By Matthew Weiner
As I sat in my synagogue celebrating Jewish New Year recently, my rabbi was talking of robotics. In particular, he was telling us about the Bless U2 robot: not a mechanized fan of a fading Irish rock group, but an android that can bless you in five languages, has a touch screen to answer your theological questions and raises its arm at inspirational moments.
I don’t think my rabbi felt his job was under threat, but it underlined to me just how much robotics and artificial intelligence is extending into every aspect of our lives.
In real estate, most of the AI technology has been used in the fields of property management and building automation, largely driven by a desire to control and reduce costs. That’s fine and important, but not particularly inspiring. It also misses a bigger point.
At U + I we do not just think in terms of buildings, but of places, of communities. Communities are all about connections. Connections between people, between places, between the past and the present.
It seems to me that AI, machine learning and robotics may have an important role in helping us understand these connections before and after we develop the places that we want to turn into communities. If we can analyse what local people are looking for on their search engines, we might understand their wants and needs better in designing our projects. All manner of data from a myriad of sources can help create a better picture of the way people interact with each other and with a place.
We are already getting better at understanding the way people use buildings, and see some disruptive trends emerging.
First, connectivity is key. Be it shopping centre apps, automated warehouses or smart homes, digital connectivity is now just as important as physical connectivity.
Second, the demand for a personalised service is growing. Shoppers are being sent targeted offers on their mobiles, while office occupiers are putting a greater premium on the look and feel of their workplaces in the war for talent.
Finally, convenience has become a top priority. One-hour delivery services and click and collect have transformed the retail and logistics sectors with time emerging as an increasingly precious commodity for today’s time poor consumers.
As such, buildings need to be more adaptable as working styles and social habits change and new technologies become available.
But while the technological future is exciting and bright, we also need to exercise some caution. Ours is not, after all, a binary business. It Is not always a 1 or 0, a question of right or wrong, a simple easy answer. Good development can and should be guided by data but it is inspired by values. In our case, those of intelligence, imagination and audacity.
Take Landmark Court in Southwark, a project we are just starting work on in partnership with Transport for London who own the land. To look at it is just an abandoned car park next to a railway line with a derelict bit of green space round the corner. But that piece of green space is in fact the Cross Bones Graveyard – an historic cemetery for prostitutes and paupers. This park is much loved by the local community and will be an important factor as we bring the scheme forward. How we preserve this and work it into a wider plan is not clear. We will need to have a vision and as Jonathan Swift said: “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible”.
Humans can do that; algorithms can’t. Place is always going to be more than just a lump of land.
So while AI, augmented reality and other advances will teach us much and guide us to a greater understanding of how to achieve a vision, Bless U2 is going to have to leave it to my rabbi to guide us humans and our weird, irrational and wonderful visions of how we can all live in a better world in a better way.