Daniel Fink’s Complex Urbanities: Digital Techniques in Urban Design published by Australia’s NSW Architects Registration Board

MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab Lead Researcher, Daniel Fink, has published his Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship on the effect of computational approaches to the design & production of urban development. The report reviews the field of computational urban design, showcases a series of interviews with thought-leaders, scientists, and practitioners in the field, and concludes with a speculative design project that performs sensitivity modelling between design and financial strategies through computational techniques. Featured are: Dan Hill, publisher of City of Sound and Associate Director at Arup; Dr. José Duarte & Dr. José Beirão, academics at Penn State University and TU Lisbon; Dr. Peter Wonka, Professor at KAUST & TU Vienna; and Dr. Christian Derix, director of Woods Bagot’s ‘Superspace’ Design Research Group.

New technologies and processes have critical impacts on the shaping of cities. The incorporation of digital techniques into urban design practice presents practitioners with a radically productive set of tools to engage and orchestrate contemporary urban development. Combining design computing with financial computation, for instance, heralds new forms of real estate development.

Coupling Design Computing with Automated Financial Analysis
Coupling Design Computing with Automated Financial Analysis


As an emergence from a multitude of conceptual, environmental, political, financial and social forces, the city is a complex phenomenon, and its understanding a key skill that architects have at their disposal.

As cities become more extensive and their dynamics more impactful, we are also offered more powerful tools and methods that can analyse, speculate, and produce designs for the city’s fabric. In a similar fashion to the power of digital techniques for the design and fabrication of complex pieces of architecture, the report details how computational approaches can affect the design and production of complex urban development.

Three lines of investigation are structured to explore this: a review of the field of computational urban design; a series of interviews with thought-leaders, researchers, scientists, and practitioners in the field; and a speculative design project that utilizes digital techniques.
Opening with urbanist & technologist Dan Hill’s interview, his calls for a reimagining of urban design & development arise from a sincere appreciation for the impact of technologies on the city. This prompts a contemplation on how computational modelling embeds assumptions and frameworks that may presuppose particular findings or outcomes, and is followed by a survey of current schools of thought & methodologies in the field.

Three interviews then follow. The first is a discussion with José Duarte & José Beirão; academics in architecture who have been developing conceptual frameworks that underpin digital methods for urban design & planning. They highlight the position of current research with respect to broader questions in architecture & citymaking. The second is a deep-dive into the art & science of computational techniques for urban design with the computer scientist Peter Wonka. He frames the challenges that cutting-edge research is engaged with, and proposes tighter cross-disciplinarity between designers and computer scientists to advance the field. Finally the conversation with architect & urban designer Christian Derix charts the development of these techniques from academic research to how they are deployed in practice, and outlines the complexities and opportunities for their further use in real-world projects.

Finally, a design project is presented that speculates on how the trend towards democratization of these digital techniques in urban design may facilitate new processes and organizations of real estate development. The project envisions that technological diffusion of urban design and development knowledge could enable clusters of self-organizing households to design, fund, and construct their own networks of mutually co-dependent & mixed-use infill projects. These collectively-financed & mass-customized developments would dramatically expand the capability of citizens to influence the design and use of their neighborhood fabric.