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In case you missed it, in Feb ’22 Disney announced plans to develop residential communities across the U.S, the first near Palm Springs in the California Desert. Named Storyliving, the Disney communities will be intended to foster friendships, interests and create new life experiences. At the same time, investors say that the metaverse where people can create digital only hyper-realistic communities is growing faster than any other technology seen in decades. Creating community is clearly a hot topic – in physical and digital worlds – and generating a staggering amount of new data about humans.

Before information technology, physical proximity created community. Many agree that proximity is still one of the strongest ways to make friends and build community. Something special happens in physical proximity that online communities haven’t yet found a way to replicate. Seeing the same people, in proximity over time creates belonging, safety and often acceptance of differences and mutual support. As architects (physical world designers) well know, the design of a city, a home, a resort or a campus has a major impact on how humans experience life. And historically, designers of these communities didn’t have to worry about the data that humans (and buildings) were generating. Tax dollars that govern the slow moving AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) industry enforce community values of security and safety but rarely understand, evaluate and address the complex safety and privacy issues about data in a community.

Technologists on the other hand, have been building digital communities for a couple of decades with no regulated oversight, at least not yet. Some, like Meta/Facebook use advertising (data created from spying on community members) to grow services in the community. In contrast, the Second Life community, not based on advertising has an internal economy (2015 GDP $500M) and “Linden dollar” that can be used to buy, sell, rent or trade land or goods and services with other users. Although digital only communities can innovate more quickly, they all face new types of online bad behavior and unintended consequences (for example broader amplified ways to bully, shame and spread misinformation or hide behind warped fantasies and secret lives).

As physical and digital communities continue to evolve and merge, designers need to step across a liminal space and understand the new values and disruption that technology and data will create in design. Architects (physical designers) with no idea of the complexity of digital data, surveillance and its effect on communities can no longer ignore, stand in the wings and focus on legacy processes. Technologists and product managers need to learn from Sidewalk Labs and the failed Toronto Quayside project about legacy regulation and why profit from data will never be the defining design principle of real communities where we belong.

What lies in between creating communities that will succeed in the future and what is in planning stages today?  Global human identity and control of data that designers in both worlds collaborate toward. Kudos to Irene Ng, Guy Reid and A New Reality on their work toward how our our planet will thrive in a world with double the population, resource scarcity and technology enabled communities beyond profit for one sector.