+ Digital META_CITY - dissertation front cover visual
This is an extract from my dissertation produced during 2009/10, entitled the ‘Digital META_CITY’, in which I explore the rise of the virtual urban metabolism, and its architectural, social and cultural impact about the city. It represents a deeper study into issues surrounding the escalating ubiquity and pervasiveness of digital infrastructures and their increasing assimilation into every facet of urban life.

>> Abstract
Contemporary society is in the midst of a massive upheaval; an upheaval of a comparable scale to that of the industrial revolution. Social injustice, poverty, resource depletion, ecological devastation, congestion, terrorism, coupled with the relatively new concepts of ubiquitous instantaneous telecommunications, globally networked economies and institutions, and pervasive mass media; the city as we knew it is rapidly transforming, and the impact of these issues upon the spatial configuration and architectural expression of the city has been considerable.

Society is currently engaged in an evolutionary progression from the industrial age, and as a result, today’s cities are witnessing the formation of an increasing chasm between physical urban processes, mostly dating from the industrial age, and the newly digitised virtual urban processes of the information age.

This state of events is by no means unusual, however. Throughout the ages, society has always been a dynamic evolving entity, with the city, the principal manifestation of human civilisation, acting as the focal point for progression. Ever since the first cities, there has always existed within their internal workings, the potential for conflict between their physical and virtual urban metabolisms. Virtual in this sense refers to dematerialised processes, including the flow of information, cultural symbols or even political power, as opposed to physical processes such as agriculture, energy generation or transportation.

These ‘Analogue Cities’ have undergone spectacular collapses in the past as a direct result of urban metabolic segregation, and a failure to comprehend the importance of maintaining symbiotic connections between physical and virtual processes. The significance of this issue for the contemporary city is exacerbated by the sheer scale of today’s virtual urban metabolisms, and the global power, ubiquity and pervasiveness of the networks within which they operate.

The city is now being infiltrated and consumed by mass digitisation and the rise of the virtual urban metabolism. Urban designers and architects now have the opportunity to engage with the re-modelling of the city, to cast off its predominantly negative industrial age legacy, and embrace the potential of the information age future.

>> Aim
In the twenty first century, the city is confronted with a wide range of issues concerning its physical and virtual processes. Local and global network connectivity, societal inequality, economic instability and political volatility; all pose questions to the would-be urban designer – to what extent has the rise of the virtual urban metabolism transformed the city, and what impact has the digital transformation had upon architecture? How do we assess the impact upon the city of the digitisation of the built environment, in the hope of facilitating and directing future transformations that are required to ensure the functioning of the modern city during the transition into the information age, and its evolution beyond?

The answer to this predicament is an elusive one indeed. A grasp of the complexities of the city’s relationship between its physical and increasingly pervasive virtual metabolisms, and its ever-more significant digitised local-global functioning, is critical. Only with a solid understanding of these connections and processes within the urban domain, and the impact of the rise of virtual urban metabolism upon the urban fabric and architecture, can the true extent of urban transformation due to digitisation be known.

This dissertation will elucidate the impact of the virtual urban metabolism upon the city, and will demonstrate how the future of the city is reliant upon an urbanism that attempts to integrate its physical and virtual processes, via the re-conceptualisation of the city as a metabolic entity. Such a new approach to urbanism could result in a city that thrives economically, technologically, culturally and socially, through an in-depth understanding of its internal processes, and the symbiosis of its physical and virtual metabolisms – the Digital Meta-CITY.

>> Methodology
The dissertation will begin with The Metabolic City, in which the city, as the materialised form of numerous components and processes [or metabolisms] within human civilisation, will be de-constructed as a metabolic entity to illustrate the internal workings of its physical and virtual urban metabolisms. This section will also include a broad, but brief, sweep of the historical evolution of the city as a metabolic entity. The purpose of this is to provide a level of clarity, [beyond the metaphors and analogies often utilised to conceptualise the city], for viewing the city as an amalgamation and concentration of metabolic processes within complex physical and virtual networks. The digitisation of the flows of wealth, power and information within the city, and the rise of the virtual metabolism, in particular its two most influential networks, [that of the mobile phone and the internet], will also be explored. It is hoped that, having illuminated the metabolic evolution of the city and highlighted the recent prevalence of the virtual over the physical metabolism, that the question of the impact upon the city brought about via digital transformation can now be examined in more detail – has digital transformation ultimately had a positive or negative effect upon our urban evolutionary trajectory? And will the potential future intensification of urban digitisation have similar results?

A study of the urban landscape as a Digital Dystopia will be undertaken in the second section of this dissertation. The negative aspects of the digital transformation of the city are numerous but often veiled, and as such they shall be analysed in detail. Issues concerning the segregation of physical and virtual urban metabolisms, the divergent dual local-global functioning of the city, the new social and economic dilemmas due to increased connectivity, and the spatial consequences of the aforementioned will be examined.

To give a balanced perspective of the digital transformation of the city, in part three, the city as a Digital Utopia will be explored. The positive impacts of the digital transformation of the city are often somewhat more conspicuous than the negative, but they shall also be studied in detail. Issues concerning the symbiosis of physical and virtual urban metabolisms, the convergence of the dual local-global functioning of the city, the new social and economic advantages due to increased connectivity, and the spatial developments as a result of these issues will be examined.

In the final section, The Digital Meta-CITY, all of the fundamental issues discussed throughout the dissertation will be reviewed. Conclusions shall be drawn and speculations made concerning the impact of the rise of the virtual urban metabolism and to what extent it has transformed the city. During the course of this section, a tentative proposal for a new approach to urbanism and architecture shall take shape, the aim of which is to provide a useful structure upon which to model existing urban landscapes, and to guide the future transformation of the Analogue City into the Digital Meta-CITY. An important point worth noting is that the objective of this proposal is to construct a theoretical framework to aid the materialisation of a vast array of urban potentials within existing cities, rather than prescribe a physical spatial form – an open process of urban metabolic symbiosis, as opposed to a closed, spatially deterministic urban plan. An urbanism based upon the symbiosis of physical and virtual urban processes, within a metabolic conceptualisation of the city, may facilitate humanity’s transition into the information age and safely beyond into the unknown urban future.