. This will change as younger people enter positions of influence. Plus computing is improving all the time – becoming more attuned to human needs and more capable of predicting the outcomes of urban planning decisions.
If not, what do you see as being the main barriers?
Uncomfortable elder decision-takers. Unwieldy user interfaces.
What are the risks for cities not becoming more connected?
Social and economic failure.
Do you think there needs to be a more bottom-up approach to planning and can technology help?
Yes, absolutely. People know their places better than any professional. Space Syntax works closely with community groups to gather and interpret data then co-create ideas for the future.
Is there a role for developers and architects?
Yes. Developers need to manage risk and avoid failure during the planning process and failure in operational performance. Space Syntax addresses these risks. Architects benefit from the added creative impetus that comes from analysing data in a highly visual way – Space Syntax inspires creativity, provoking ideas that might otherwise not have been identified.
What for you is the most exciting city that is embracing connectedness either in the UK or abroad and what lessons can other cities learn from this?
I’m inspired by cities in history that took connectedness for granted: Pompeii, Paris, Glasgow, Sydney. We recognised the value of connections until the start of the twentieth century when our pursuit of the rural idyll married and fatal attraction to the motor car led to the creation of fragmented, dispersed urban forms: the very antithesis of the previous 10,000 years of history. I like cities that are building bridges and converting ring roads to Boulevards: Birmingham, Newcastle, Ashford, Derry.