Building on the work of the previous year, Strelka Institute has begun the second year of The New Normal, its urban design think-tank.
This year, the experimental postgraduate program shifts its focus eastward, particularly inspired by the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative which will greatly expand China's trading network and reaffirm its ambition for a larger role in global affairs. It will explore the implications of AI on an urban scale, and the urbanism of artificial totalities: charter cities, mega-enclaves, landlocked islands, and miniature utopias. It will also focus on emergent forms of urban economics, including both formal and informal systems.
Thirty-three researchers from 14 countries arrived to Strelka at the end of January. This multidisciplinary team is composed of young professionals with backgrounds in architecture, design, law, IT, journalism, philosophy, and physics.
The New Normal think-tank is a three-year research initiative led by design theorist and author Benjamin Bratton. The program includes an intensive five months of study in Moscow and trips within Russia and to China.
“I think that the model Strelka is creating is helping architects and designers in translating the concerns of The New Normal into applied projects, consolidating individuals past experiences, and developing the technical skills and collaborations needed to make sense of these new forms of infrastructure at multiple scales, in order to reveal them, solidify them, or aid them in displacing others before our futures become path dependent.”
Tom Pearson (Artist, UK)
The program aims to catch up to the new contemporary reality created by rapidly advancing technologies and the way they impact cities and urban design. According to Bratton, cities are now as much about information networks, value chains, and embedded IT systems as they are about what we traditionally refer to as urbanism. Increasingly, cities are also places that do not necessarily have a permanent population; they have become a kind of medium for the movement of people, goods, and ideas.
The outcomes of the research will be examples of new kinds of urban design projects and prototypes of new multidisciplinary design practices.
Benjamin Bratton spoke to Strelka Magazine about the course that The New Normal program will take in 2018.
THE NEW NORMAL YEAR ONE
The projects from last year were quite diverse in scope. What you saw in them were ways in which we do not replace but add to more traditional forms of urban planning. The work drew upon at least three different models of design – descriptive models, predictive models and projective models. A lot of the projects were based on fundamental reimagining of what cities can be and the ways in which those changes may happen. So, I think the main point to take from this is that cities include lots of different things, more than traditional urban planning models usually account for.
COHORT OF 2018
We have assembled a very strong group this year. It is just as interdisciplinary as it was before, but I think what we’ll see this year is probably a tighter fit between the kinds of skills and approaches the students will be taking. You will see the work will have more of a signature look and feel of The New Normal.
What you’ll also see this year are projects that are working around a more common set of problems and issues and it will feel a bit more like multiple projects that are pieces of one set. One of the ways in which we’ve always thought about the program is kind of an interesting experiment, a mix between this postgraduate research program and design research think-tank. And I think what you’ll see this year is a shift from a collection of very strong student projects to something that feels a bit more like the work of a shared studio.
“I feel that being able to combine and to juxtapose different perspectives, models, theories, as well as practical instruments is becoming the ‘new normal’ for professionals in practically any field.”
Anna Paukova (Psychologist, Russia)
Year Two definitely builds on the research of the previous year, and you can imagine it as a kind of cone that gets more focused as we move along. In the first year we were trying a lot of new things and were looking at the longer term into the future as a way of thinking about the historical scope, as well as ways that design might intervene with information technology.
One of the bigger shifts this year in terms of the way we’re looking at the Russian context is rotation east. A lot of the discussions that we had last year had to do in one way or another, implicitly or explicitly, with Russia’s relationship with Europe, Russia’s relationship with the West more generally. This year we will focus more on Sino-Russian relations, looking towards the Pacific side of Russia: Russia’s relationship with China, the infrastructural links with the East, and taking this as a place where the future will happen.
Secondly, one of the things that we’re looking at as part of the Sino-Russian relationship and this shift east geopolitically, more broadly, is the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative in China. We’re interested that it is such an important symbolic initiative. Сhinese state TV websites have world news, and ‘Belt and Road’ is one of the key categories of news. And it doesn’t really exist as such. It is a speculative megastructure.
“With its long history of constructing utopias – Soviet avant garde, Russian Cosmism, etc. – and with the new challenges posed by hybrid forms of capitalism that morph beside re-inventions of imperialism, Russia provides a thrilling case study for science-fiction scenarios.”
Asia Bazdyrieva (Art Historian, Ukraine)
A couple of other things that we are looking at this year is the dynamic between cities and states that is shifting on a global level. In many cases you have cities that essentially are states, like Singapore. You’ve got state-cities that represent a dominant capital region like Moscow. But the networks that link cities in relationship to states is something that we’re quite interested in.
We’re also interested in the phenomenon of exceptionalism: political exceptionalism, economic exceptionalism, and ways in which different kinds of political and economic systems are being experimented with in different contexts – whether that’s a form of a charter city like Paul Romer initiatives or more specific kinds of exceptional sites, like Shenzhen for example.
And so Hong Kong is, in a way, an economic-political exceptional zone with itself and its relationship with China. And we’re looking at it as a primary case study of how it established that exceptionality and how it works. Shenzhen being, in a way, at least more recently, a special economic zone. So we have this basis, economic-political exceptional zone and economic zone right next to each other, that happens to be subdivided by this very fraught and contested border.
“I hope that in 2050, practicing philosophy without fundamental understanding of machine learning, automated modes of governance, large-scale infrastructures and other-than-human modes of intelligence will be an archaic exception rather than the norm.”
Lukas Likavcan (Philosopher, Czech Republic)
AI ON URBAN SCALE
Another focus of this year is the role of artificial intelligence on an urban scale. And we’re interested not in this conventional smart city sort of way, where we have an already existing and well understood urban platform, urban system or neighborhood communities, or where we have a provision of services to which we add some computing like smart parking meters or smart parking lots. What we’re interested in is a bit more fundamental. We’re interested in how cities are and always have been information-rich environments, information-rich ecologies, and the diversity and heterogeneity of information that is contained within the ecology of the city is always present. And the more fundamental question of how does algorithmic reason, sensing systems, automated modeling systems and so forth participate in this more rich ecology of existing urban information. This is our starting point.са.
THE NEW NORMAL DESIGN RESEARCH OUTCOMES
It’s always hard to say in advance what we’re going to get. My sense is that this model we’ve arrived at over the course of the last year ‒ cinema, strategy, and software as three kinds of outcomes that we developed with group – will continue. I think we’ll probably see research proposals that are grounded in a more specific urban context. A project may be really taking place in this particular city and not in other kinds of cities. What we’d like to see at the end of the third year is not only a collection of projects, but a style of design research and particularly urban design research that has a signature and recognizable New Normal approach.