Mobility: Interview

Why mobility is the God particle of future cities

To imagine the cities of the future we must first understand a new kind of mobility - like in Mumbai, says Columbia University's Mark Wigley.
Devotees pull a huge idol of \'Ganesh\', the Hindu deity of prosperity, on a road in Mumbai. For .../ Credits: Reuters
Allianz Knowledge and Mark Wigley discuss the future of city and transport Mark Wigley, Dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture. Physicists have the God particle to explain the universe. For city planners, architects, and carmakers ‘mobility’ makes sense of the city. Columbia University and German carmaker Audi have forged a strategic research alliance–Experiments in Motion—that examines mobility systems for an urban world. We spoke with Mark Wigley, Dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture.

Allianz Knowledge: What is Experiments in Motion all about?
Mark Wigley: To answer that you need to first ask what it means that by 2050 seven billion people will be living in cities. Nobody knows, unless we forge alliances between different advanced research capacities like Audi and Columbia University.

People have always moved to cities to maximise connectivity. A city is the beginning of social media. It maximizes the number of connections made possible by any motion. So the question ‘what is the future of the city?’ becomes ‘what is the future of motion?’

Experiments in Motion is about questioning the future of motion itself. The answers to that question will lead to a completely different idea of what a building is and what a car is. The words “building” and “car” are probably going to dissolve.

Why the cooperation with a carmaker?
We are experts in cities; Audi is an expert in making motion machines. We came together because what we have in common is a real desire to experiment and to not wait for these big questions to be answered by the city itself but actually to define the new paradigms ourselves.

To make successful cars you have to have a deep understanding of today’s world. That makes it very interesting for us architects to tap into the knowledge of Audi and vice versa. Experiments in Motion is trying to create a new kind of feedback-loop by monitoring the new concepts of motion in exploding cities.
What’s your understanding of motion?
The classic understanding of motion is of course to go from A to B. But motion is rarely like that.

We could use the internet as a more contemporary model. No message that you send goes directly from A to B. It’s fragmented into many packets which are going in many different directions simultaneously and eventually, depending on the geometry of the network, are reassembled at the other end. The internet is fast because it doesn’t go in straight lines.

So part of the Experiments in Motion project is to try to understand how information moves. We would never make a distinction between vehicles and an information system. To commute is to communicate.

That’s quite a challenging concept.
The first step is to try not to think of a car, just think of motion. How does a virus move around the world so fast? It doesn’t move from A to B but ripples out from an ever expanding set of hotspots.

When we think of cars in terms of A to B we use just one very limited understanding of motion, the rarest one in the universe. This is not going to disappear, but it will have many additional layers of understanding on top. Motion is not about straight lines but ripples, vibrations, swarms, and networks.

For example in the near future, while I will be sitting in my car I will be speaking on the phone and be on the internet and the car will be sensitive to other cars, interacting with them, watching traffic conditions and monitoring its own performance. Even in today’s cars I place myself within about 20 different forms of motion. The car has already become a mobile phone on wheels.

Maybe this is the future for the rich world but how will an Indian city, for example, develop?
Western Europe and the United States will play absolutely no role in the future of cities.

The real city of the future will be designed in those parts of the world that are experiencing a kind of demographic tsunami, India probably more than anywhere else, but also China, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.

And the beginning of the future of the car will probably emerge in those places as well. In India, there has been a huge expansion in the number of cars and of urban density. So a city like Mumbai is a laboratory in which the future of the car and the future of the city are going to be played out in the next couple of decades. The current concept of cars, streets and buildings will not work in a place like Mumbai.
If Mumbai is the hotspot for your concept of motion, how does it feel to live in New York?
To be honest I am jealous of Mumbai. Mumbai is more interesting, more likely to be at the edge of forward thinking. Mumbai is today the image of cosmopolitan density in the same way that New York was a century ago.

Mumbai looks like it is impossible to move through. But there is famously a complex network of people on foot, bicycle and train that brings food to workplaces with speed and precision.

The food arrives on time and the way that this food moves is very similar to the way that information moves through the internet. It has exactly these qualities. What we can learn from Mumbai is this more deterritorialized mobility system that works its way through the fabric of the city using a kind of network logic rather than straight lines.

How is this concept of motion affecting cars relationship to cities?
In the last 100 years cities have reacted to cars. The result has been congested and uncomfortable cities.

In the next 100 years, cars will have to react to cities. And if the car is in any way intelligent, and in the future it will be at least as intelligent as we are, our relationship to cars will be very different in terms of ownership and risk. You will not park your car anymore. Your car will drive itself off to find some sun so that it can recharge its batteries. And the car that arrives when you need it might not be the same car that carried you there and might have a very different performance level depending on where you are going and why.

Motion is not only about cars. What about public transportation?
The really interesting question is, ‘where is the distinction between public and private in future transportation systems?’

So far, if I want to take public transportation I have to go to a certain spot, to find my bus for example, an inconvenience understood as the price of sharing. But in the future the bus may know which people are looking to move to which place. So hypothetically my phone could tell me I shouldn’t go to the bus stop but I should stay exactly where I am because there is a bus that, if it makes a slight detour, can pick me up. Maybe it is not a bus but one of the cars that happens to be able to satisfy the real time needs of a few people given their current location.

So I will be able to say to my phone where I want to go and it will then direct me towards the spot which is the most efficient for me and for the system. But that spot will not be a bus stop, it will just be a node in the system. Transportation will by asymmetric in the sense of a suite of ever evolving options that we surf. And this system will not simply be connecting buildings. It will be part of the buildings themselves.

Have their already been unique results of Experiments in Motion?
One of the most exciting experiments has been to explore the idea of a city without streets. A team has been thinking of the Manhattan of the near future with cars being but one of the many things that move across reprogrammable horizontal surfaces that also act temporarily as parks or markets or performance spaces depending on the continuous flux of our desire to connect. All of our assumptions are on the move.

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