OECD Forum 2019 Session: Debate over Lunch: How Architecture Brings Us Together

OECD Forum 2019 Session: Debate over Lunch: How Architecture Brings Us Together

This OECD Forum 2019 background note will be used to prepare speakers on the panel Debate over Lunch: How Architecture Brings Us Together, taking place at the OECD headquarters from 13:30-13:30 on Monday, 20 May. Join the Forum Network to comment and help inform the upcoming debate and, whether you're with us in Paris or watching online, let us know what you think of the session!

In the words of American sociologist Sherry Turkle, as digital transformation and artificial intelligence colour all aspects of our lives and make us so connected, “being human can feel terribly lonely today”. In such a dematerialised world, it might be salutary to remind ourselves of the importance of the physical and built environment, such as cities, offices, homes and indeed shared spaces. 

While much of the quality of “living together” today rests on shared values, shared spaces play an essential role in making visible the density of our social fabric and the robustness of our social infrastructure, and can help heal profound divisions in our societies. Spaces that transcend divides such as libraries, childcare centres, churches and parks help form crucial connections between different groups in society, helping generate increased understanding and tolerance for differences. Yet these physical meeting spaces are often deserted or undervalued, in favour of the “digital square” and online conversations, or sometimes ignored in urban planning for the sake of increased efficiency and a smarter use of scarce resources.   

As the needs of urban dwellers evolve, so do the parameters of design in the face of, for instance, climate change and migratory pressure, as well as a desire for increased data collection for greater traffic efficiency, safety and access to services. The use of smart technologies such as the Internet of Things and predictive analytics systems may make it possible, in real-time, to make “more with less”. While smart cities are often portrayed as the sanctuary of the young, affluent and tech-savvy, they can also help connect vulnerable populations with vital services, engage with seniors and help people with disabilities navigate the urban environment. 

Some may feel that the penetration of technology at work and a desire for more flexible working practices would lead to the disappearance of office spaces. Yet, collective, public work environments in the form of coworking spaces are more and more present in company buildings, sometimes even as firms open their ground floor to the public. Such shared offices blur the boundaries between the office and public space, calling for new connections among similar-minded or curious individuals. Quoting architects Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, “Formal work rules are dissolving, regardless of where and how we work. As a result, the desk is no longer at the centre of our work life. It is disappearing as an archetype”. 

Fundamentally, cities are made of people of all origins, from all walks of life and with different expectations. This rich diversity manifests itself physically in neighbourhoods, where for instance in Toronto, nearly 200 languages are spoken on a daily basis, requiring an inclusive living environment for every individual to reach their full potential and access opportunity. 

While this task may be daunting for many urban planners and local officials, it is viewed as an opportunity by some, allowing for a renewed focus on the urban and public space as a playground for citizens’ participation. Such “architectural activism” can make visible the invisible: the giant ear sitting outside Seoul’s City Hall designed by artist Yang Soo-in invites citizens to share their concerns via the physical vessel, and allows the government to better stay in touch with them. Similarly, the emphasis on “inclusive design” allows for co-creation of the built environment, where the ultimate user is involved in the conception of space. 

Yet, too often the increasing challenge of shrinking resources, the influence of private investors and the competition for limited space challenge mayors’ ability to deliver on that promise. The rise of civic crowdfunding at the local level in recent years for instance, perceived as an opportunity to allow individuals to invest in what matters to them, is in fact considered by some as blurring accountability lines and reflecting the wider erosion of representative democracy at the local level. 

Some of the questions ahead of us are: 

‒       What is the role of shared spaces in bridging societal divides and increasing understanding and tolerance?

‒       Where is the line between giving way to greater use of technology and data in the built environment and preserving what makes us human?

‒       As organisations and physical spaces shape the way people interact, how can we make sure that urban planning and architecture strengthen communities’ resilience and allow individuals to have access to greater opportunity and well-being?

‒       How can shared spaces create new opportunities for greater citizen participation in our societies?

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