Few trends in the professional world of architecture and planning have been as annoying over the last few years as the Smart City phenomenon, but now it’s time to give up resistance: it seems like Smart Cities are here to stay.
Why are Smart Cities so annoying? In the first place it’s the old-fashioned futurism, the jubilant mood about new technologies, predicting how the world will become a better place by employing an endless stream of gadgets and technological inventions. As always, the suggestion is raised that technology is an objective and value free issue, and anyone can benefit. In reality decisions are based on efficiency and economy, and the open access to new systems is questionable.
Also irritating is how the lure of big money (predicted Smart City investments: 3.3 trillion dollar) has led to marketing campaigns that present electronic multinationals as do-gooders, only interested in creating more liveable and better cities; but what it boils down to is a conference screen in your living room and a virtual hotline to the doctor and the library; what Richard Sennett called the Stupefying Smart City. Like the videotape format war in the seventies, the big electronic and engineering firms are completely at a loose end to win the race as to who will set the standard for smart systems: the one by building a flashy museum on the city of the future, the next by wiring a whole city as a demonstration project.
- City cockpit, Rio de Janeiro. (image from ’Urbanized’, a documentary film by Gary Hustwit)
But let’s not pester the private companies. The most disturbing are the politicians and policy makers who are happily lead by the hand by CEO’s to suddenly become the main advocates of Smart City concepts; uncritically joining the worldwide city competition who is the smartest, announced in lists that are frequently revised according to fluctuating criteria.
The first necessity in making Smart Cities valuable is that governments stop following the fashion and position themselves independent of the private sector, acquire knowledge and formulate a vision on how they want smart technology to serve and improve their cities. And this vision should not only be motivated economically. Because of course it is not a coincidence that smart city concepts are becoming popular now that we (at least in Western Europe) are in the middle of an economic crisis; smart cities seem to be the way to save on public finances by improving the efficiency in health care, traffic, safety and in general the coordination of public services. This has hugely contributed to their popularity.
This combination of new technologies that offer a solution to an urgent economic problem and promise modernization and optimization at the same time makes that Smart Cities are here to stay. But in what way? My prediction is that we will get the efficiency but not the fun. Like in the sixties, when the futuristic prophecy of a completely connected and mobile city including sci-fi cars produced only one aspect of the vision, the ‘dumb’ hardware of a spaghetti of highways. In our era, I’m sure there will be an ‘integrated law enforcement solution’ in which data of police, CCTV and security companies will be connected; I’m not so sure there will be auto-driving and auto-parking cars so that streets will become more liveable and usable. I’m sure there will be ‘community intelligence’ projects, a euphemism for further retreat by government and –under the motto of participation- an outsourcing of public tasks to citizens; I’m not so sure the future relation between government and citizens will be profoundly reformed into a more direct democracy. And despite the optimism of designers and architects I don’t think the Smart City will look very much different; its technology doesn’t necessarily have spatial implications, as the realized examples show. The city will, however, become more efficient, controlled and regulated, in short: more boring.
But now that the showcase examples of Smart Cities in the East are increasingly seen as failures, and the centralization experiments of urban networks prove more complicated than predicted, there is a new type of Smart City being advocated by for example Anthony Townsend, who suggests the building of a Smart City like the (bottom up) web in stead of like a (top down) mainframe. This vision of a small scale Smart City seems to be taking off and is surely more promising than the commercial top down one.
Surprisingly enough it might not be the East but the global south we need to look for to see the most interesting developments: the application of ICT and other technologies in the developing world shows small innovations with big implications taking place. A complete phase in urban development, that of the collective physical infrastructures (of banking, education and energy for instance) is being skipped. Futuristic systems are born out of necessity, and have an urgency that accelerates development. This type of small scale Smart City is what I will be following with curiosity.
Richard Sennett, The Stupefying Smart City, 2012,
Anthony M. Townsend, Smart Cities: Big data, Civic Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia, New York (W.W. Norton & Company), 2013