The Architecture of Data Surveillance

My research explores how data influences the material outcomes produced by architectural thinking, with particular focus on the relationship between data, culture and architecture. My interest in data relates to how the ways we measure the world influence our sense of reality and how this impacts our actions that help reshape it. While architecture may not directly engage in data processes, buildings react to society and culture shaped by the production and flows of data around space. This article looks at how data surveillance, migrating from online to offline spaces, is starting to affect the role of architecture and its tangible products.

Architectures Response

To start to understand this influence of data surveillance requires first thinking about what architecture is and how its material existence relates to data and its technological transmission. Firstly this requires understanding architectures role generally. Buildings designed through architectural thinking create objects and spaces through complex material arrangements. Space, understood as both physically and psychologically defined, provide circumstances for humans to inhabit, act and prosper. Architecture, therefore, provides the spatial requirements to organise social interactions which lead to exchanges in ideas and beliefs that negotiate culture. On top of this, Architecture visually communicates through material expression through the building envelope or internal space. Through its spatial and communicative capacity, Architecture organises materials to respond to culture, while also providing the conditions for cultural evolution. In the process of developing an architectural proposal, an architect may focus on an existing context, to try gain a sense of the beliefs and values present within a context. So while architecture operates as a tool for human benefit, a technology, it rarely responds to technical problems. Through material arrangements of space, architecture is better serving social, economic, political and cultural interests.

Data subservient to material

As architecture organises human movement and provides conditions for social and individual activities, it follows that it must influence human interaction with the digital network. As a result, architecture is increasingly understood as providing the space for digital data exchange involving social communication, information retrieval, and online purchasing of goods and services. Data is a valuable resource on the digital network as it helps form information to influence individual choices. Architecture arranged around data “nudging”already exist in private developments such as malls and airports.

In Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism she traces how online surveillance has now migrated to the physical world. Zuboff highlights the potential for digital platforms, whose business model requires extracting value from “data surplus”, to move into the material domain to influence spatial decisions. As data moves into the spatial, it becomes a focus for architectural thinking. Until recently, the project of the “smart city” separated architecture from data, treating architecture as a spatial problem and data as an engineering problem of quantity of information. In many emerging “smart” cities and buildings, data infrastructure and material space exist as two separate systems; data overlays the architectural and is subservient to the material. That is until now. Zuboff uses the case of Sidewalks Lab’s Toronto Quayside to illustrate how engineers are now responsible for planning decisions and urban strategies. When planning decisions align with the desires of data collection, infrastructure starts to govern the material organisation in civic space and forms the basis of architectural briefs.

Toronto Quayside

The Toronto Quayside urban strategy uses environmental information to organise use around its precincts. Digital data describing sound, air, light and moisture govern the types of activities deemed suitable, varying between commercial, residential, civic and industrial. This quantified understanding of the environment directs real estate decisions to maximise return on development investment; flexibility of space provides a key mechanism in making the development financially viable.

Recently Sidewalk labs publicised images showing the architectural proposals for Toronto Quayside by Heatherwick Studio.

Toronto Quayside — Heatherwick Studio
Toronto Quayside — Heatherwick Studio

The representations show stunning timber structures, with extensive interior and external spaces, both appearing to be cathedral-like in scale. In particular, one rendering offers a glimpse of Sidewalk’s aims, architecture reduced to a stable and static structural grid permitting the spatial logic of a shopping mall. Earlier images produced by Michael Green architects suggest a civic street space organised around temporary furniture and structures that are easily removed or relocated.

Toronto Quayside — Early concept by Michael Green Architects

From a real estate perspective this makes sense, commercial activities found lacking in attention can quickly be replaced by a more profitable business. Data surveillance drags the material world up to the speed of online information transfer, but what does it do for the character of a space that continually changes in its use? Flexibility may align closely for those native to the network and comfortable with the transience in modern life, but this could alienate those still struggling to get to grips with the ubiquitous take over of the net.

While no architecture is permanent, it does offer stability from which we measure ourselves through time, giving a sense of culture. When data management supplants social interaction architecture reduces to a backdrop for data flows to direct private manipulation of space, by those with the means of data collection and information feedback. Without getting into the data privacy controversies associated with Sidewalk Labs, it is essential to consider how data could begin to drive spatial use and economic activity. If data replaces the social, there is less need to consider human factors as the requirements for data surplus introduce new demands of architecture. For example, the facade would no longer provide a zone of public communication, this role now captured by mobile technology. Therefore, what are the consequences of architecture reduced to a purpose of structural envelope, with its social, cultural and political influence dematerialised into the data interface? Does it require architecture to follow the leads of the engineers, or negotiate for data to support the architectural in the provision of human-focused space?

Material subservient to the data.

While a concern for architectures role to mere structural grid seems essential only to the profession, it is vital to understand the broader impact this reduction could have on buildings and urban space. An organisation of architecture dictated by the flow of data, governs movement around a city based on the potential value in behavioural information, rather than through creative response to the ways humans can live, work or play.

The effects of data are not just material as it potentially reorganises the cultural understanding of the city also. Consider a theoretical scenario of a restaurant tenant in Toronto Quayside. A food establishment would typically base economic decisions on lived experience, connected to the social interactions of the street. Lived experience organises around food culture and day to day social use, such as office workers during the week or families on Sunday. When measured by a landlord data collector, or a food delivery platform, micro patterns of supply and demand begin to inform economic decisions. This granular detail benefits the commercial, but culture and data produce two different realities. As rents reflect commercial potential those who stay connected to the street could soon find their tenancy unaffordable. What does this micromanagement of commercial exchanges do for urban street life if use changes and human routines become disrupted? Does urban space abandon organising around social information if culture can not keep up with the literal view provide by data?

It is easy to imagine that the availability of spaces within the city will become driven by those with access to data, to the benefit of private and not public interests. There is the argument that Sidewalk Labs is innovating the types of revenue streams on offer for urban development. Revenue streams make a development commercially viable, but data surveillance worryingly instrumentalises civic space towards profit. In the case of Toronto Quayside, this risks the material becoming subservient to the data.

Development typically finances through real estate value where sales or rental returns generally correlate to the quality of human space. Urban space developed around data value removes spatial quality as a financial concern, aligning instead to technology. In doing so, it additionally establishes a framework of urban appraisal that promotes metrics of success that are incompatible with human experience.

Consequences for architecture

Architecture has engaged with data and digital techniques of computer modelling, even software production, since the 1990s to try and establish new styles and techniques for material assemblies. As we see from the example of Toronto’s Quayside, we are moving towards a condition where data affects the demands of architecture beyond offering new avenues in design practice. As data surveillance moves into the physical world and wrangling of data value becomes a new spatial contract for the city, architecture can engage with new data regimes or counter through alternative development models.

Some architects have already sold out to the developers; these should not be known as Architects but as Spatial Engineers. Spatial Engineers manipulate formulaic design patterns to unlock the latent surplus capital in space. Keller Easterling recognises the influence of such spatial engineering in the globally repeated spatial patterns found in free trade zones and commercial areas.

The architect and the products of architecture are in danger of being unable to deal with data’s influence on society. As the stasis of architecture dissolves into a data-driven organisation of temporary material arrangements, it must learn to either engage in the speed of data or begin to contribute to the ways that data and information are ethically extracted and repurposed. Architecture requires a measurement of human use that both adds to economic systems and helps balance the requirements of human social activities and remove human manipulation for commercial gain.