Institute for Autonomous Urbanism

Hacking infrastructure in Shenzhen

By Jason Hilgefort

I grew up in a small town in Ohio in the US, a very rural place, so for me technology was a really important tool to connect with the outside world. Later, working as an urban planner with my partner Merve Bedir, our office Land +Civilization Compositions (LCC), has undertaken projects in the Netherlands, Nairobi and Shenzhen in which we dreamed up ideas of how the relationship between technology, infrastructure and urban and rural environments could go forward. Our proposal for an Institute for Autonomous Urbanism presents a series of perspectives, proposals and questions on urbanity and rurality and their relationships with infrastructure and technology.

Technology and the rural

Around the Chinese city of Shenzhen there are villages servicing one of the world’s biggest e-commerce websites called Taobao. These are rural places with cheap, skilled labour who have organised themselves to produce low-priced objects for online sale. A lot of these small villages were once poor but have now become factories containing millionaires and billionaires. We wanted to understand and study this, so we looked at some of the successful examples, not just in terms of their urban form, but also the economic and social models of how these projects were funded. Following this, we put together some workshops in Xinguang in Guangzhou, Guangdong where there are some semi-abandoned villages slowly being encroached upon by the city of Shenzhen. We asked what these villages can do to take advantage of the opportunities this might bring whilst still embracing their own culture. We also looked at examples of small technologies that are available in the region, such as drones and high-end satellite imagery, considering how they could transform communities via economic opportunities for the residents and what this could mean for the urban planning of the area.

Hacking infrastructure

Since the success of the High Line in New York, more and more people have become aware of the role of infrastructure, what it means in their lives and have started adapting it to their own environments. “Hacking infrastructure” is about how people reinterpret spaces.

Institute for Autonomous Urbanism

Burnside Skatepark under the Burnside Bridge (Portland, Oregon).
Image: Kyle Burris
CC BY-SA 2.5

Different communities have different approaches and different solutions. In the US, for example, you will often find skateparks in the spaces below highways. But in other places, where there is a highway running through informal settlements, the space underneath bridges becomes an informal retail space or a space to live. Infrastructure also does not necessarily mean physical spaces: in the West there is also a lot of hype around how “all the robots are going to take our jobs”, but many people we talked to in Shenzhen, for example, don’t agree with that at all. They talk in terms of “co-bots”, and their attitude towards technological advances in this area is one of collaboration and transition. The Institute for Autonomous Urbanism is about thinking how we can visualise and communicate such ideas to architects and to a broader public using installations, film, maps and flows, and preparing for how and when the autonomous city comes into our lives.

Autonomous urbanism

For us, autonomous urbanism takes this a step further to consider that maybe we don’t need infrastructure to come from the government, which potentially allows for a completely different way of thinking about how communities work and how they are funded. If they don’t need to build streets, or sewers, or power grids, what is the role of government and how do we deal with the public spaces between our buildings? Are they even public? What do we do if we’re making a city for robots? What does that look like?

Institute for Autonomous Urbanism

Furniture designer Fernando Abellanas’s studio, built beneath the overpass of a busy traffic bridge in Valencia, Spain.
Image: Jose Manuel Pedrajas

In 1900, before the arrival of the elevator and the car, no one saw what was coming in terms of all the small technologies that were about to change the world’s cities. We need to start getting ahead of this and think about how these cities can be visualised and how our rural places will change as these new technologies completely alter everything we have become accustomed to.