Democratizing Design: How a Global Network of Professionals Will Transform the Process of City-Making

What is the best way to manage the production and dissemination of content for the digital realm? This is the reason we launched urbanNext.

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This feature has been created in collaboration with urbanNext, a multi-platform aimed at developing, disseminating and distributing content centered on architecture through a focus on the contemporary human milieu and its challenges. Architizer features a weekly discussion from urbanNext’s journals to support its investigation of urban conditions and innovations facing the architectural profession today.

Since 1994, New York and Barcelona–based publishing house Actar has supported the work and criticism of the architecture and design profession’s leading figures. Actar has carved out a particular realm in delivering thoughtful research on architecture’s engagement with acts of city-making, with a sharp focus on the social context in which they are created.

As the processes of globalization have accelerated urbanization and urban conditions, Actar has forged into the digital realm with urbanNext, a new platform that supports the research of an emerging generation of architectural and urban-design professionals. Through a series of films, photo-essays, research papers and interviews, urbanNext’s editorial strategy presents its subjects’ research as unmediated, allowing the work to speak for itself. Organized around a range of topics, such as “Energy & Sustainability,” “Emerging Practices,” “Territory & Mobility” and “Southern Coexistences,” urbanNext engages a whole new host of professionals, like data scientists and politicians, whose work has increasing relevance to the realms of architecture and design.

In the below interview, which was originally published by Impact Design Hub, urbanNext’s editor Ricardo Devesa discusses the motivation behind the site’s multimedia-based platform and its new professional networking tool Associates:

Impact Design Hub: What do you think about the current state of publishing in architecture and urbanism?

Ricardo Devesa: There is a split. On one side, we are seeing things online that are not going well. There is so much banality in the media. The production of content can be very superficial, and the audience is consuming material much faster.

Nevertheless, on the positive side, we believe it’s a very exciting moment. The paradigm has shifted in a radical direction. In what sense? First, it’s important to recognize all of the emergences, eruptions and digital tools. Customization of the audience experience is extremely important. The production of our content has been globalized, and that has changed the way we think about the construction of a discourse in architecture.

These changes have transformed our experience as editors. We realize that the magazines or the printed book is not the only platform to deliver content. We’re focused on how can we seriously explore what is the best way to manage the production and dissemination of content for the digital realm. This is the reason we launched urbanNext.

UrbanNext interviewed Kunleé Adeyemi of NLÉ at the Venice Biennale 2016.

What is urbanNext exactly?

UrbanNext is a project that resulted from a long reflection. As publishers, Actar is trying to understand the best way to connect with audiences through the digital tools while simultaneously pointing clearly to the critical challenge that we must face as architects.

The first decision we made was to look at a wider problem we must manage: the city. It’s no longer enough to build isolated, aesthetically appealing objects. We claim that the city is the challenge and that we must face it in a very serious, interdisciplinary way.

“The production of our content has been globalized … ”

We decide to call it urbanNext because at Actar, we’re discovering new tendencies. We point towards different discourses and fresh ways of understanding architecture in the past. Some of the architects that we published have now become, let’s say, star architects. Now, through urbanNext, we want to give voice to the new generation who are in front of new practices and also in front of the new challenge: cities.

We talk about urbanNext as a trans-narrative. For example, it’s not only an isolated essay. An essay is released simultaneously and daily with several other posts that could be any other format: a photographical survey, a short research, a lecture, a documentary, etc. So far, seriously searching out the possibilities of the digital has been a very good experience.

Yanweizhou Park in Jinhua, China, designed by Turenscape

What are the opportunities for the audience to engage?

We have designed into urbanNext a professional network that is going to be called “Associates.” This is the means for the audience to customize their engagement. Rather than [going] to the home page and see, watch or read whatever we are publishing, we are giving Associates individual experiences. You have your own profile, and we provide tools to interact, to create group usage, to allow following.

Associates engage urbanNext as a platform. Actar’s role is facilitators but also realizing which content generated by Associates could be translated to the edited part of urbanNext. If you are able to produce enough interesting content, that is giving other users insights in some important topic, why not bring it into our editing department?

How do you understand the urbanNext audience?

For us, it’s very important that this audience is not only architects. Of course, we started thinking as architects. I am an architect and the Actar staff is mainly architects. As I was explaining at the beginning, for us, it is very important to support a discourse with all of the stakeholders who are working on the challenge of the city. In that spirit, our Associates network already has photographers, geographers, economists and politicians. We are also inviting companies, institutions, centers of research and other media — such as Impact Design Hub — to be here.

We really believe that the production of ideas is network thinking. We realize that it’s not only some editor who should decide what is the best content or which topics we must face. It is the network that’s deciding who’s providing the best material and who deserves to be in the edited part of the site.

Still from ENTR ECOT’s film on aceboXalonso Studio’sMUNCYT in Coruña featured on urbanNext

Being an Associate suggests a lot of effort on the part of the audience. So you see urbanNext as a common project co-created between the Associates and Actar.

Exactly. That is why we are calling them “Associates.” We believe this is the most powerful way to engage an audience. This is going to be something new. It’s more than a link. It’s more than a social network. It’s to give the audience a sense of agency and the place to talk and collaborate. Our main goal is to get the audience connected and producing content with each other.

“We really believe that the production of ideas is network thinking.”

There is an important point here. Providing the platform might be enough to establish a conversation between our audience members and perhaps even trigger some projects, but the digital arena has a problem in that there is usually no criteria of what is going to be published. As editors, Actar plays an important role in moderating.

One conversation that Actar is steering urbanNext toward is the African city. What is the thinking behind this decision?

It’s an important question. Facing and managing the challenge of the city is the most important goal for us. We must understand that we cannot provide the same solution for everybody and that, even with globalization, ideas that work in one place cannot necessarily be applied everywhere.

Africa is the continent that is going to experience the most growth by far. Besides that, there are greater infrastructural challenges than in other parts of the world. There is a tremendous need for imagination towards holistic design solutions. If we are able to bring some ideas the most critical areas — such as energy, mobility and technology — we could create value in this context.

We decided to take Africa seriously. Within urbanNext, we created the African Cities Institute. We quickly discovered other institutions working on similar problems. For example, Lausanne Polytechnic is using cutting-edge technology to create better public sanitation facilities in Tanzania. It’s quite interesting for us to see that, in many cases, the most advanced technologies we have are going to be applied in Africa rather than in Europe or in North America.

Makoko: a floating slum in Lagos

UrbanNext seems to position itself as a tool for young practitioners. What shifts in practice have you observed that have helped shape this effort?

We have seen the crisis that has happened in the financial markets, but we also are experiencing ecological, ethical and even moral crises. There is a good opportunity to bring a new understanding of what it means to be an architect now. This starts with the traditional rigor regarding a building as an object but goes much further in relation to the understanding of context. Not just context in the semiotical sense, but context in environmental, social and economical terms.

There is an increasingly important public and political understanding of what it means to build an object in the city. We can see that in many parts of the world there is an awareness of working with an increasing scarcity of resources.

EcoBoulevard (Madrid) designed by Ecosistema Urbano

What about the work of younger offices do you find interesting?

One thing that I find very exciting is that offices are organizing as teams rather than around individual leaders. They identify as a group of people with the ability to resolve many different questions and take into account sociological issues in addition to technical, architectural and urban issues. They are able to bring a greater sense of citizenship into their projects. Authorship, in a way, is changing. For me, this is a very interesting development.

“There is an increasingly important public and political understanding of what it means to build an object in the city.”

Younger firms also have the capacity to communicate in new ways. For instance, you can look at an office like Ecosistema Urbano in Madrid, but there are many similar offices. Their work solves the standard design issues but also communicates their ideas very regularly through their websites, small publications, curated exhibitions, conferences and seminars. Many of these firms are committed to academia, as well.

Education is one area where many feel design is not keeping up with the accelerating nature of our time. Do you feel the next generation of designers needs to take a lifelong attitude toward education? Can Actar position itself as an educator?

Yes! In fact, it’s one of our goals. If we want to change the future of architecture, we must change the thinking of young architects. We are providing content in a different format that is pointing toward new solutions, new conceptualizations, new discourses, new challenges. In the future, urbanNext will probably produce some type of e-learning courses. We can lead seminars independently from the universities. Why not? We have contributors who can organize this kind of content and these kind of courses. It’s something that we have in mind and will be working toward soon.

For this reason, it’s probably not surprising that we get feedback that, at the moment, the website is too complex. In reality, urbanNext is as complex as a library. You need to apply yourself to find the knowledge you are pursuing. It’s very important to us not to look like a very fancy magazine — rather just the opposite! UrbanNext is a place where you need to put in your work. Drill into your interests. Uncover (or create) the materials most relevant to you. Find the contributors that you need. As an Associate, you are ultimately responsible for your experience.

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