02 | 2021

Interview with Dietmar Leyk

„From a global perspective, today every retail space looks the same“

Sustainability, resilience, quality of life, digitalization—the city of the future will face enormous challenges. In an interview with “concepts” Editor in Chief Torsten Meise, Dietmar Leyk, the director of the HOCHTIEF-­Nexplore­ think tank “Life As A Service” (LAAS), explains how viable urban concepts can be developed and implemented.

conceptsMr. Leyk, during the coronavirus pandemic the decline of urban centers has also reached major cities and metropolitan areas. Many city centers cease to be attractive if they don’t offer any shopping opportunities. What kind of changes—both short-term and long-termare we seeing here?

Dietmar LeykThe displacement processes that are caused by the big chain stores, for example, are leading to a certain homogeneity in the city centers. And that makes the city centers less interesting to their residents and visitors. Inner cities are brought to life by the people who live, work, and spend their leisure time there. Another dilemma is the fact that people focus too strongly on a single center within a city—for example in Berlin, where I lived for many years. In Berlin you’ve actually got many small centers, and thus the opportunity to create more areas that have a character of their own.

conceptsIs e-commerce playing a role in this development?

Dietmar LeykYes, of course, and this development will continue in the future. Extended and virtual reality will ensure that online shopping experiences gain a new dimension. They will simulate the shopping experience so well that many people will no longer bother going to typical shopping destinations, for example.

conceptsBut shopping in the real world is still very different, wouldn’t you say?

Dietmar Leyk   Well, what are the things that I can’t simulate online? Sensory impressions such as taste and smell and human interactions. The question for the retail trade is: How can I promote these impressions? From a global perspective, today every retail space looks the same. Why don’t we bring in more regional differences? That’s hard to do, but it’s the right way to compete with e-commerce.

conceptsWhat role does urban design play in enhancing a city’s appeal? After all, urban areas are spaces that attract people by means of their look.

Dietmar LeykYes, definitely. Initiating this dialog about the future of our cities is certainly also our mission at HOCHTIEF. As part of this mission, we present and visualize alternative futures. That also enables every non-expert to engage in discussions with us about issues such as public spaces.

conceptsCan you tell us more about how or what you visualize?

Dietmar LeykWe focus on specific urban situations in order to show how they can change in the future. For example, today we’re looking at a boulevard in Paris that is completely lined with parked vehicles and has three lanes of traffic going in each direction. What will this street look like in the year 2035? For one thing, we’ll have fewer traffic lanes, because autonomous vehicles drive much more precisely and can save space. In addition, we’ll have no more emissions, because the vehicles will be electric. The spaces that have been opened up will be available for rows of trees, restaurants or basketball courts. The houses will change, and they’ll have facades on which the residents can raise gardens. That’s what we’re visualizing at the moment. But it’s only one of several possible alternatives. If we don’t make that visible, we’ll lose a lot of people from the discussion.

conceptsIn your opinion, what would a successful city look like about twenty years from now?

Dietmar LeykFirst of all, this city would develop differently, because we would include more perspectives from a variety of interest groups in this transformative design process.

conceptsIn other words, you see this wide spectrum of demands that people are placing on a city today as something positive? That doesn’t make decision processes any easier.

Dietmar LeykYou’re right, it certainly doesn’t. However, it’s not enough to have a plan and a basic layout for urban development. You have to include more parameters in the process. Today we can handle complexity much more effectively through technologies such as extended reality and parametric design. For instance, you can also instantaneously simulate economic effectsthus answering the question “What does this mean for the investor?” In my opinion, the successful improvement of planning processes is part of a successful city.

conceptsAnd what result do you expect to see at the end of these processes?

Dietmar Leyk I believe that we are allowing our cities to become too homogeneous. We need more spatial diversity: large, small, high, low. Spatial variety also attracts other mixes, in terms of social groups, age structures, and the way we use space. And if we combine spatial variety with the desire for more green areas, flexible architecture, and a zero-emission traffic system, we’re already very close to my ideal conception of a city.

conceptsThat sounds a bit like the European Union initiative to create a new European Bauhaus movement. Do you support this initiative?

Dietmar LeykEvery initiative that is moving in a sustainable direction is worth supporting. And one thing I can tell you is that here at LAAS and Nexplore we are engaging in a dialog with the new European Bauhaus. We want to join this discussion and contribute to this design process. However, I hope it won’t be too closely modeled on the historical Bauhaus and that it will promote open processes instead.

Leyk, an architect, is the director of "Life As A Service" (LAAS), a think tank that was founded by Nexplore in 2019. LAAS is a collaborative network and research platform that aims to help invent the cities, villages, and landscapes of tomorrow by holistically linking digital services with human values. Leyk is 58 years old and lives in Zurich and Singapore.