The City as a Labo for Future Mobility
von Thomas Wagner | Aug 5, 2010

To put it very briefly: While the oceans kept global affairs afloat, the game today is now played by its no less stormy relatives. Owing to their metaphorical consonance, they tend to be referred to as data, financial, commodity and traffic flows. Not to mention the hurricanes, high tides, tsunamis and flooding, all of which leave many victims in their wake. The preferential place where these flows and tides make big waves, simply lap softly at the shore, or freeze in torpor (alongside the virtual sphere of the Internet) is no longer the wide sea, but the city. Here, the one or other still hunts the mythical Moby Dick of success. Most, tend to get bogged down in the traffic jams and smog.

Cities continue to grow

The fact is that the world over, people are being drawn into the cities, which continue to grow apace. According to the United Nations, by 2050 three quarters of the world's population will live in cities. While today, buildings require about 40 percent of the energy we consume, the proportion of the total accounted for by cities is 70 percent. What is more, everyday traffic comes to a standstill in inner cities, the sides of streets and carparks get besieged by cars that still produce far too great a volume of emissions. Yet, the debate has only just started on how to ameliorate the problem and how cities will or should develop world-wide over the next 20-30 years. Apart from the regulation of financial flows, the debate is focusing primarily on two issues: How can cities be more energy efficient and how to solve the problems of inner city mobility?

The starting basis does not seem very favorable to transform cities that have hitherto primarily consumed energy into energy producers and to minimize emissions in the processes and get traffic that in part has come to a complete standstill moving again. First of all, today an increasing number of people live in megacities and highly dense urban areas. Second, the world's population will continue to grow in coming decades, and third distortions within the social systems owing to economic and demographic factors as well as migration patterns, a crisis-prone world economy and the necessity for an "energy turn" and a sustained supply of food will in coming years intensify the social pressure to bring about change in the industrialized nations and emerging markets. At the same time, in parts of the world there is a sphere of unprecedented prosperity in which a form of individualism driven by consumerism blossoms.

Will the city in future define the mobility it allows?

As curator of the Audi Urban Future Award 2010 Stylepark has concerned itself with the issues relating to the above and selected six internationally active architectural offices to develop scenarios and visions on how the city of tomorrow may look in terms of mobility. Five architects have engaged in close dialog with engineers, designers and brand strategists from Audi and have now refined their ideas to such a point that they will be presented in Venice as of August 25 in an exhibition designed by Raumlaborberlin at Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Misericordia. The central question to which they have sought an answer is: Will, unlike in the past, when the type of mobility shaped the face of cities, in future the city define what kind of mobility it allows?

The city shapes its inhabitants

In his book on "The Architecture of Happiness", writer Alain de Botton offers an observation on the meaning of architecture that has far-reaching consequences. "The belief," de Botton suggests, "in the meaning of architecture not only presumes that whether we like it or not, we are a different person when in a different place, and also the conviction that it is architecture's task to show us who we would in an ideal case be." The same obviously applies to the city. Here we can likewise ask: How do we change ourselves if we live in a city that gives us greater scope rather than constraining us? Who will we be if traffic and data flows are networked and we are part of a major feedback loop? And what does that mean for cities?

New promise of mobility

It bears clarifying just to what a massive extent what we term mobility has changed in recent years in order to find out what status mobility will play here and in what direction it may develop. Quite apart from the social value that the permanent mobilization of people and goods entails, mobility has become a synonym for omnipresent participation. Whoever is not mobile is no longer part of things, be it physically or mentally. Or no longer participates to a sufficient extent in social life. The talk of mobility refers today to far more than physically overcoming spatial distance and the transport of humans, goods and capital from A to B. Where the talk is of mobility, there is always the sense of a challenge to not stand still, but permanently hasten ahead and concentrate on maintaining a stake in natural and cultural resources. He who is mobile is he who grasps residence as a temporary stop along the way. Logically, one is just as well off here as there, and rests instead of arriving. He runs and drives, or logs on, calls up, keeps clicking, combining and manipulating, deletes or stores, whereby the respective meaning (legitimated by a general license to use) is ever rarely linked to a lived situation. Given this expansion in the range of its meaning, mobility today also self-evidently includes moving in electronic networks. Being mobile in the sense of navigating in virtual networks and on data highways means always being online and permanently available. Meaning that physical and virtual travel increasingly overlap.

Networked driving

Here, less driving of cars or riding of trains can spell more mobility, something which some participants in the Audi Urban Future Award 2010 expressly took up. So the question is no longer whether, but to what extent the weighting will shift in the long term to a form of virtual movement and what consequences this will have, for example, for the social status of the automobile. Carmakers have long since taken the first steps toward linking real and virtual movement. Navigation systems, driving assistance systems and mobile Internet access integrated into cars are already the standard in the latest generation of vehicles, at least those made by companies such as Audi. On that basis, parallel to changes in drive technology through to electromobility in inner cities, in coming years we will presumably see an increasing number of fully-automated systems that not only network the car with its environment, e.g., traffic lights and speed-regulation systems (car2x) or with other vehicles (car2car), but also impact on a city's infrastructure. After all, anyone driving in automatic mode does not need traffic lights or traffic signs, and in this way for the first time really shares downtown space with pedestrians and cyclists.

The auto as apartment and energy producer

That said, there are other, quite different aspects to the change. Because as regards new, flexible forms of living or questions of energy production, the car will apparently being facing new tasks, just as the issue will become more pertinent of whether in future one simply uses a car when needed, but no longer owns it. How seriously should we take such changes and how fundamentally do they impact on urban concepts? It would seem clear that in future people and goods will continue to have to be mobile. What needs to be explored is in what way and within what structures this will happen. The scenarios that urban planners and architects such as Alison Brooks (London), Bjarke Ingels (Copenhagen), Cloud 9 (Barcelona), Jürgen Mayer H. (Berlin) and Standardarchitecture (Beijing) have developed for the Audi Urban Future Award 2010, and which we present here in compressed form all address this question in very different but highly original ways.

Their take on the city of tomorrow will be supplemented within our thematic block by a whole host of texts that are more or less closely bound up with the aesthetic, social and political issues on the mobility of culture past and present - ranging from the graphic design of racing cars to the question of whether and how caravans will increasingly form temporary towns.

Exhibition Audi Urban Future Award
August 27 - September 26, 2010
Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Misericordia, Venice
Daily, 10am - 6pm, closed on Tuesdays
Admission free

For further information click:

from top to bottom: concepts by Alison Brooks Architects, London; Standardarchitecture, Beijing; J. Mayer H. Architects, Berlin; BIG – Bjarke Ingels Group, Kopenhagen; Cloud 9, Barcelona