Serving as the latest chapter in Durham’s much-celebrated resurgence story, Moogfest
kicked off Thursday in venues across its downtown. The festival—which celebrates and embraces music and technology—comes to Durham during a period of unprecedented growth and investment in the city’s tech community
and urban core.
So it seems only fitting that the first Moogfest keynote focused on what cities will look like in the future, and the impact of technology in their evolution. With two local representatives on the “Smart Cities” panel, much of the discussion had an eye on the continued development of the Triangle and Research Triangle Park.
The 90-minute panel featured RTP CEO Bob Geolas
founder Wanona Satcher
and Greta Byrum
, the director of Resilient Communities at New York City-think tank New America
. Ben Johnson
— host of NPR’s "
Marketplace Tech" and the Codebreaker podcast — moderated the panel, which was introduced by Adam Klein
of American Underground
Being "Purposeful" in Durham and beyond
Geolas opened the discussion by offering a brief history lesson on the changing dynamics of American cities, focusing particularly on Durham. He noted that RTP was conceived and planned in the late 1950s when people and businesses were moving out of cities and into the suburbs in droves. It was considered a “futuristic” project. Now, a half-century later, activity is moving back into urban centers and urban planning is changing as a result. Geolas emphasized that the redevelopment of RTP
has “people in mind” first, with a goal of making the 70,000-acre park a far more collaborative, interactive setting.
For Geolas and RTP specifically, that means planning common areas, public access spaces and affordable on-site housing. Satcher and Byrum took the thought a step further, making it abundantly clear that inclusivity must be “purposeful,” a word that dominated the discussion.
Satcher, who worked as neighborhood development specialist for the city of Durham from 2011 until she started a nonprofit urban design lab earlier this year, discussed the type of planning that causes “happy collisions” and face-to-face interaction in urban areas. Outside of architectural decisions, she said future city planners will use a human-centered model. As cities grow more reliant on technology and empirical data to make planning decisions, residents’ desires and needs must not be overlooked.
“Cities are always in flux,” Satcher said, noting that one of her major challenges and objectives is to plan spaces that serve people with drastically different perspectives as a city changes.
How technology fits into future cities
With her focus on integrating technology within rejuvenation efforts in cities and neighborhoods, Byrum took the lead on sharing how technology can spur collaboration and community.
Byrum has seen firsthand the impact that technology can have in helping cities rebound from tragedy. She worked quickly in 2012 to build a reliable wireless network in Red Hook, a waterfront Brooklyn neighborhood ravaged by flooding from Hurricane Sandy. She’s also been involved in an effort to increase Internet access and digital literacy for families in struggling Detroit neighborhoods, helping bridge what the panel called the “digital divide” in cities across the United States.
“We’re trying to prepare for big changes coming to our cities by increasing human connection through technology,” Byrum said. In Red Hook, for example, the wireless network allowed neighbors to connect with each other and seek out help, along with giving access to real-time public transportation information that was previously unavailable.
Using technology in planning decisions goes far past wireless connectivity, however. Byrum discussed the data and technology required to set “strategic retreat” plans in coastal neighborhoods that will be affected by climate change, and the importance of accurate information and communication between cities and residents in the decades to come.
Two themes: inclusiveness and narrative
Two recurring themes of the panel were the idea of vast inclusiveness, along with the role that storytelling and a city’s narrative plays in fostering the sense that it is inclusive and welcoming.
Satcher argued that “narratives are becoming more integral” to creating an inclusive city, which prompted Geolas to mention that RTP is emphasizing storytelling within its redevelopment plans.
In an attempt to change the narrative of RTP from a sprawling corporate office park into a bustling 24/7 community, Geolas noted the importance of creating compelling programs and events that provoke inspiration and encourage inclusiveness.
“Our future cities are going to be a mashup of Tomorrowland and the Magic Kingdom,” he said, explaining that sleek “Tomorrowland” architecture is not enough, but that a city needs the warm, familial feeling of a Disney trip to realize its full potential.
It also must have all perspectives represented. Only that is true inclusivity.
Byrum bemoaned House Bill 2, calling it “detrimental to the sort of cities we want.” Satcher argued that the biggest piece of any future urban planning effort will be seeking feedback from an entire community, not just from those within a city council meeting.
And in setting the tone for the continued development of Durham and RTP, Geolas doubled down on the importance of its broad community of contributors.
“The future of cities and where we go is something that we all have to do together,” he said.