With the publication of his books E-topia and City of Bits, Bill Mitchell, dean of architecture and planning, has become one of the world’s foremost experts on the ways new technologies are changing the way we live and work. He says digital telecommunications networks will ultimately reconfigure our homes, neighborhoods, and cities in the coming century–in much the same way as sewer, electricity, and phone networks did in the last century. The result, says Mitchell, can be closer-knit neighborhoods, environmentally sustainable cities, and a giant boost for creative communities like universities.
In E-topia, Mitchell describes the automated, computer-networked buildings of the future as “robots for living in.” “It’s not like you’re going to be surrounded by some big, clanking monster,” he says with a laugh. “It will happen so unobtrusively that you won’t even notice.”
Mitchell describes a future where computing power and internet access aren’t limited to a computer sitting on a desk; instead, they’re embedded everywhere–in walls, doors, furniture, and appliances. Although it sounds futuristic, we’ll quickly adapt to new conveniences, says Mitchell, who himself grew up in rural Australia without refrigeration, sewer systems, or municipal electricity.
The changes to come will be profound, says Mitchell, but also hard to predict. “The ways people end up using technology in daily life are sometimes surprising. People take the technology as it comes along and adapt it to what’s important,” he says, adding that it’s more important to design the future we want, not try to predict its predetermined path.
In the new digitally interconnected world, Mitchell sees the home playing a greater role in people’s lives. “Whereas the industrial revolution forced the separation of home and workplace,” he writes, “the digital revolution is bringing them back together.
“We’re seeing increasing amounts of work space being integrated into the home–take the home office, for example,” says Mitchell, who uses a home videoconferencing system to make long-distance presentations to audiences all over the world. Live-work dwellings, he says, have the potential to revitalize many residential neighborhoods.
“One of the very positive effects of live-work dwellings is that you have a 24-hour neighborhood population,” says Mitchell. “Telecommuting allows people to spend more time in their neighborhoods rather than somewhere else. That reinvigorates the community life of the neighborhood.”
Mitchell points to Soho in Manhattan and San Francisco’s South of Market area as examples of successful new live-work neighborhoods. “We’re starting to see it in less prominent places as well,” he adds. “You can see it in parts of Oakland, California, and also Brooklyn. The life of the street is really coming back.”
Ultimately, Mitchell says, today’s cities could evolve into collections of smaller-scale communities, where houses, workplaces, and businesses are easily accessible on foot or bicycle. “Most people want to be in very human, very interactive kinds of places–where you can run into your friends on the street,” says Mitchell. “These new patterns will recreate what was best about old-style small towns and urban neighborhoods.”
By reducing the need for travel–especially the daily commute to the office–live-work communities will be better for the environment. “Moving electronic bits is immeasurably more efficient than moving people and goods,” writes Mitchell. “The savings show up in reduced fuel consumption and lower pollution levels, among other things.”
Intelligent buildings can also conserve resources through sophisticated supply and demand systems, according to Mitchell. “Almost everything consumes resources‹your dishwasher consumes electricity, your garden hose consumes water, and your automobile consumes road space,” he says. “We need to be intelligent consumers of resources.”
One key is dynamic utility pricing, where the price of water or electricity varies with supply and demand, combined with smart appliances. “If the cost of electricity varies second by second, and appliances are smart enough to know what electricity costs at any moment, then your dishwasher can wait until the moment when electricity is really cheap and then turn itself on,” says Mitchell.
“This all goes to the fundamental issue of sustainability,” he adds. “It’s obviously a major social issue‹a survival issue, really‹that we can use technology to help solve.”
For Mitchell, new technologies are having their most profound effect within creative communities like universities, as scholars share projects, ideas, and data over long distances. “The way science is getting done has clearly changed as a result of digital telecommunications,” he says.
Mitchell has integrated the web into his own creative work, founding a new sort of electronically mediated author-reader relationship. City of Bits was the first book ever to be published simultaneously on the web and in print, reaching a much wider audience than any of Mitchell’s previous books. The debate it stirred up delighted him. “It embedded me in a lot of stimulating conversations,” he says. “It has been terrific.
“The long-term importance of things like the Web are going to be the effects on truly creative work – like science, technological invention, and literature,” says Mitchell, who is devoting his next, as-yet untitled, book to the ways technology will enhance creativity. “In the end, this is much more important than e-commerce.”