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Gardeners in the City of the Future: An Interview with Eric Baczuk

I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Baczuk, Designer at Google. We discuss his views on the future urban experience and design. We also touch on Sidewalk Labs of which Eric was a founding team member.

What are you working on currently?

I lead a design team imagining future of communication and thinking about possibilities for what–if anything–might replace the smartphone in our daily lives. What could be the next affordance or device that could offer us a more seamless interface with the digital world?

Can you be more specific about the interfaces?

Eric Baczuk
Eric Baczuk

It’s really just imagining a future with digital interfaces that might be a bit more natural and more humane than what is currently available. In many ways, I think the phone has monopolized social life. You see people standing on the street, for example, waiting for the bus, and 99 percent will have their noses glued to their phones. I think it’s quite anti-social, and in some ways, prevents the friendly, serendipitous encounters that used to be so characteristic of urban living.

You work now at Google, but you were one of the originators of Sidewalk Labs. How and why did it come about?

I was on the founding team at Sidewalk labs. It emerged from a number of conversations we had with the senior leadership at Google. The thought was, if we could combine people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology, we could define new quality of life standards for cities, with a special emphasis on things like sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity. The thinking was that If we build the city “from internet up”, using all the technology that’s available today and weren’t encumbered by all the legacy infrastructure, constructs, and technology–if we started from scratch–what could we do differently?

I was involved in the first two years of the program, setting it up, and establishing early relationships in Toronto. Generally, my work was in construction innovation—laying out a vision for how permitting, contracts, design, materials could be improved with the help of digital technologies, and how these could lead to more sustainable and cost-effective outcomes.

Can you say a few words about Sidewalk Toronto?

Sidewalk Labs is developing a proposal for a community on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront to tackle the challenges of urban growth, by working in partnership with a the tri-government agency called Waterfront Toronto and the local community. This joint effort, called Sidewalk Toronto, aims to make Toronto the global hub for urban innovation. I have to remind you that I don’t officially work there anymore, so it’s not fair for me to give away much more than that.

Developing old and new cities will require new type of collaboration on many levels, e.g. city planning, design, construction, mobility, public and private services, etc. Data and technologies are enablers. How can we end up having a functional city instead of a chaotic collection of competing and overlapping systems?

Great question. I think ultimately, a lot of that comes down to political will. You see some cities and governments around the world who are incredibly aligned in their vision for the future, and who are making great progress by working with industry to set standards and best practices for development to follow–i.e. Singapore. In others where there is much resistance and political in-fighting among municipal stakeholders, it makes it very difficult to get even simple, obvious things done (which is what we see today in many parts of the Bay Area, where I live). So, in an interesting way, despite all the capabilities of data and modern technology, I firmly believe that decision-making power in cities remains–and should remain!–in the hands of governments operating in the best interest of their constituents.

What’s your outlook on the future urban citizen experience: for example, what will we be free from doing and what will our new freedoms be like?

People like to make fun of Silicon Valley by saying that all the new start-ups–laundry service, on-demand transportation, food delivery, etc.–are just trying to do things that our mom’s used to do for us. But as emerging technologies apply to urbanism, I think the freedoms could be much more profound than that.

I like to think of Urban design as the design of lifestyle. It’s an expression of values that propagate themselves in the built world.

I believe people are starting to more deeply understand the interconnected city of nature, people, economy. And to a degree, many of us are recognizing that Less is sometimes More. Technology and digital services are now allowing urban citizens to use less energy and resources, live higher qualities of urban life in smaller footprints, have unprecedented access to mobility. And the net of all this will be moving us towards more sensible, responsible and humane urban environments.

In the future city, I would like to think of ourselves as gardeners–acting more out of generosity, than self-interest, and using technology to cultivate the neighborhoods and communities we want to live and grow in. It is this expression of love and intention that builds spirit and transcendent places in cities, and this is what I’m afraid has been left out of urban design for much of the last century or more.

What do you say to the critics who are worried about privacy and use of their data? What are some of the solutions to balance ease of living and working with privacy?

Yes–I would say they should be worried about privacy and use of their data! We all should. I think we’re sort of in this awkward adolescence with regards to our online presence and the digital exhaust (behavioral excess, as some call it) that it creates. For now, most of us are recognizing its importance, but the rules that make the most of this resource in a fair and equitable way are still evolving, still maturing. I think the solutions will emerge from honest and open conversations about what data is being collected, who owns it, how it’s being used and who benefits.

Finally: Who or what will lead urban development in the future?

I’m excited by a future that will allow us to depart from the 20th century model of design, towards a co-evolution of cities anchored community engagement and empowerment. The current task is about making digital (and even biological) tools, that let urban design become more emergent, and less predetermined. We need to think of ourselves as mutagens working to accelerate natural processes–to remedy the past and set up resilience for our common future.

We’ll see you at WDBE 2019 in September. Do you already have an idea about your keynote? How can our audience best connect with you?

Folks can reach out to me on LinkedIn. I’ll be giving a brand new talk this year – trying out some new material – so folks may love it or hate, but at least it will be fresh!

About the author

Aarni Heiskanen

Aarni Heiskanen, Construction Innovation Agent, is hailed as a Top 100 influencer in construction. Aarni has been a pioneer in computer-aided design, he has co-founded a business software company, and worked as a certified management consultant. At present, he runs AE Partners, a construction industry communication firm. Aarni holds a master's degree in architecture.

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