Skewing the city

Where parks, boulevards and towering skyscrapers now await an increasing influx of inhabitants, not so long ago there used to be only water, just plain, grey ocean. On 610 hectares (2.35 square miles) of reclaimed land in the greater Seoul area, at a projected cost of US$35 (€27) billion, Songdo City is being built from scratch. Conceived in the wake of the Asian economic crisis, the city is located in a free economic zone and intended to become an important business hub in Northeast Asia. A 7.5 mile (12 km) long suspension bridge connects Songdo with Incheon International Airport, placing it within an hour or two from many major metropolitan areas in the region: the ideal place to set out from for an afternoon business meeting in Tokyo or a weekend shopping spree in Shanghai. Songdo has been hailed as a ‘city of the future’1, and as an ‘experimental prototype community of tomorrow’2. As a complete greenfield development, it stands the unique chance of becoming one of the first genuinely smart and ubiquitous cities, and thus a role model for similar projects all over the world, designed to house the hundreds of millions who are projected to move into cities in the near future.

The vision for Songdo is largely technological, driven by an engineering perspective. In recent years, a number of companies have recognised the apparently huge potential for modern information technologies to transform the cityscape. IBM has launched its Smarter Planet initiative, for example, while Siemens has established a fourth company sector focusing on infrastructure and cities. Cisco, an American company specialising in networking equipment, is heavily investing in urban innovations with its Smart+Connected Communities programme. Cisco in particular is heavily involved in Songdo and considers it a ‘model for smart cities around the globe’3.

Cisco’s brochures summarise the central idea behind building smart cities with a remarkable statement: ‘the foundation for the city of the future will be the network and the information it carries’4. Supposedly, one starts with the network and everything else will follow. Of course, this network has a technological component that links up with different infrastructure systems, like transport, health care, education, or energy. But in the end it will serve the needs of the people, support the social networks in the city and beyond. This essay is an attempt to elaborate on the issues that are involved in a vision of the city as network5.

Connecting people through things

Looming in the background is the familiar vision of the Internet of Things, which predicts an extension of the Internet into ever more realms of the physical world. An increasing number of objects will be recognisable through ID tags, will be equipped with sensors to collect information, and will, through radio transmitters, be integrated into the larger network. Supposedly, this will create smart and sensing environments that can adjust to human needs in sophisticated ways. There will be a steady flow of information that links the physical with the social world and the data cloud. To a considerable extent, the Internet of Things has already become reality. Many mobile phones or CCTV cameras are integrated in this network now, and other objects, like cars or televisions, are likely to follow soon. In Songdo, IT specialists experiment with tele-presence systems that are supposed to deliver education, healthcare, and government services directly into the homes. Lampposts equipped with public Wi-Fi, CCTV and information services are set up all over the city.

As the Internet expands, the principles that now govern the digital world will increasingly determine the physical world and the conditions of urban living. The infrastructural networks will become increasingly autonomous and less dependent on human intervention. And yet, their ultimate purpose remains to connect people and their needs. As the techno-social networks around us grow tighter, the social and the technological spheres will become increasingly interdependent. The data stored in the networks will make our steps through the cityscape increasingly predictable and, eventually, also controllable.

The skewed city

From a social perspective, objective physical space has always been an illusion, if a persistent one6. Networks are a much more adequate representation of the social world; of friendships, romantic relationships, family bonds, or professional interactions. Humans pertain to a large number of highly complex and interconnected networks. Each of these comes equipped with its own metric system, determining the distances between the various actors in society. These metrics often differ enormously from each other between networks and also from physical space. Indeed, most social networks are only remotely constrained by their physical substrate: one may live at a distance of a thousand miles from a good friend, but in terms of a friendship network be direct neighbours.

A major force driving infrastructural evolution has consisted in the need to overcome the various restrictions imposed by physical space in order to enable more flexible social networks. With regards to communication, the advent of the Internet is certainly one of the biggest leaps towards making physical distances irrelevant.

As modern information infrastructure allows citizens to become enmeshed in a growing number of ever more complex and interconnected networks, traditional places and boundaries of the social sphere rearrange themselves, or completely disappear. With respect to physical space, the network structures of the city become increasingly skewed. Once familiar locations, like the library, the travel agency, the flea market or the department store, lose their spatial reference points and dissolve into a diffuse data cloud. Long established boundaries, which were once all referenced by physical space, between home and work, the public and the private, the commercial and the non-branded, or the urban and the rural, become increasingly blurry.

The network as carrier of social evolution

To further emphasise why networks are so important for understanding the social dimension of city life, it is useful to refer to a somewhat obscure social theory developed by the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Tarde insisted that everything social results from repeated imitation, which is only occasionally interrupted by more or less ingenious invention. The theory holds the germ of a powerful idea, recently popularised through Oxford biologist Richard Dawkin’s concept of the meme7. In an analogy to the gene, a meme is the basic entity that drives cultural and social development according to evolutionary principles. Supposedly, evolution is not restricted to the genome but results whenever the following conditions are fulfilled: there must be a) a copying mechanism, b) the possibility for mutations in a copy, and c) a selection mechanism that singles out those copies that are particularly well adapted to the environment.

If Tarde were right and much of the dynamics of the social sphere is guided by imitation, then the development of traditions and customs should indeed follow evolutionary principles, but also the development of more specific everyday, professional, or even technological skills. There is little reason to doubt the significance of imitation to our social lives. From the first days in this world, throughout the various phases of education and training, we are constantly copying skills and behaviours from others: from role models in the family, among friends, at school, or at work. And only every once in a while we step back and try to reflect on what we are actually doing, often in an attempt to introduce small mutations in order to optimise.

Why is this perspective on social evolution relevant for the view of the city as network? Because social networks have in essence become the topologies that determine the dynamics of imitation. Copies of certain ideas and behaviour are now mainly exchanged via the links of social networks. Network structures thus determine who can serve as role model, and from whom we can imitate. It is therefore crucial to grasp the basic principles of the networks in which we are entangled.

A science of networks

Until the 1990s, graph or network theory was largely a mathematical specialism with very few everyday or real-world applications. This changed completely with the advent of the computer and its power to analyse large datasets, and also with the emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web as examples of large network structures. Today, the study of real-world networks has become a major industry in various scientific fields, including biology, engineering, and the social sciences8.

The emerging science of networks has helped unearth some general principles that are realised in many social and technological networks. Most networks arise from feedback mechanisms, for example, where the simple fact that a certain node already has a large number of links increases the probability that it will acquire new ones, in the same way as a person who already has many friends is likely to make new friends more easily: not because he is such a great guy, but just because it is nice to have popular friends. As a result of such feedback mechanisms many networks have a similar structure: with very few extensively linked nodes, and a large majority of nodes with only a small number of links.

If we follow that principle, obnoxious YouTube videos apparently become viral not so much due to their content, but somewhat paradoxically due to their very popularity. Also, the rise of websites like Amazon, Facebook, eBay or Google is due in part to feedback mechanisms, and a subsequent winner-takes-it-all phenomenon. These are obvious examples, in which changes in network structure have a decisive impact on economic and social conditions9. As the Internet expands into the physical world, one can only speculate on how the basic principles of large-scale networks will further transform our social and cultural lives.

Linking things and data

A number of interesting questions arise in connection with the integration of objects into the Internet. Will future smart and sensing infrastructures have a memory of past interactions, like websites like Amazon, Google or Facebook now have? Will these infrastructures at one point become personalised10, as those websites are, presenting a best guess of what a user wants on the basis of their history? Such, and similar possibilities are already being explored at innovative research centres like the Media Lab11 at MIT. It is quite plausible that smart infrastructures will one day, in the not too distant future, be so flexible as to predict and respond to specific user needs. Simple examples may be adaptive lighting in public places, or adaptive driving behaviour of cars.

This sketch of some general features of the networked city and society leaves us in a better position to assess if places like Songdo indeed constitute a step towards the city of the future. Songdo seems determined by an engineering vision, by the technologically possible. However, at least up to its current state of development, it largely fails to address the social ramifications that are directly implied by the technological innovations used. Future city designs will have to more profoundly consider certain topics, like the shift in spatial relations implied by changing network structures, or the increasing dissolution of familiar social spaces and boundaries. They will also have to take into account that cityscapes will become increasingly dominated by the flexible, personalised, and responsive infrastructures that are a direct consequence of the Internet of Things. All these developments lead to a further merging of the social and the technical spheres, eventually realising a cyborg vision of the city as a complex socio-technical network.



2 Lindsay, G. (2010). “Cisco’s Big Bet on New Songdo: Creating Cities from Scratch”, Fast Company Magazine 142.


4 Conference overview “Sustainable Cities of the Future Conference” (2009).

5 A substantial social science literature has addressed the theme of a network society. The most influential work is arguably: Castells, M. (2000). The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

6 The relevance of the concept of space for the social and cultural sciences is now recognized to an extent that some have spoken of a spatial turn in these fields, e.g. Warf, B. and S. Arias (2009). The Spatial Turn. Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge.

7 Dawkins, R. (2006). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Ch. 11. See also Blackmore, S. (2000). The Meme Machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

8 For a non-technical overview, see Barabási, A.-L. (2003) Linked. London: Penguin.

9 Buchanan, M. (2007). The Social Atom. New York: Bloomsbury.

10 The impact of personalization in the World Wide Web is discussed in: Pariser, E. (2011). The Filter Bubble. What the Internet is Hiding from You. London: Penguin.