The Architecture of Data Surveillance

My research investigates the influence of data and related technologies on architectural culture. I'm intrigued by how our methods of measuring the world shape our understanding of reality and how this understanding impacts our actions that, in turn, reshape that reality. The built environment is saturated with data. While buildings might not yet directly engage with data technologies, they support social activities at the service of data production and circulation. This article examines how data surveillance, which is migrating from online to offline spaces, is beginning to impact the role of architecture and its physical products.

Architectures Response

To grasp the impact of data surveillance, we first need to comprehend what architecture is and how it intersects with data and technology. This begins with understanding the general role of architecture. Buildings, designed with architectural thought, are complex arrangements of objects and spaces. These spaces - both physical and psychological - provide environments for people to live, work, and thrive. Architecture is crucial in shaping social interactions. It does this by creating spaces that foster idea and belief exchanges, helping to shape our culture. It also communicates visually, through building exteriors and internal spaces. In doing so, architecture uses materials to reflect culture, while also setting the stage for its evolution. Architects, to different extents, consider the existing context in their designs to understand prevalent beliefs and values. Through its spatial arrangements, architecture serves broader social, economic, political, and cultural needs.

Data subservient to material

Architecture, which shapes how people move and interact, also influences how people connect with digital networks. This network interaction suggests a new understanding of architecture as the physical space where digital interactions occur, from social chat to finding information and even buying products online. Digital bits, or machine data, set the backdrop for these interactions and help shape people's decisions. Take a look at private spaces like shopping centres and airports - they're already designed with this 'data-influenced' architecture. Shoshana Zuboff, in her book 'The Age of Surveillance Capitalism', (Zuboff, 2019) explores how online tracking now impacts our physical world. She emphasises that digital platforms, which make money from excess data, have started influencing physical spaces. The “Smart City” explores data-rich urban development, but generally, these technical projects view architecture and data as separate; inert buildings produce space, while data and analysis provide information. But this is changing. Zuboff uses the example of Sidewalks Lab's project in Toronto to illustrate how urban planning and design decisions are starting to be shaped by data infrastructure as much as physical space. When precincts aim to maximise data collection for civic and commercial use, infrastructure influences public space design and becomes crucial in architectural plans.

Toronto Quayside

The urban plan for Toronto Quayside aimed to use information about the environment to organise its precincts. The approach of Sidewalk Labs was to utilise digital sensors to monitor sound, air quality, light levels, and humidity to determine the most appropriate activities for each area. These activities could be commercial, residential, civic, or industrial. At the root of this approach was an intention to optimise property value and investment returns. The key architectural concept borrowed to enable this optimisation was adaptive space, an approach from the cybernetic 1960s that imagined architecture as a constantly reconfigurable material system.

The images from Sidewalk Labs offer a glimpse of this adaptive aim. The early renders from Michael Green architects suggest a civic street space organised around temporary furniture and structures that were easily removed or relocated. The images suggest an architecture reduced to a stable and static structural grid obeying the spatial reconfigurable logic of a shopping mall. From a property viewpoint, the concept makes sense. If a business isn't getting enough attention, it can be readily replaced by one that might make more money. However, data infrastructure increases the speed of this change, suddenly altering the spatial purpose and experience. This change may be easy for those who are conditioned to the rapid change of digital society, but it potentially alienates those who are not digital natives.

Buildings do not exist forever, but they do serve as a register of time that reflects culture. When buildings reconfigure around data, buildings express a new sense of time, based on information flow. If data is the new backdrop to the urban, surplus becomes the new desire and shapes new expectations for buildings. What happens when a building is reduced to a structure, and its social, cultural and political influence is redistributed to an interior reconfiguration?

Toronto Quayside — Early concept by Michael Green Architects

Material subservient to the data.

The role of architecture goes beyond being just a structural grid; it's crucial to consider the wider effects this reduction could have on buildings and urban spaces. Imagine a city where architecture is guided not by human needs, but by data flow—where movements within the city are dictated by the potential value of behavioural information. This approach doesn't only affect the physical space; it could also reshape our cultural understanding of the city.

Think about a restaurant in Toronto's Quayside area. Normally, such a place would make financial decisions based on the lived experiences and social interactions of the street—things like the food culture and daily social use by office workers during the week or families on Sundays. But if these decisions start to be guided by data collected by a landlord or food delivery platform, things change. Small patterns of supply and demand start to influence these financial decisions. This detailed information can be good for business, but it creates two different realities—one shaped by culture and the other by data. As rents increase to reflect commercial potential, those who reflect the cultural life of the street could soon find their rent unaffordable.

What happens to the life of an urban street if usage changes and human routines are disrupted by this micromanagement of commercial interactions? If culture can't keep up with the literal view provided by data, does the city stop organising itself around social information?

It's not hard to think that city spaces could become available only to those with access to data, serving private interests over the public's. Some argue that Sidewalk Labs was aiming to create new revenue streams for urban development. While these streams would make a development commercially viable, the focus on data surveillance worryingly risked turning civic space into a profit instrument. In the case of Toronto's Quayside, this suggested the physical would become secondary to the data.

Present-day commercial development is financed through real estate value, where the quality of human space indexes to sales or rental returns. When urban space is developed around the value of data, spatial quality is no longer a financial concern, and the focus shifts to technology. Urban space becomes technically optimised rather than designed. This approach also introduces a new framework for measuring success, one based on metrics that align with information flow rather than human experience.

Consequences for architecture

The example of Toronto’s Quayside acts as a canary in the coal mine of a future we are heading towards, a situation where data becomes the logic for urban development. As data monitoring becomes part of our physical world and data value management becomes a new contract for the city, architects can either work with these new data rules or counteract them with different development methods. Unfortunately, some architects have given in to developers. They should not be called Architects but ‘Spatial Engineers’. These Spatial Engineers use formulaic design patterns to reveal the hidden potential value in space. Keller Easterling has noted the influence of such spatial engineering in the repeated spatial patterns found in free trade zones and commercial areas worldwide where capital extraction takes precedence over human experience.

The architect and their architectural creations are at risk of being unable to keep up with the speed of data. As the stability of architecture turns into a data-driven organisation of temporary material arrangements, architects need to either get involved in the speed of data or start contributing to an ethical reappropriation. Architecture needs a vocabulary to participate in the developing smart city discourse and help rebalance human social needs with real-estate extraction.

In conclusion, the transition towards data-driven urban development presents both challenges and opportunities for architects. As the Toronto's Quayside example illustrates, cities of the future could be shaped more by data flow than human needs, with profound implications for our shared urban spaces. As architects, we must engage with these changes, either by embracing the new rules of data or by advocating for alternative approaches that balance human social needs with commercial interests. This is not merely a question of architecture, but of society itself. In the data-saturated city of the future, the decisions we make now will shape our collective urban experience for generations to come.


Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. United States: PublicAffairs.