A Means to What End? How Technology Could Shape our Future Communities

Being in a creative industry that constantly ideates future scenarios, UNStudio firmly believes that promoting the physical, mental and social health of people and their communities is a key facet for future-proofing designs. In order to achieve social health, we not only look at how to bring people together and foster communities through spatial design, we also work with our sister company UNSense to explore how to better utilise integrated technology in aiding such efforts.

Technology has been redefining the meanings and forms of human connections and communities for quite some time. More recently however, the pandemic has further pushed technology to become a central focus of the many ways in which people stay connected, therefore stimulating a strengthened interest in our technological future. Below, we explore how technology changes the way we perceive and build communities, from its influence on the meaning and the form, to the future of communities.

Apart Together

We are intrinsically social beings. The need to bond and experience a sense of belonging is fundamental to our psychological well-being. When the physical world is experiencing restrictions and lockdowns, we try to maintain our social connections online. The technological tools we have developed over the past decades are especially important when it comes to conserving and developing such connections while apart. In fact, a recent article on Atlantic Council even posits that “if social isolation is a side effect of this crisis, technology is its medicine.”

Researching and analysing Facebook’s global users, ‘The Power of Virtual Communities’ report underlined that online community groups play an important role in building and creating a strong sense of community, with 91% of the global participants reporting to provide support through online communities in some way. According to a parallel YouGov survey, the majority of the respondents in 11 out of the 15 countries studied reported that the most important group they belong to is likely to be online.

The pandemic saw a rise of various technology-enabled community-building initiatives in different sectors. For instance, schools are organising virtual activities that are tailored towards collaborative online learning. At a community and public health level, digital technologies are deployed at different crisis response stages, from detection, prevention, containment, to recovery and learning. In the healthcare sector, the NHS in the UK has compiled a list of free apps that help people manage their well-being and find communities to which they can or do belong.

While online groups are crucial for building communities virtually, the long-term influence of online communities is in fact at its best when it transforms the virtual relationships into offline interactions. A research into Italian diasporas in the UK found that online communities helped diasporas feel more confident, which led to long-term engagement in local public life. Moreover, according to Manzini, community after the pandemic could be a place where people are able to live in both the physical and digital space flexibly, while maintaining resiliency.

Technology is and will continue to act as a unique connector between online and offline communities, supplementing and extending the interactions and relations beyond one specific form of communication. Instead of replacing the necessary in-person communications, it provides an interesting addition to the physical community that we are more accustomed to.

Digitised Community

Moving offline, technological advancements have also accelerated the shift in our physical world and the way we build physical communities. Reflecting on the digital city, Wachter pointed out that “the public space is already ‘covered’ by cyberspace: it is enhanced and mirrored by a digital layer.”

Designed with future technological changes in mind, Distelweg is an urban study that reflects UNStudio’s take on future cities. In the study, we invite technology into the fabric of our streets. By considering time as a design factor that allows for gradual transition from analogue to digital components, we envision streets that can be adapted and re-adapted to accommodate users’ changing needs. Through the use of an adaptable framework and interactive technology, the local community will then design and define its place and identity in its own unique way.

New visions and developments such as this are viable thanks to the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoTs), where digitised objects are able to ‘communicate’ with each other, sharing information across different sectors within the network. The inanimate things themselves even form a community where they collaborate, collect and share content in order to enhance interconnectedness in the physical world.

More importantly, this connected network increasingly powers the sustainable development of communities. A recent study found that 84% of the 640 IoT projects analysed showed great potential for achieving the 17 Sustainability Development Goals set out by the United Nations. IoT plays a unique part in supporting sustainable community development in fields such as ecology, Earth systems and green engineering, by utilising paradigms like water management, soil moisture detection, and energy efficient IoT lighting systems. These IoT paradigms have also proved to be beneficial in supporting socially meaningful implementation, especially in developing countries. Some examples include a weather warning system in the Indian Ocean, animal tracking in Africa, and sensor-enabled water pumps for villagers in Rwanda and Kenya.

As technology moves forward, it is projected that the IoT will go beyond sensor-based technology like temperature sensing, electrical power and heating measurement. Slowly and steadily, artificial intelligence and flexible self-organising systems will enable optimised and decentralised control at not only the building scale, but also the neighbourhood communities’ scale. As a result, the structure and operation of our physical communities could be organically transformed, while becoming more digitised and tech-integrated.

Hybrid New World

Back in 2018, our sister company UNSense started to explore the potential of technology as a design tool in order to improve the built environment. In particular, the 100 Homes Project, which is a part of the Brainport Smart District (BSD) masterplan, hopes to create an ‘Personal Data Platform’ where data-driven housing and services will be developed to improve the physical, mental and social health of the residents. It is also a ‘Living Lab’ where a neighbourhood of 100 households take ownership of their own data, while benefiting from cost savings through technology.

Aiming to be ‘the smartest neighbourhood in the world’, BSD will be a pioneer in community-building practices, with joint energy generation and data management, local food production, future-proof water management, and groundbreaking mobility services.  As such, how we design and build a better future community is inextricably linked to the use of technology.

Another example of activating healthy community with technology can be seen in our recent Bruzzano project, which introduces a new flexible typology of ‘care communities’ using green tech. With the potential to become a testing ground for green technology, it is a decentralised health-themed district that integrates technology in bringing healthcare services closer to the end users and encouraging healthier lifestyles. The technology deployed can set up short and long-term targets and execute, monitor and enhance both the built and green environment. When proven successful, this project could eventually be up-scaled and adapted to cities and other areas in the future.

Wachter observed almost a decade ago that, “the addition of a virtual dimension to the physical space can act as a lever to multiply and diversify human interactions and can contribute to the invention of new social relations and new forms of urbanity.” As we have seen, this new form of social relations is in fact already here. It revolutionises the way we interact with each other, the way we build communities, and ultimately, our idea of what community means to us. Through trials and experimentations, we may yet learn to further harness technology and truly define the future of healthy hybrid communities.

You can read more about our approach to community building and placemaking in our special report here.

Written by Minyi Huang