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Actar’s urbanNext Pushes Publishing in New Directions

November 30, 2016

Ricardo Devesa is the Editor-in-Chief of Actar, a publishing house based in Barcelona and New York. As an editor, architect, PhD, professor, and curator, Devesa operates at the heart of the discourse on contemporary urban affairs. Impact Design Hub sat down with Devesa to discuss urbanNext, a new online platform being rolled out by Actar that aims to equip the next generation of designers with the knowledge and relationships needed to address the most pressing challenges facing the city today.

IDH: What is urbanNext?

Devesa: urbanNext is a project that resulted from a long reflection. As publishers, Actar is trying to understand the best way to connect with audiences through the digital tools, while simultaneously pointing clearly to the critical challenge that we must face as designers.

The first decision we made was to look at a wider problem we must manage: the city. It’s no longer enough to build isolated, aesthetically appealing objects. We claim that the city is the challenge and that we must face it in a very serious, interdisciplinary way.

We decide to call it urbanNext because at Actar we’re committed to discovering new tendencies. We point towards different discourses and fresh ways to understanding architecture in the past. Some of the architects that we published have now become, let’s say, star architects. Now, through urbanNext, we want to give voice to the new generation who are in front of new practices, and also in front the new challenge: cities.

We talk about urbanNext as a trans-narrative. For example, it’s not only an isolated essay—an essay is released simultaneously and daily with several other posts that could be any other format: a photographical survey, a short research, a lecture, a documentary, etc. So far, seriously searching out the possibilities of the digital has been a very good experience.

Actor urbanNext

IDH: What do you think about the current state of publishing in architecture and urbanism?

Devesa: I think there is a split. On one hand, we are seeing that things online that are not going well—there is so much banality in the media. The production of content can be very superficial and the audience is consuming material much faster.

Nevertheless, on the positive side, we believe it’s a very exciting moment. The design communication paradigm has shifted in a radical direction. Collectively, the production of our content has been globalized and that has changed the way we think about the construction of a discourse in architecture.

These changes have transformed our experience as editors because magazines and printed books are no longer the only platform to deliver content. Because the options are almost endless, we’re focused on how we can best manage the production and dissemination of content in the digital realm as it relates to architecture and cities.

IDH: What are the opportunities for your audience to engage with what you publish?

Devesa: urbanNext includes a professional network that is going to be called “Associates,” which allows our audience to customize their engagement. Rather than simply going to our home page to see, watch, or read whatever we are publishing, we are giving Associates individual experiences with our content.

Associates engage urbanNext as a platform. Actar’s role is to act as facilitators, but also to realize which content generated by Associates could be translated to the editorial part of urbanNext. If our readers are able to produce interesting enough content that gives other users insights into some important topic, why not bring it into our editing department proper?

IDH: How do you understand the urbanNext audience?

Devesa: For us, it’s very important that this audience is not only architects. Of course, we started thinking as architects—I am an architect and the Actar staff is mainly architects. Because it’s very important to us to support a discourse that’s inclusive of all stakeholders in the city, our Associates network already includes photographers, geographers, economists, and politicians. We are also inviting companies, institutions, centers of research, and other media—such as Impact Design Hub—to join as Associates also.

We really believe that the production of ideas is network thinking. It’s not just some editor who should decide what content is best, or which topics to feature. It is the network that is deciding what the best material is and who deserves to be in the editorial part of the site.

IDH: Being an Associate suggests a lot of effort on the part of the audience. So you see urbanNext as a common project co-created between the Associates and Actar?

Devesa: Exactly. That is why we are calling them “Associates.” We believe this is the most powerful way to engage an audience. This is going to be something new. It’s more than a link. It’s more than a social network. It’s designed to give the audience a sense of agency and a place to talk and collaborate. Our main goal is to get the audience connected and producing content with each other.

There is an important point to mention here. Providing the platform might be enough to establish a conversation between our audience members and perhaps even trigger some projects, but the digital arena at large often lacks any criteria for what can be published—that’s the beauty and a downfall of the digital realm. So, as editors, Actar plays an important role in moderating content.

Actor urbanNext

IDH: One conversation that Actar is steering urbanNext towards is a focus on the African city. What is the thinking behind this decision?

Devesa: Africa is the continent that is going to experience the most growth by far. Besides that, there are greater infrastructural challenges in Africa than in other parts of the world. There is a tremendous need for imagination towards holistic design solutions. If we are able to bring some ideas to the most critical areas—such as energy, mobility, and technology—we could create value in this context.

Within urbanNext, we created the African Cities Institute and we quickly discovered other institutions working on similar problems. For example, the Lausanne Polytechnic Institute in Switzerland is working to create better public sanitation facilities in Tanzania. We think that it’s quite interesting for architects and designers to see that, in many cases, the most advanced technologies we have are going to be applied in Africa rather than in Europe or in North America.

IDH: Education is one area where many feel design is not keeping up with the accelerating nature of our time. Do you think that the next generation of designers needs to take a life-long attitude towards education? Can Actar position itself as an educator?

Devesa: Yes! In fact, it’s one of our goals. If we want to change the future of architecture, we must change the thinking of young architects. We are providing content in a different format that is pointing toward new solutions, new conceptualizations, new discourses, and new challenges. In the future, urbanNext will probably produce some type of e-learning courses. We could even lead seminars independently from the universities. Why not? We have contributors who can organize this kind of content and these kind of courses. It’s something that we have in mind and will be working toward soon.

But it’s not just a one way street where we provide and our readership consumes. You can see that we have quite a bit going on, so often we get feedback stating that the website is too complex. In reality, urbanNext is as complex as a library. You need to apply yourself to find the knowledge you are pursuing. It’s very important to us not to look like a very fancy magazine—rather just the opposite! urbanNext is a place where you need to put in your work. Drill into you interests. Uncover (or create) the materials most relevant to you. Find the contributors that you need. As an Associate, you are ultimately responsible for your experience.

Actor urbanNext

IDH: urbanNext seems to position itself as a tool for young practitioners. What shifts in practice have you observed that have helped shape this focus?

Devesa: We have seen the crisis that has happened in the financial markets, but we also are experiencing ecological, ethical, and even moral crises. There is an opportunity to bring a new understanding of what it means to be an architect now and that starts with the younger generations. Of course there is the traditional rigor regarding a building as an object, but current architectural understandings must go much further in relation to the understanding of context. Not just context in the semiotical sense, but context in environmental, social, and economical terms.

IDH: What about the work of younger generations and their offices do you find interesting?

Devesa: One thing that I find very exciting is that offices are organizing as teams rather than around individual leaders. They identify as a group of people with the ability to resolve many different questions and take into account sociological issues in addition to technical, architectural, and urban issues. They are able to bring a greater sense of citizenship into their projects. Authorship, in a way, is changing. For me, this is a very interesting development.

Younger firms also have the capacity to communicate in new ways. For instance, you can look at an office like Ecosistema Urbano in Madrid, but there are many similar offices. Their work solves the standard design issues, but also communicates their ideas very regularly through their website, small publications, curated exhibitions, conferences, and seminars. Many firms like these are committed to academia as well.

It’s through these innovations taking place among the younger generations and their offices that I think we’ll see big changes happening in architecture in the years to come, especially as it relates to the idea of global, connected cities.

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