The people's place in the city of bits and atoms

By Niall Patrick Walsh

The city of the 21st century represents a confluence of bits and atoms; an organism in its own right that relentlessly spawns information and data about itself, its people, and the invisible flows that support them. What is the relationship between humans and the city in this new condition? What is its future? To explore these questions, we speak with architect, TED founder, and father of information architecture Richard Saul Wurman, 2025 Venice Biennale curator Carlo Ratti, and MIT Media Lab researchers Naroa Coretti and Ainhoa Genua.

Understanding cities

In 1976, Richard Saul Wurman chaired the national AIA Convention in Philadelphia. Operating under the convention theme ‘The American City: The Architecture of Information,’ Wurman set out a vision for cities built upon the relationship between urbanism, information, and people.

“Wouldn’t a city – any city – be more useful and more fun if everybody knew what to do in it, and with it?” the conference brochure asked. “As architects, we know it takes more than good-looking buildings to make a city habitable and usable. It takes information: information about what spaces do as well as how they look; information that helps people articulate their needs and respond to change. That’s what Architecture of Information is all about.”

Almost fifty years later, in a recent conversation with Wurman, I returned to the 1976 brochure with a mission of exploring how prevailing approaches to urban planning have, or have not, lived up to Wurman’s vision. As someone whose lifelong pursuit of ‘understanding’ includes founding the TED conference, pioneering the field of Information Architecture, and formulating organizational theories such as LATCH and A-NOSE, it is perhaps no surprise that Wurman’s views on urbanism emphasize the potential for cities as places of learning and understanding.

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