The concept of U-city

The concept of U-city derives from ubiquitous computing defined by Mark Weiser in a seminal article published
in 1991 (Lee, 2009). Weiser had the vision of computers
linked by wired and wireless networks, which are so ubiquitous that nobody notices their presence: ‘‘The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave
themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are
undistinguishable from it.’’ In a visionary essay entitled
‘‘The Coming of Age of Calm Technology,’’ Weiser and
Brown (1996) propounded that given its radical social
impact, ubiquitous computing would be the third most
important innovation in the history of mankind, after the
invention of writing and that of electricity.
The interrelated conceptions of U-city and augmented
city produce radically different views with respect to space,
place, and location in smart cities. Anttiroiko (2013)
explains that the U-city model comes with a relative indifference to physical space inasmuch as urban services are
fully available regardless of location. The U-city as a whole
is a place. On the contrary, the augmented city supposes
spaces recombined by digital, thereby establishing a connection with the user’s specific location.
Arguably, this dichotomy oversimplifies ubiquitous life.
Aurigi (2009) identifies that a city will always be grounded
in its location. Encounters, events, and perceptions embody
the ‘‘power of place.’’ Hence, the two models do not have
to be exclusive but can actually be hybrid: ‘‘the U-city can
be an augmented city: global in reach, and very local, personal and ‘spatial’ in the experiences it proposes.’’
Commercial real estate’s heterogeneity in smart cities. This
ongoing debate has significant implications for commercial
real estate. If human life in U-city is truly placeless, commercial real estate’s focus would irremediably move from
physical to digital. As a result, one can envision that in a
smart city modeled after the U-city concept, digital will
ultimately shape physical space. Commercial real estate
markets might de facto become less heterogeneous with
an underlying trend toward property standardization driven
by what Peet (1998) designates as ‘‘existential outsiderness
in which all places assume the same meaningless identity’’
(Dodge and Kichin, 2001). Mitchell (2003:159) explains
that ‘‘in the emerging wireless era, our buildings and urban
environments need fewer specialized spaces built around
sites and resource availability and more versatile, hospitable, accommodating spaces that simply attract occupation
and can serve diverse purposes as required.’’ Hence, the
broader a digital place’s scope, the more commoditized
physical space is likely to become. This is a new take on
the functionalist approach to architecture: in a U-city, versatility in buildings’ function should override any concern
about their physical characteristics.
The lesser importance of physical space in smart cities
might have significant consequences for commercial real
estate in smart cities. U-city’s placelessness favors mixeduse developments and could trigger a new, highly versatile
‘‘omni-use’’ property type where physical characteristics
are mostly nonspecific and applicable to a wide range of
digital places, enabling very dynamic uses of properties
(e.g. co-working spaces together with co-living spaces).
In contrast, in a smart city modeled after the augmented
city concept, since spatial specification matters (i.e. digital
skin comes with locational characteristics), augmented
places will keep commercial real estate’s focus on properties’ heterogeneities (including their digital capabilities in
line with the model’s embedded segmentation of space).
Thinking about commercial real estate in terms of activities
linked to enhanced locations rather than property types per
se will be key. For instance, taxonomies of augmented
places could be established based on such fundamental
activities as work, shop, sleep, eat, travel, and commute.
In terms of urban structure, U-cities’ assemblage of
physical and digital spaces could be more diverse than
those in augmented cities where the digital skin naturally
results in a clustering of human activities. By being potentially fully random series of spatial events, U-cities will let
space users decide whether agglomeration economies make
sense in smart environments. Conversely, augmented cities
will have to be accompanied with maps of enhanced locations. The dichotomy between U-city and Augmented city
will address important questions about how space produced
at the intersection of physical and digital affects human
need for physical interactions, a need traditionally enabled
by real estate.
Moreover, the fact that not all cities will be equally
smart and/or ubiquitous, nor all places equally augmented
should not be overlooked. As explained by Shelton et al.
(2015), ‘‘it is important to recognize that smart cities are
also internally differentiated. That is, like any other phenomena, they are geographically uneven at a variety of
scales.’’ Consequently, to make sense of these differences,
digital places will have to be assessed, measured, and qualified with ad hoc metrics capturing this new spatiality’s
contribution to commercial real estate (Lecomte, 2018).

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