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6 design themes for reimagining urban tech and city life

From intelligent agents to new digital experiences, these ideas will influences experiences from dining to commuting.

With 2017 distant in our rearview mirrors, now is a perfect opportunity to think about where we're going with the future of city life. To do that, the team at URBAN-X looks for inspiration and insights in many places, including the cohort of companies we work with who are at the frontline of new technology, leading architects thinking about buildings as systems and urban planners and city officials who are placemaking and creating new policy frameworks. We're also fortunate to share insights with the BMW Group team charged with leading design research and innovation projects with a human-centered approach. 

Below are six themes that speak to the strategic role of design in new urban-tech solutions, and why we’re excited about how we’ll live in cities in 2018 and beyond.

1. Delegate customization 

Many of us already trust "intelligent agents" to create hyper-specific interfaces based on our preferences. This is how Google, Apple and Amazon have been able to achieve "lock-in." Tailored interfaces will show up in proactive health enhancement, in our vehicles, offices and homes. The buzz around artificial intelligence will have its payoff in personalized, designed user interfaces that reduce friction. In China, Alibaba is using this today with its "Luban" banner design platform. Mitigating choice fatigue is big business.

2. Take the open-ended path 

Digital citizens are becoming active creators of new experiences using their intuition and gut. At the same time, digital and analog experiences are becoming more in tune with the senses. Urban spaces and buildings are being designed to encourage people to wander.

The discovery of neighborhoods, atmospheres, cultures and experiences is where real value is — sometimes not traveling the most efficient path is most rewarding. Little Bits has captured this sentiment in its platform of easy-to-use electronic building blocks empowering everyone to create inventions, large and small. The new mantra is: "Trust the data but rely on your instincts to guide you."

3. Go with the flow  

2017 was the year when we sought out the "zone." Being in a state of "flow" started to enter the mainstream as a worthy pursuit. Who wouldn't want to experience uninterrupted concentration, free of pause or disruption? 2018 will be the year when we aim to do two or more things at once without overwhelming stress, and at the same time, signify to our networks the activism that is being woven into our lives.

Case in point: Lululemon is transforming commuting with its London relaxation busses. Our interactions will be organized around intention. We'll expect services to come to us, where we are, on our terms and schedule (in terms of both time and duration). In an age of mass distraction and fake news, we'll have more opportunities for informed decision making in a complex world full of unsorted and random information inputs.   

4. Question your comfort zones

Design is playing with our biases of how technology and data looks, creating moments of surprise and sometimes, discomfort.

This is not a bad thing. Chefs are challenging the idea of dining and what food should be, from consistency and texture to taste and ingredients. Bollinger Motors is changing what a rugged sports utility truck is expected to be. 

Entrepreneurs will seize opportunities to create new explorations and new perspectives, and we'll all benefit from new discoveries and playful, unexpected experiences. Happiness and authenticity cannot be divorced.

5. Revitalize catalysts 

Product design is trying to find a new form language that expresses the transformational times we're in. We'll see the development of a new aesthetic that speaks of future, change, and the positiveness we're all hoping for. Our living and working interiors have been boring for far too long. Simple but lively buildings and interiors are making offices and retail more exciting through color, light and texture. Digital layers in the real world are supporting citizens.

TransitScreen, for example, is using real-time displays and countdown clocks to improve the commuting experience. In physical and retail environments.

In the retail space, B8ta, a store designed to help customers try and buy new tech products, is helping bring crowd-funded products to life. 

Our online and offline expectations will continue to blur in 2018. As mobility is being re-invented, how much will we translate that radical shift into the vehicles that move us? The fear of the future can be mitigated through the design of the familiar.

6. Strive for expressive subtlety

Premium design will be communicated in the mundane in subtle ways. Designers and entrepreneurs are transforming information into poetry; readable to the informed user and beautiful to everyone else.

Meural is not only a beautiful art frame, it holds eight gigabytes of photos and can be controlled by gesture. Technology is blending into interiors and while we're still in need of some security standards for our internet of things, we can expect to see great design informing a premium feel and making the places we spend most of our time more visually and intellectually engaging.  

As we look ahead to how we'll live in cities of the future, we continue to ask ourselves how society, the economy, living conditions and mobility will change. More important, we also examine what opportunities new technologies will present to us. It's an especially exciting and critical time for startups whose goal is to positively impact the future of city life by reimagining it entirely, and we look forward to working side by side with some of them to help them achieve their full potential.

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