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In this article published in The Site Magazine, Merve Bedir, Marten Kuijpers, and Marina Otero Verzier, address the contemporary emergence of distinct types of spatial configurations and conditions engendered and afforded by automation, focusing on present-day case studies in the Netherlands and in the Pearl River Delta region.

The system makes indoor work environment quieter  less dusty, and void of human bodies. Its Research & Development division relentlessly works on further automating the factory. According to Jiang Shan, a higher BYD coordinating engineer, this level of automation has been possible and profitable only because battery production includes monotonous and predictable operations.Jiang Shan, interview by Merve Bedir, Pingshan, China, 25 January 2018. Worker housing has also been partially eliminated with this transformation and replaced by more space for manufacturing and, therefore, more production capacity. The company intends to open a new double-capacity, fully automated factory in Northwest China.

Possible and Desirable Futures

While in many other parts of the world automation seems synonymous with a future of work without workers, China has found alternative ways of integrating automation technologies into manufacturing and has thus become a site of experimentation for new modes of cooperation between humans and machines. With a yearly labour supply deficit of twenty-five percent, the Pearl River Delta region remains in constant need of workers.

Ash Cloud, BYD and many new factories in the region reconceptualize the idea of a production line as a living organism by combining human and robot productivity. AI takes over the management of tasks and turns for human workers, managing their efficiency and training them on how to do certain tasks, while simultaneously operating the work and maintenance of their robot collaborators. The real-time and online control of the human worker is matched to the level of detail of each component they produce. The changing relation between worker and machine seems to lead to a condition in which the worker is not anymore the main actor in the production process. As new types of workers are the result of the introduction of automation. Yet the larger impact of this seemingly safe and comfortable work environment, created by their robotic collaborators, is unknown. As those once in control of machines are repositioned and repurposed within the production cycle, they also have to renegotiate their place in the so-called smart city and society. 

These automated landscapes and the assemblages of humans and machines they bring about are continuously redesigned—but not often by architects. Even if these technological systems demand and result in architectural and territorial transformations, from the scale of the factory to that of the city, and potentially the territories of Special Economic Zones, the domain of automation still lacks a critical spatial perspective. New configurations primarily reflect the requirements of the automation technologies, the efficiency required for productivity, corporate interests, and government incentives. However, the introduction of these technologies inevitably opens the doors to forms of spatial violence and segregation, expressed in reorganization of the industrial capitals and their peripheries into testing beds of The Next Economy, new economies integrating automation and supporting creative industries—such as in the case of Shenzhen. These transformations in the city’s labour market as well as the shift in the relations between labour, society, and architecture, materialize in developments to accommodate high-skilled workers and middle- and upper-income households, which is generally accompanied by the displacement of other sectors of society.

Shenzhen, having recently set its goal to become a creative city, has already been displaying the symptoms of a post-industrial city: mass production moving to the peripheries and other cities, rising real estate prices, new technologies and processes of gentrification. In Shenzhen the latter are strongly driven by urban redevelopment policies, aimed at attracting upper middle-class households. Its urban renewal agenda is mainly focused on the restructuring of so-called urban villages: dense informal settlements inhabited by millions of rural migrant workers, without access to social housing and security of tenure.Ying Liu, Stan Geertman, Frank van Oort and Yanliu Lin, “Making the ‘Invisible’ visible: Redevelopment-induced Displacement of Migrants in Shenzhen, China,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, volume 42, issue 3 (2018): 488. The redevelopment of these neighbourhoods have already led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of low-income residents.Ying Liu, Stan Geertman, Frank van Oort and Yanliu Lin, “Making the ‘Invisible’ visible: Redevelopment-induced Displacement of Migrants in Shenzhen, China,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, volume 42, issue 3 (2018): 490. Many of them are forced to move, while others simply cannot afford the higher rents for their renovated homes and eventually relocate to other areas, farther away from their workplaces. Many Foxconn workers are facing the same problem. In an open letter, they have requested a salary raise to cover the higher rental costs in the district surrounding the factories.China Labour Bulletin, “Foxconn workers are the latest victims of Shenzhen’s gentrification”China Labour Bulletin, 31 July 2018, (last access 24 December 2018). It seems that even before their work is replaced by machines, they are being pushed out of their neighbourhoods to make room for a new group of highly-skilled workers.

At the same time, architecture, a discipline that has historically positioned the human body as its main reference, is now confronted with the possibility of shifting and widening its own focus to a post-human one. Critically analyzing these post-human environments and sites of encounter and collaboration between humans and non-humans is only a first step for exploring and enabling possible and desirable futures—futures where bodies, whether we refer to the human or robotic body, engage in non-exploitative forms of cohabitation.

Acknowledgements

The research on the Pearl River Delta region is conducted in close collaboration with Future+ Aformal Academy, and supported by Design Trust Hong Kong and the Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

Research Team 

Marina Otero Verzier (Director of Research), Marten Kuijpers, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Ameneh Solati, Ludo Groen, Víctor Muñoz Sanz, Grace Abou Jaoudeh, Emma Paola Flores Herrera, and Chris Zogopoulos. In collaboration with Merve Bedir, Jason Hilgefort, Junwen Wang, and Lucy Xia (Future+ Aformal Academy).

Marina Otero Verzier & Marten Kuijpers
Víctor Muñoz Sanz (TU Delft); Marina Otero Verzier, Marten Kuijpers, Grace Abou Jaoudeh (Het Nieuwe Instituut)
Marina Otero Verzier, Marten Kuijpers, Ameneh Solati, Anastasia Kubrak & Klaas Kuitenbrouwer (Het Nieuwe Instituut); Merve Bedir, Jason Hilgefort, Junwen Wang & Lucy Xia (Future+ Aformal Academy), Víctor Muñoz Sanz
Víctor Muñoz Sanz & Grace Abou Jaoudeh (TU Delft); Marina Otero Verzier, Marten Kuijpers, Ludo Groen, Emma Paola Flores Herrera & Chris Zogopoulos (Het Nieuwe Instituut)
Marina Otero Verzier, Marten Kuijpers, Anastasia Kubrak & Ludo Groen (Het Nieuwe Instituut); Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Laurence Bolhaar, Aleksandar Joksimovic & Anton Anikeev (OMA); Kamil Dalkir & students (RCA)
Lichun Tseng
Design Trust Hong Kong, Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Guangzhou and Hong Kong

Automated Landscapes is a long-term collaborative research initiative on the implications of automation for the built environment, launched in 2017 by Het Nieuwe Instituut, and directed by its Research department.