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March/April 2000
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Designing for a Digital Economy
By Nevin Cohen

In just a few years, the Internet has grown from an obscure tool for academics to a worldwide community of 170 million people. It has also emerged as a global electronic marketplace. In the United States alone, the value of online business-to-business transactions, commonly referred to as electronic commerce, or e-commerce, is projected to reach $1.3 trillion by 2004 with online consumer sales exceeding $80 billion, according to Forrester Research, a Boston-based firm that studies the Internet market.

E-commerce will likely reduce the need for some building types, particularly banks, bookstores, and other businesses that primarily process or sell information-based products, giving architects a unique opportunity—perhaps even a professional responsibility—to create bold schemes for a rapidly changing environment. According to James Culberson, president of the American Bankers Association, soon half of all financial transactions in the United States will be conducted electronically, with one-third of all bank branches closing as a result. With the growth of on-demand publishing and downloadable music, new retail establishments can be designed as compact showrooms with virtually no physical inventory.

Whereas certain building types may become obsolete in urban centers, the new digital economy may create a market for residential building in areas heretofore considered impractical. Craig McCaw, telecommunications guru and former owner of McCaw Cellular Communications, insists "the real potential of the Internet is that people can live where they like." Armed with cellular telephones and solar generators, people can build homes beyond the reach of the utility grid and still have access to products from around the world. In Arizona, where $270 a month buys the photovoltaic panels and backup propane generator to run a fully wired household, developers are gobbling up the most remote vistas for luxury housing. Authorities concerned about open-space conservation may find themselves unprepared to deal with a completely new set of land-use issues. Some areas of southeast Arizona considered protected simply by virtue of their inaccessibility—such as Bisbee, a former mining town in a chaste canyon—are now being developed off the grid as luxury ranches.

Although e-commerce promises waste reduction, the truth is that, at least in the short term, surges in consumption of certain resources can be expected. Ironically, one such side-effect of online shopping has been an increase in gasoline consumption. The average American household makes more than 500 trips to the store by car each year. As consumers do more shopping online, some trips may be avoided. But if they insist on overnight delivery to replicate the instant gratification of in-person shopping, fuel consumption could actually skyrocket. Patagonia, the outdoor-clothing company, found that if it sent a product via overnight mail, transportation alone accounted for over a quarter of the energy required to manufacture and deliver it.

Architects and planners will face major challenges in the decade ahead. The first is to begin measuring the Internet's impact on the built environment by tracking "dotcom" practices, studying transportation and building patterns, and surveying the shopping habits of Internet users. The optimistic view envisions architects using this data to create prototypes that, for instance, combine gas stations with mail-order pick-up and return facilities, while employing new technologies and identifying greener methods and materials. Meanwhile, a clear view of the new e-landscape remains forever around the corner.

Environmental consultant Nevin Cohen is currently developing a program with the Tellus Institute to examine the environmental impact of the Internet.

Reprinted with permission from ARCHITECTURE (December 1999)/Copyright 1999/BPI Communications, Inc.

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