At the most fundamental level, hybridity simply refers to a combination or mixture. Beyond this broad meaning, the term has recently been popularised to specifically describe overlaps between and blending of physical and digital space (on-site and on-line). In this context, arguable the most common reference is the hybrid meeting, combining in-person and remote, conference-call enabled participation. Increasingly, digital connectivity not only leads to hybridity as part of meetings but for most activities and spaces. The modern rail journey combines fast physical movement to facilitate in-person engagement with connectivity through Wi-Fi enabling productive work en route; vehicles in our streets are physically navigating space while increasingly relying on digital communication for directions, safety and vehicle maintenance; virtual hospital wards are converting homes into care units via high-frequency digital check-ins by doctors and nurses; and the sight of pedestrians in public spaces not operating a smart phone or at least using earphones connected to the mobile internet has become increasingly rare.
The explosion of this type of hybridity, the mixture of physical and digital space, will inevitably re-shape urban environments and is likely to lead to the establishment of fully hybrid cities. In fact, digitalisation became an accelerating factor of the contemporary urban age: fast and reliable digital connectivity concentrated in cities is adding to their locational advantages, while a basic anthropological desire for physical travel and in-person engagement is more easily fulfilled not least due to hybridity. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing the climate emergency, and dealing with various aspects of a global polycrisis have also challenged the collective confidence that cities will simply advance following the same broad trajectory of recent decades.
The situation requires a deeper understanding of the coexistence, complementarity and competition between the physical and virtual. Forms of hybridity already lead to concrete policy questions today: Do public spaces and streets in cities require updated design standards to accommodate new forms of hybrid behaviours? How should we value travel-time reductions as part of transport project appraisals when people are productive while travelling? What level of space provision for increasingly hybrid social services will still be required overall and in which locations? The combined effect of rapid technological change and momentous efforts for societal transitions, particularly due to climate change, will demand a more coherent analysis of and proactive engagement with hybrid cities.
Philipp Rode - Principal Investigator
Executive Director, LSE Cities