How do architects and academics hope to make meaningful contributions to the city if they no longer understand its critical behaviors and insist on critiquing and designing it in the same way? Surely repeating the procedure with the same tools and expecting different results resembles the definition of insanity?

Dominant forms of urban critique rely on outdated forms of class and political classifications that often fail to reveal the real complexity of human decision making. They also appear increasingly limited in revealing and articulating the relationships and processes that occur on various scales on a daily basis that give meaning and form to the built environment. Rather than responding pro-actively to the very obvious urban deficits that increasingly compromise basic urban qualities, architects tend to design forms that predominantly serve the purpose of short-term private interests. These fail to fulfill the fundamental civic function of a city: uniting the widest variety, complexity and completeness of life both for now and generations to come. The results are obvious, and can be read by simply observing the urban space and listening to contemporary popular critique. It appears that while society in general has become increasingly well connected, and technology has provided platforms for communication and visibility, architecture and academia have become increasingly insular and irrelevant.

We propose that new tools are required to both analyze and make visible the complexity of urban contexts in order to design critical and responsive propositions. The form of these tools could be inspired by new tendencies in social connectivity (through social media) and emerging processes based on reciprocal exchange (alternative value systems). Both these tendencies work from the idea that society is a complex network of actors, processes and objects and that value is drawn by the connection of these entities. The basis of such an approach can find a theoretical foundation in the work of Bruno Latour et al, and the formulation of the Actor Network Theory. The theory aims to situate every element of a network into an inclusive system of relationships. The elements of the network achieve significance only through their relation with each other and accordingly affect the behavior of each other. Applied to urban studies, this approach understands the network as the urban realm, and identifies each element, whether this is an empty building, a shopkeeper or a legal contract, as active components in the network. It is only by analyzing and understanding how these networks function that we are better able to reveal the deficits and identify the potentials in the system in order to design meaningful proposals.

Taken further we may combine the act of researching the network and designing a response into a customized methodology of design research. This will allow us to experiment with combining various research methods into a creative flexible model capable of responding to specific contexts and parameters. This is in itself an iterative creative process requiring multi-disciplinary input and broad public dialogue. We believe that such an approach can be developed from current architecture and academic capacity and will offer vast possibilities to actively shape the discourse and practice of the production of the built environment.

Action Network Modelling