People-centered cities with smart districts

How data-linked architecture re-imagines cities for citizens and businesses by focusing on answering needs rather than showcasing aesthetics.

At the vanguard of data-linked architecture, architects Perkins&Will explore the whole breadth of digital monitoring and sensoring to build smart environments that meet needs and overcome challenges. Managing Director Steven Charlton talks about the potential of networked smart districts to improve cities’ efficiency and how the pandemic has changed the public’s acceptance of technology.


By Daniel Whitaker

Steven Charlton sits in the UK headquarters of architects Perkins&Will at a time when sustainable cities are high on the political agenda. Main roads into London are blocked that day by protestors from the group ‘Insulate Britain’. At the other end of the country, the COP26 global climate summit in Glasgow drew attention to the fact that 30 percent of carbon emissions are linked to buildings.


Charlton has been four years at this office, in London’s Whitechapel, an area transformed over two centuries through trade, immigration and war. Before that he was in the United Arab Emirates, whose urban environment is changing at a still faster pace. So the importance of adaptation is very clear to him.


Unusually for the managing director of an architecture firm, Charlton’s career began at Edinburgh College of Art before moving into the business side of design. He describes his job as “to understand what clients actually want, rather than what architects think they want”. This approach helps when re-imagining cities, when the immediate client may be governmental, but success requires also understanding the standpoints of citizens and businesses. Charlton thinks Perkins&Will gets this and is a “humanistic” firm, delivering buildings that meet real world needs – such as energy efficiency, human motivation or future adaptability – rather than just being architecturally attractive. 

Data-driven design for the urban future

Rapid advances in technology are currently aiding this focus on finding solutions to clients’ varied problems, such as minimizing carbon footprint or protecting occupants’ health. “We can capture so many more data sources than before,” says Charlton, “demographic, economic, technological, energy usage – moving towards creating a digital representation of the world.” Perkins&Will is starting to see graduates coming in with specialisms in data science. Part of the vanguard of data-linked architecture, Perkins&Will are however not looking to become software developers themselves. This is why partners are needed, and ideally ones with a long term view.

We can capture so many more data sources than before – moving towards creating a digital representation of the world.
Steven Charlton, managing director at Perkins&Will in London

“Historically,” Charlton says, “we just design for what we know. But technology providers such as Siemens can help us look further ahead, given their powerful research and development focus. New buildings may have a ten-year lead time, and they will lead a much longer life beyond that.”


With Perkins&Will’s Kuwait Masterplan, for example, a good idea was needed of where the energy sector would be in the future, in light of the kingdom’s close economic engagement with that industry, both as producer and consumer. Similarly, when designing a hospital, there is a need to know where healthcare equipment will be down the road.


Although the term is used by others in many ways, for Perkins&Will, the definition of a smart building or city is one with flexible infrastructure to collect information. Open source helps to provide a key part of that flexibility, allowing subsequent modification and linkage. Siemens is among the companies committed to open standards. Sustainability is ultimately judged through carbon content, viewed throughout a building’s entire life cycle: embodied in procurement and construction; operational usage going forward; and deconstruction at its end. Good data allows the minimalization of this content – and in this respect, smart infrastructure enhances sustainability.

Best level for smart infrastructure development is district level 

This brings us to the key question of scale. Previously, and perhaps still in many parts of the world, buildings were seen in isolation. Architects would seek to gain certification, but with no thought to linkage to other buildings or to energy and transport systems, for example. Yet working at the level of one of the world’s largest cities is also difficult, as conditions and political interests often vary so much within them. The local borough government in Whitechapel has very different needs to wealthier, more residential London boroughs to London’s west, for example – though Charlton thinks that perhaps an unusually unified polity such as Dubai might be feasible for a single smart plan. 

5G is changing our possibilities.
Steven Charlton

Charlton believes that in most cases the best level for developing smart infrastructure will be what could be loosely called the Smart District. This may mean a zone within a city, with willing stakeholders ready to pilot innovations to confront their recognized issues, or it could relate to some other institution, such as a university campus. Perkins&Will is developing Cambridge Science Park on this basis, utilizing preventive maintenance; onsite vehicle monitoring; sidewalk energy generation; motion sensoring; and real-time feedback. “5G is changing our possibilities,” he adds.


On the operational side, buildings can take advantage of these multiple data sources to contribute to decarbonization through their ability to self-regulate, looking at the wider environment and only using the resources that they need in each moment. This particularly relates to windows, to heating and to capacity to store excess energy. The most important interfaces between Smart Districts and the broader infrastructure environment will also likely be in the energy space, through energy creation, storage and distribution. The more Districts are networked, the more efficient they will have the potential to become. 

Direction of travel for smart architecture

All of these things have been true since before the pandemic; but how have the last two years altered smart architecture? On the positive side Charlton believes that “the pandemic has raised people’s acceptance of technology”. He mentions how commuters would now probably welcome air quality sensoring, whereas previously there was often opposition to CCTV or other monitoring.


But some challenges for architects are also heightened. Systems must now be built more resiliently, so that they will keep functioning in almost any circumstances. In case of infectious disease transmissions, buildings “must be able to deal with density issues” and a connected growing desire for clean air. Vertical transportation (elevators) will be difficult, which may push towards a move to more horizontal structures. Perhaps this indicates a trade-off between the high density preferred for climate reasons and the lower density for public health concern? Within Perkins&Will’s Smart Districts, the key post-pandemic trends are a move from “fortress buildings” towards more shared facilities and an emphasis on the resilience of supply chains.

The pandemic has raised people’s acceptance of technology.
Steven Charlton

This hard work will deliver benefits for all of us. Smart architecture involves meeting people’s widespread desire for more choice, and for information to be easily at hand in order to help them make that choice an informed one. This will affect our transport and the air we breathe. It will involve where we sit, where we work and where we choose to go for leisure.


Of course, Charlton allows that this will require new professional skillsets – content creators, data librarians and validators and security experts will all be needed to help us have these choices at our fingertips. But it is clear, and also exciting, that this is the direction of travel. 

March 28, 2022


Author:  Daniel Whitaker is a London-based journalist. He has been writing about the energy and environmental sectors for years, with a focus on finance. His work has appeared in a variety of international publications, including the Financial Times and The Economist.


Picture credits: Andrea Artz

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