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If there’s one story that defines the decade in technology, it is Facebook’s journey from innocuous mass bulletin board to the bane of modern democracy. From Cambridge Analytica and Russian trolls to Facebook’s own psychological experiments on its users, the tech giant’s tragic flaws were coming to light just as our collective infatuation with Big Tech and Silicon Valley was giving way to skepticism.

While tech was evolving faster than our brains could keep up, entire industries and cities were being disrupted by game-changers like Amazon, Airbnb and Uber as well as emerging technologies like artificial intelligence. Here, we look at the good and the bad, but especially the most influential trends in technology as they relate to the worlds of architecture, design and urbanism.

Wearable Tech Became a Life Saver

By the early half of this decade, fitness trackers like Fitbit and Jawbone had become as ubiquitous as reusable water bottles and yoga mats, leading 2014 to be declared “the year of wearable technology.” But more recently, wearables have moved beyond fitness and into healthcare and personal safety. Responsive garments like Pauline van Dongen’s self-initiated Vigour (a cardigan embedded with “stretch sensors” that can better calibrate exercise or physio movements) and the Seismic Powered Suit by Yves Béhar’s Fuseproject (made from lightweight, flexible fabric equipped with “electric muscles” that add power to sitting, standing and walking) aspire to enhance the day-to-day lives of seniors and other people with physical limitations. On a smaller scale, digital hearing aids, clips that alert loved ones of a fall and smart belts with fall-detection 3D motion sensors (which inflate hip-protecting airbags) are contributing to an increased sense of independence and higher quality of life for many.

Worker safety within industries like manufacturing has also seen a marked uptick in gadgets that monitor fatigue, stress levels and even proximity to dangerous equipment. On the more everyday level, accessories like Talsam pendants, Nimb rings and the Ripple are integrated with panic buttons that alert first responders and personal emergency contacts and GPS trackers that covertly keep personal safety at the literal fingertips of the wearer.

Of course, it would be remiss to talk wearables without mentioning Apple Watch. First launched in 2015, it’s now in its fifth generation and can do just about anything: answering calls and sending texts as well as monitoring heart rates and controlling an entire home. And with Canada’s Bell recently announcing its development of a wearable device it claims will outpace both Apple Watch and Fitbit, it’s fair to say we’re only at the starting line of where wearables are headed. – Kendra Jackson

The Shared Economy Disrupted Cities
Wework became Manhattan’s biggest office tenant in 2018. Photo by Ajay Suresh via Flickr Commons.

In the beginning, there was eBay. Launched in 1995, the e-commerce website went live without a single product to sell, except for the ability to seamlessly unite sellers and buyers online. But while the roots of the so-called “sharing economy” actually date back decades further than the ’90s, the concept radically altered the nature of commerce – and cities – in the 2010s. In the decade of Airbnb and WeWork, a wave of shared, fluid spaces has transformed the urban sphere.

Marketed with the cosy image of community-building and global friendship, the home-sharing service Airbnb has facilitated the transformation of homes into hotels – thereby removing vital housing supply in the process – even though it was ostensibly created to transform travel. The scale of disruption prompted cities around the world to regulate aggressively, ranging from limitations of how Airbnb and similar services can be used, typically by prohibiting entire homes from being rented and imposing yearly rental-day quotas.

As Airbnb blurred the contours of home, the stratospheric rise (and meteoric fall) of shared workspace provider WeWork did much the same for the office. By 2018, WeWork became the largest commercial tenant in both London and New York, eclipsing the world’s leading companies in its urban real estate footprint. Prior to a drastic devaluation in November, the company set its sights even further, targeting education and co-living as the next frontiers of the sharing revolution. And then there’s the runaway success of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, whose popularity has transformed private cars into public services – all while increasing congestion and reducing transit use in their wake (more on this trend below). In the 2010s, the home, the office and the automobile have been re-imagined – and redesigned – as part of a shared eco-system. – Stefan Novakovic

Your Smart Home Started Spying On You

What if the appliances in your home could talk? Better yet, what if your dishwasher, clock, stereo, stove and door lock could all communicate – with you and each other  – by sending information and taking commands? A decade ago, the so-called “smart home” with wifi-connected heating, lighting, media and surveillance systems would have seemed like a techno-fantasy ripped from Blade Runner. Following the release of Amazon Alexa in November 2014 and Google Nest (formerly Google Home) two years later, the automated domestic sphere has become increasingly commonplace, and encompasses security cameras, light switches, thermostats and more.

Google Home. Photo by Jonas Leupe via Unsplash.

While these technologies have tangible applications in providing more effective elder care and equipping homes to support safe aging in place, critics have expressed serious concern over the ultimate ownership of the data they harvest. And, who exactly listens once you’ve uttered “Hey, Google,” particularly as the technologies extend from the domestic interior to the scale of the city. Still, the Smart Home has profoundly shaped how networks of both objects and citizens communicate. And, it will continue to inform how we consider information in the future; it’s estimated that over 9.1 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by the end of 2019. Now, if you think that your home or your phone or your light switch is listening to you, it probably is. – Evan Pavka

Gig Work Got Serious

Are you under 40? If so, welcome to the global precariat. In the years following the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the global economy was re-shaped with a lot more gigs – but fewer jobs. Today, the geographic and temporal freedom offered by app-based labour (the likes of Uber, Lyft, Fiverr, Airbnb, TaskRabbit and more) bypasses the mundane 9 to 5 rhythms that defined much of 20th century professional labour. But for all their freedom, gig workers typically aren’t classified as employees, and lack most of the benefits and workplace protections afforded by full-time work.

Uber is a potent case in point. Since 2011, the ride-sharing app has upended the taxicab industry. In lieu of a regulated system of employed drivers and a controlled supply of taxi medallions, the app allowed almost anyone with a driver’s license and a (presentable) car to start offering rides. But controversies regarding labour rights, lack of regulation and a culture of sexual harassment swiftly followed Uber’s explosive success. Drivers are classified not as employees, but as independent contractors. This allows Uber to bypass employment regulations – including minimum wage requirements – in most jurisdictions. At a time of rising global inequality, it spells trouble for workers.

An Uber Eats bicycle courier. Photo by Robert Anasch via Unsplash.

But signs of change are on the horizon already. Drawing inspiration from the 20th century’s industrial labour unions, pushes for expanded labour rights are gaining traction. In Toronto, for example, an ongoing effort to unionize workers of global delivery service Foodora could prove a watershed moment, making the couriers Canada’s first unionized app-based workforce. In the 2010s, ever-growing possibilities allowed workers to do more – from more places – than ever before. In the 2020s, the challenge is more likely to be political than technological. The apps have done their part already; the future of labour will now be decided in the union hall – and the courtroom. – Stefan Novakovic

Drones Came of Age
Markel Redondo’s drone images of Spain’s 3.4 million deserted houses

While Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones, were first pioneered for military applications, these readily available remote-operated devices are currently used in almost every industry – from agriculture to art and architecture and for such disparate tasks as surveying crops, gathering climate data and monitoring infrastructure. A 2016 study by Goldman Sachs estimated that by 2020 the construction industry would make up the largest consumer group for the technology.

PHOTO: Miguel Ángel Hernández

Almost four year later, drones are routinely used to capture aerial perspectives of construction and building progress. They also grant the ability to scan entire sites, natural and artificial, providing real-time information that can inform a more data-driven design process. Not only shifting how we make architecture or respond to a project’s development, the impact of this technology is also far-reaching in its transforming of architectural representation – how we record and relay the nuances of the built world in light of the saturation of images across social media and the ubiquity of satellite imaging. – Evan Pavka

Instagram Shaped Our Environments

One short decade ago, photographs were still largely stored in albums and selfies weren’t yet glints in global influencers’ eyes. Fast forward 10 years and the social media that proliferate today not only support and even demand the documentation of every human moment, but also largely determine how the backdrops for those moments – i.e., the rooms, buildings and environments we all occupy – look, feel and function (or, in many cases, not function).

Take the Vessel, that much-debated piece of epic-scaled sculpture designed by Thomas Heatherwick for New York City’s Hudson Yards. It was installed in the new riverside neighbourhood with no other apparent purpose than to serve as fodder for Instagram, the most visual of the sharing networks and the most efficient at disseminating those visuals. We can consequently thank the service for the ubiquity of, in no particular order, infinity rooms, millennial-pink palettes, ironic slogans on hotel-room walls and even architectural subterfuge of the kind seen at MVRDV’s Tianjin Library, where officials simulated books to fully stock the towering, undulating stacks. As the decade drew to a close, the pervasiveness of Instagram’s seemingly pernicious effect on design was such that last year The Guardian asked: “Is quality being compromised in pursuit of a striking selfie?”

For the many critics who object to buildings such as the Vessel, the answer is obviously yes. For others, not so much. According to British architect Sam Jacob, the phenomenon is “merely an extension of the ‘Kodak moment,’ or those seaside cut-out boards where you put your head through a hole. Architects have always designed their buildings to be photogenic.” Maybe so, but what isn’t in question is the fact that many architects and designers also admit to using Instagram not only to promote their work but to evaluate the work of their peers and even find inspiration. Are they being adequately informed? Unduly influenced? Think about that for an instant. – Danny Sinopoli

Virtual Reality Became an Architect’s Tool

Forget the relative commercial failure of products such as Oculus Rift, which were supposed to turn the general public on to the wonders of virtual reality. For a host of disparate industries, from gaming and entertainment to architecture and design, the undisputed power of VR has become a real and significant disruptor. In the architecture field, VR has made selling an ambitious design idea to clients easier and likelier to succeed. It is facilitating the conceptualization and execution of those ideas, allowing architects to test the feasibility of everything from structural options to wayfinding methods. And it provides both creators and clients with a level of design detail, such as the texture of a particular material or the way light falls in a space, previously unavailable.

The Barclay Center facade consists of 12,000 weathered steel panels that were electronically tagged and assembled using an iPhone app.

And today’s applications are just the beginning. When SHoP Architects used augmented-reality software to design thousands of unique facade panels for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the same technology didn’t extend to the construction site, where workers used traditional drawings to visualize and deploy those panels. Now, though, VR and AR are poised to pervade the entire building process, from design to construction to the way that end users – both on-site and not – experience a space. “Virtual reality allows us to educate the public about landscape design in a more compelling way,” Jared Green of the American Society of Landscape Architects told Azure in 2016 about building public spaces. “It more closely mimics the experience of exploring a place in person and, in part, it recreates that sense of discovery one gets in real life.” – Danny Sinopoli

Generative Design Brought AI to the A&D Professions

Generative design is a tool under the umbrella of AI. Its basic premise is that the designer enters a set of parameters and the generative design software uses cloud computing to generate a number of design solutions to choose from. The designer can then feed more parameters into the software to fine-tune the results, but is otherwise shifting the creative problem-solving, and shape-forming, duties to the software. (Among the proponents of the technology is Autodesk, which develops many types of A&D software.) A recent example of generative design is Philippe Starck’s A.I. chair for Kartell. The parameters in that case were how to design for a chair that could be as light as possible while still supporting a human body. After spitting out some forms, the software then was given more parameters that included Starck’s aesthetic style – hence the chair has the sleek feel of something the French designer would have sketched on paper, rather than, say, an amorphous cloud.

While the technology has positive ramifications for design – a parameter might be the minimal use of material, for instance – it holds even more potential in architecture and urban design. One of the interesting aspects of the Sidewalk Toronto proposal is its inclusion of a generative design tool that allows architects and planners to control for building shape and height, density, tree canopy and other aspects of a whole neighbourhood. Working with the Montreal outfit Daily Tous Les Jours, Sidewalk Labs created an interactive prototype of the tool that allows members of the public to appreciate the power that generative design could have in our collective future. – Elizabeth Pagliacolo

3D Printing Adapted to (Almost) Any Material
Yves Béhar’s 3D-printed house

When Azure first covered 3D printing in May 2005, we gave it the cover treatment and a title that would prove prescient: “The Shape of Things to Come”. In the time since that article reckoned with the potential ramifications of moving product design into this then-nascent digital realm, the technology has advanced manifold. This past decade, in particular, we saw additive manufacturing go mainstream for better and for worse – we can print organic tissue and medical devices as well as AK-47s – and become adaptable for a whole roster of materials beyond polyester.

Over the last 10 years, designers have been 3D-printing everything from wood jewellery to metal furniture – adapting desktop devices and hacking robotic arms into giant extruders to give form to their ever-more ambitious computer models. Perhaps the most impressive structures that have been realized as a result of this combination of cutting-edge software and newfangled hardware are concrete homes and steel bridges. Joris Laarman has long been at work on a 3D-printed steel pedestrian bridge for Amsterdam (in collaboration with Autodesk’s generative design team). In 2014, Chinese firm Yingchuang New Materials printed 10 buildings in 24 hours; this past year, Yves Béhar brought a more design-oriented aesthetic to this type of endeavour. Might this be part of a solution for building much-needed affordable housing more quickly or just a marketing gimmick? If history is any indicator, the technology will continue to advance in leaps and bounds. – Elizabeth Pagliacolo

Facial Recognition is the New Public Space Threat

Facial recognition, or biometrics, encapsulates everything that’s scary about AI. And it’s becoming a pervasive threat to privacy, as it is implemented in everything from our private gadgets to our public spaces. Here’s just a sampling of current uses: China requires facial recognition in all cellphones (the government insists it will prevent identity fraud) and many Chinese cities also insist that public housing developments screen for illegal subletting; it has been introduced to Canadian airports (Vancouver International Airport uses it for Nexus cardholders) and is under consideration for airports and border checkpoints in the U.S.; retail shops and stadiums use the technology to catch shoplifters and reward VIPers, respectively.

Image courtesy Liberty, a UK human rights NGO

Why is it so scary? For many reasons to do with non-consensual surveillance of all stripes, but specifically for two reasons inherent to facial recognition: The technology has been shown to deliver false positives – with a troubling bias: it routinely misidentifies women and people of colour. This faulty information can then be used by government and security forces to apprehend citizens suspected of committing crimes. That’s bad enough in a peaceful, democratic society. In times of civic unrest, a government with the tools to track individuals’ movements is a fundamental threat to personal autonomy and communal safety – it turns the commons into a police state. Many cities are taking the initiative to protest this threat to public and private life. For instance, Portland, Oregon, is working to ban both city bodies and private companies from using facial recognition. It goes without saying that for planners and urbanists, the spectre of facial recognition should be taken into account in how we create and preserve our public spaces. – Elizabeth Pagliacolo

The 10 Most Influential Technologies of the Decade

From the Smart Home and Generative Design to Biometrics, these 10 technologies have emerged over the past 10 years to shape our worlds big and small – and they continue to evolve.

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