The Dense City: Creativity, Innovation, and the Near Future

Conceive the histories of cities, therefore, as the initial segments of trajectories that curve asymptotically to infinite density, at the ultimate event horizon of the physical universe. The beginning is recorded fact and the end is quite literally ‘gone’, but what lies in between, i.e. next?

—Nick Land, Event Horizon

One imagines a future without roads, without automobiles or combustion engines filling the air with pollutants and smog. High-speed trains or tubes, the urban density of a world where time implodes and the cycles of eternal return push past the light barriers of the event horizon. Where to?

William Gibson once dreamed up the Sprawl where the ruin of civilization was spread across the wastelands of the earth like ratholes for a subspecies of technos,

Case felt the stuff had grown somehow during their absence. Or else it seemed that it was changing subtly, cooking itself down under the pressure of time, silent invisible flakes settling to form a mulch, a crystalline essence of discarded technology, flowering secretly in the Sprawl’s waste places.1

But this is the old world of progress and reform, a land of industrial waste and depletion guided by regulations and the planned cities of the Sanctuary planet. Gates, enclosures, slums, a place that Mike Davis once described in Planet of Slums where the “delusionary dialectic of securitized versus demonic urban places, in turn, dictates a sinister and unceasing duet: Night after night, hornetlike helicopter gunships stalk enigmatic enemies in the narrow streets of the slum districts, pouring hellfire into shanties or fleeing cars. Every morning the slums reply with suicide bombers and eloquent explosions. If the empire can deploy Orwellian technologies of repression, its outcasts have the gods of chaos on their side.”2

Extrapolate and imagine Mumbai, India; Mong Kok, Kowloon Peninsula; Santa Cruz del Islote, Island, Colombia; Dhaka Kotwali Thana, Dhaka, Bangladesh; Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya; Tondo district, Manila, Philippines; or any number of other systems of decay populated by the dregs of a dead world of Capital. This is the sprawl densified to the point of obliteration, where the outcast, the excluded, the misfits of society and civilization that live just beyond the technocommercium enjoy their zombie existence.

As Dirk Kruijt and Kees Koonings tell us in their book Megacities,

The concentration of large segments of urban poor and excluded in capital cities and metropolitan areas but also in so-called ‘secondary cities’ (many of which will grow considerably in size) will have fundamental socio-economic and political consequences and will involve the possibility of destabilization of the economic, social and political order.3

Yet, there are defenders of density and densification of cities who tell us just the opposite, that as Chakrabarti, author of A Country of Cities and an Associate Professor of Practice at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation, tells us “As people live in denser circumstances, more innovation happens, more patent creation happens, and it is because people are running into each other, and there is serendipity as a consequence.”4  Architecture plays a critical role,” he said. “Because if you look at the three challenges of our time — of climate change, of social inequity and technological processing power —  all of that is playing out in the platform of the city.”

The controversial architect Patrick Schumacher who would do for architecture what Nicholas Luhmann did for sociology, provide a framework of communication within which cities could begin the task of developing the future:

Interaction is defined as communication between participants who are physically present, as distinct from remote communication via writing, telephone, Internet etc. All communications, and thus all interactions, are embedded within social systems understood as systems of communications. All social interactions take place in designed spaces filled with designed artefacts. Architectural artefacts – as well as other designed artefacts such as furniture, appliances and clothing – thus participate in the reproduction of social systems of communications. Architectural artefacts frame virtually all social communication systems, with the exception of those systems that exclusively reproduce outside the interaction between physically present participants. The designed environment matters: it frames all interactions. Only on the basis of the designed environment as complex system of frames can society be reproduced on the level of complexity it has attained.5

Parametricism is the key word. Originally coined by Patrik Schumacher— who takes his work with Zaha Hadid Architects to be the ultimate representation of the term—“ parametricism” refers to a type of design process characterized by the interrelation of design variables (or, parameters) through computational tools and techniques; a definition that allows it to encompass the work of other well-known figures and firms as well as emerging practitioners in contemporary architecture and design. Beyond this very general technical definition, however, parametricism has also accrued currency to refer to a whole variety of ideas that animate design culture today, from those concerned primarily with aesthetic questions, to others that are more philosophical, and yet others with strong political agendas.6

The key here is the use of computers and algorithmic encoding/decoding bounded only by parameters that adjust and bind or unbind the functional encasement of the design process. In fact Schumacher has high hopes for parametricism. He considers parametricism to be the “epochal style” of the “post-Fordist network society”  that emerges after his so-called “transitional periods” of postmodernism and deconstructivism. In this teleological scheme of styles corresponding to the “grand epochs” of Western civilization, parametricism is, according to Schumacher, poised to become the new hegemonic movement for the twenty-first century, replacing Modernism as the new contemporary “International Style.”  He thus considers himself and his project— and others like it— to be the transformational avant-garde of the discipline that will usher in this epochal change. (PP: 5)

In his work the connection between technology and social organization, resonates — indirectly, for now — with architecture’s role in the advanced economies and geographies at large, such as in the way architectural services are embedded in supply chains, the construction industry, the status of design as an “immaterial” service, as well as with theorizations around the possible repurposing of capitalist forms (like corporations) toward more cooperative arrangements. These theoretical and practical experiments, of which parametricism has so far been relatively disengaged, pose new challenges for the discipline as such, opening up design to a broader realm of cultural production that might be variously combined with fabrication, entertainment, community services, learning, curatorship, publishing, academic discourse, and many other activities, both in physical urban space and organized entirely through shared digital infrastructures. (PP: 14)

In his work Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers Stephen Graham speaks of the new class warfare society, of the dense city as a dual system for poor and rich where in such vertical environmental contrasts are compounded by the ways in which private, vertically segregated pedestrian systems can become progressively delinked from surrounding sidewalks. Actual access from the public street often becomes increasingly tenuous as the self-perpetuating logic of extending interiorised commercial walkway systems grow horizontally over time. Entrances to the walkway system from the street below are mediated by access to securitised corporate office buildings, elite condominiums or upmarket hotels. Commercial imperatives and a politics of fear, in other words, can result in pulling up the ‘ladder’ connecting the skywalk city to the street system.7

This verticalization and polarization of society in the dense cities of the future is a two-edged sword. As Graham speaking of contemporary Hong Kong tells us of this city’s multileveled access systems fully securitized:

It is the dazzling system of walkways in Hong Kong, however, that is most internationally famous. The city – the densest and most verticalised in the world – offers a startling system of over 500 vertically raised walkways snaking between the huge, raised podium structures at the bases of upmarket hotels, residential blocks, malls and corporate enclaves. In many ways, the stacking of walkways in Hong Kong echoes the city’s long history of pioneering innovations in using space extremely intensively and vertically… Hong Kong has become, in effect, a connected complex of megastructures. These construct accessibility and interconnection within a three-dimensional field that extends from deep subterranean space to several hundred metres above the ground. Such a development makes the city a global capital of innovation and building in escalators, elevators and people movers – as well as mass rapid transit, raised walkways, podium decks, vertical housing towers and multi-deck ferries. (PP)

Yet, with verticality the pollutants and ruination, the waste and excess get pushed down into the subterranean realms where the worker and the excluded mingle in dark enclaves with little access to goods and services, light and air. While the rich and their minions reach above the clouds in luxury skyparks, and open vista pools where plantlife and culture blossom in a skyscape of planned intensity. Verticality will bring our old enemy hierarchy to the fore again in these dense cities of the future. While academics, sociologists, and city planners see nothing but the moon of an accelerating capitalism jetting upward against the gravity of earth, the masses below will eek  out an existence in a subrodent world of damp and decaying systems of underground connections: mole lives in a world of utter darkness and unpleasure.  As Mike Davis would say in Evil Paradises: In the larger perspective, the bright archipelagos of utopian luxury and “supreme lifestyles” are mere parasites on a “planet of slums.”8

And, yet, there are those who promote the merger of heaven and hell in a dynamic mix of density and openness, incompleteness and the unbounded spaces of the virtual city of intelligence. As Luciano Floridi tells it we have moved inside the infosphere, the all-pervading nature of which also depends on the extent to which we accept its interface as integral to our reality and transparent to us (in the sense of no longer perceived as present). What matters is not so much moving bits instead of atoms— this is an outdated, communication-based interpretation of the information society that owes too much to mass-media sociology— as the far more radical fact that our understanding and conceptualization of the very essence and fabric of reality is changing. Indeed, we have begun to accept the virtual as reality. So the information society is better seen as a neo-manufacturing society in which raw materials and energy have been superseded by data and information, the new digital gold and the real source of added value. Not just communication and transactions then, but the creation, design, and management of information are the keys to the proper understanding of our hyperhistorical predicament.9

If as Bernard Stiegler maintains “Knowledge always proceeds from such a double shock – whereas stupidity always proceeds from automaticity”.10 Then we should recall here what Canguilhem once posited in principle the more-than-biological meaning of episteme: knowledge of life is a specific form of life conceived not only as biology, but also as knowledge of the milieus, systems and processes of individuation, and where knowledge is the condition and the future of life exposed to return shocks from its vital technical productions. (AS)

If we think of the future Smart City as the optimization of intelligence, as bringing forth the energetic unconscious of the earth itself, of the meeting of that shock of the new of which modernity was the harbinger and dead end, then we might begin to see humans migrating into a collective system of a new machinic civilization where innovation and creativity are maximized rather than horded by a weak and indifferent Oligarchy. But how would such a thing come about? So far I’ve described only the neoliberal outgrowth of our current accelerating capitalism and its dreams of a luxury world of Oligarchs. There is another world…

In my next essay we will imagine the counter-worlds of neoliberalism in a future where the silver lining on the cloud is not a hint of things to come but of a pragmatic world of collective making. As Land will say in another essay the dense cities of the future should be characterized by an escape into inwardness, an interior voyage, involution, or implosion. “Approaching singularity on an accelerating trajectory, each city becomes increasingly inwardly directed, as it falls prey to the irresistible attraction of its own hyperbolic intensification, whilst the outside world fades to irrelevant static. Things disappear into cities, on a path of departure from the world. Their destination cannot be described within the dimensions of the known – and, indeed, tediously over-familiar – universe. Only in the deep exploratory interior is innovation still occurring, but there it takes place at an infernal, time-melting rate.” (see: Implosion)

J.G. Ballard in The Concentration City let one character describe the blank wall against the edge of a endless city planet: “The surgeon nodded to himself. ‘Some advanced opinion maintains that there’s a wall around the City, through which it’s impossible to penetrate. I don’t pretend to understand the theory myself. It’s far too abstract and sophisticated. Anyway I suspect they’ve confused this Wall with the bricked-up black areas you passed through on the Sleeper. I prefer the accepted view that the City stretches out in all directions without limits.’11

Maybe the city is an infinite rhizome, a labyrinth that has no beginning or end, only the in-between of what is next: “And, and, and…” If the cycles of time are ebbs and flows, and eternal returns: compressed sequences in an infinite density of spiraling chaosmosis, then creativity, innovation and hell are signs of life and anti-life in an intelligent universe where the endless parade of processuality is without end and void. But remember, there are no empty voids…

  1. Gibson, William. Neuromancer (p. 70). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  2. Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums (p. 206). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  3. Koonings, Kees; Kruijt, Dirk. Megacities (Kindle Locations 287-289). Zed Books. Kindle Edition.
  4. Cook, John. The future city is dense… GeekWire February 14, 2017
  5. Schumacher, Patrik. The Autopoiesis of Architecture, Volume II: A New Agenda for Architecture: 2 (Kindle Locations 501-508). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  6. Poole, Matthew; Manuel Shvartzberg. The Politics of Parametricism: Digital Technologies in Architecture (p. 1). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. (PP)
  7. Graham, Stephen. Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers (Kindle Locations 3681-3686). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  8.  Davis, Mike. Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (Kindle Locations 241-242). New Press, The. Kindle Edition.
  9. Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (p. 17). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
  10. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 629-634). Wiley. Kindle Edition. (AS)
  11. Ballard, J. G.. The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (p. 37). Norton. Kindle Edition.