It’s no surprise that London-based architect Usman Haque and his firm, Umbrellium, use technology throughout the design process. What’s unusual, though, is how. Access sat down with Haque to learn more about the unique twist he gives his projects — and why it’s more important than ever.
The idea of getting people to participate in designing their cities is fascinating. How do you make it happen?
Cities are this wonderful thing that human beings have created that respond really well to diversity, heterogeneity and unexpectedness.
Our work often focuses on getting potentially thousands of people together — even if just for a short time — to build some kind of experience. To empower people and get them involved in their cities. In one case, in Singapore, we created a system where hundreds of members of the public designed and erected a temporary 18-story structure in the middle of a public square. It was a way to look at people — for the first time, albeit temporarily — actually changing the city skyline and making decisions with each other about designing and building and controlling a massive structure. It was almost like a barn raising but in a much more high-tech, current way with hundreds of people who didn’t even know each other.
Does the approach aim, in part, to solve problems in cities?
Cities are this wonderful thing that human beings have created that respond really well to diversity, heterogeneity and unexpectedness — and that generate novelty and serendipity and things that are unpredictable. That’s actually what makes a city valuable. But all too often, a technology company will see a city as a problem to be solved and try and inject an apparatus for making a city efficient, secure, optimized and convenient. And that actually goes against what makes a city valuable in the first place, which is the fact that it’s unpredictable, unexpected, and can respond and adapt and change. So what I’m looking to do with technological interventions in a city is find ways to connect with people.
So it’s bringing a level of participation to the idea of smart cities, right?
Yes, but I’m much more interested in the idea of engaged cities — cities where people are legitimately involved in the sociopolitical processes that govern the way they live. It’s not just about point-and-click voting. It’s looking at how you actually get people more deeply involved and actually doing stuff in their cities and taking on a sense of ownership. One example of a project we did up in Bradford, England, was building an operating system for the city center that’s going to be progressively opened up further and further to more and more people’s involvement.
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How receptive are cities to this kind of participation and transparency?
More and more cities are waking up to the fact that they need to engage citizens more and not just pay lip service when it comes to getting them involved. When you involve people right from the beginning in a project, you actually de-risk it because you’re getting people invested in and almost responsible for the outcome of the project. And the old model — where a city would make a decision and just implement it and people would be up in arms — has been proven not to work.
How do you see your learnings having a greater impact?
More and more cities are waking up to the fact that they need to engage citizens more and not just pay lip service when it comes to getting them involved.
We’re working on a toolkit for urban innovation and on what’s known as the Future Cities Catapult, which is one of the organizations that focuses on the future of cities and helping make sense of the complex moving parts. There are stakeholders that need to be involved in the design of a project and all sorts of different methods you might apply. And you want to track and make sure what you’re doing is actually catering to your stakeholders and dealing with the problems. And finally, you want to measure your impact. This toolkit is exciting because it gives us the opportunity to present the methodology we’ve used in our own work in the past. And we’re trying to make it more generally useful to others implementing their own technology innovations.
Your work has taken you beyond what most people see as architecture. How would you describe the discipline?
At heart, I’m still an architect, because architecture is about the relationship between people and their spaces. So even though there’s a lot more technology in what I’m describing, and even though it’s not just about the walls and roof and floor but instead about all the soft stuff in between, for me, it’s still architecture. If you go back to the 1950s and ’60s, when lighting design was first emerging as a discipline, it was a little bit like what I’m describing now — you’d wonder, “Is it really architecture?” But if you fast forward to where we are now, of course lighting design is key to almost every major architectural project. It’s part of the branding of a building — the way it presents its identity in a city, how it defines different spaces and functions, and how it brings a building to life. So in a very similar way, what I’m looking at bringing to life in cities, up until now, has been static and largely immutable. I want it to be something more dynamic, responsive, adaptive and, dare I say, conversant. Yes, buildings and people and places and things can have conversations with each other and learn from each other and change over time.
Want to read about other people, places and ideas reshaping our future? Check out the 2018 FYI: FedEx Young Innovators List.