Gary Hustwit Urbanized

To help soften the blow of the Covid-19 lockdown, film-maker Gary Hustwit has been streaming a documentary each week for free. Yesterday I watched Urbanized.

“Urbanized (2011, 85 minutes) is a documentary about the design of cities which looks at the issues and strategies behind urban design and features some of the world’s foremost architects, planners, policymakers, builders, and thinkers. Over half the world’s population now lives in an urban area, and 75% will call a city home by 2050”

One of the biggest takeaways for me was how different the Architect process is from digital Product Design. One obvious difference is the lack of iteration. There is iteration and evolution at an industry level, with one city learning from another, or one generation of architects learning from the last. But individual projects rarely seems to get altered after the build is complete. Was that the right place for the staircase? Should we have put more seating there? Do we need that many entrances?

I should imagine a large part of this is due to the time, expense and regulation that is involved in construction. The number of exits is normally dictated by health and safety law. Staircases are far too expensive to move later in a build let alone after construction has finished.

I believe another contributing factor is the heavy “Agency” influence. This often creates competing interests and comes complete with an expensive and time consuming pitch process as well as a serving of company reputation and designer ego. Agencies are also incentivised based on outputs not outcomes. If the building is on spec, on time and on budget the project is deemed a success. Little consideration is given to revisit and improve the design after the fact.

I would argue designing a building or community area should be approached in a similar way to how we create apps and other digital services. Taking learning from agile and lean methodologies we could build things in an iterative way; focusing on what can be delivered quickly, validated, and then improved.

The most impactful stories from the documentary was Chilean developer creating affordable homes for poor families in Santiago. With only limited resources the developers focused on building the aspects that had the biggest long term impact. Rather than spending money on tiling floors or fitting kitchens, they bought land in a better location, increased the footprint of the houses and installed plumbing and electricity. All things harder for the families to do later. This kept the price low and allowed families to make improvement and iterations when they could afford to do so.

I’d love to see more projects that are:

  • Research driven
  • Built to human scale
  • Designed by people with skin in the game
  • Iterative
  • Community owned

Hi, I'm Aaron. Director of Design at Nearmap. I like to create experiences that are simple, intuitive and empowering.

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