The stupefying smart city

Throughout the history of technology, new tools have come into being before people know how to use them well. This is the problem we face with today’s new ‘smart city’ tools – the CCTV cameras, motion sensors, and computers capable of processing immense amounts of data. The problem is in a way understandable. It takes a long time and much experiment, entailing failure as well as success, to plumb a tool’s possibilities. This was the case, for instance, of the hardened-edge scalpel, which appeared in the sixteenth century: surgeons required nearly a century to figure out best practices and innovative operations with a super sharp knife.

But tools for the smart city come with a sting in the tail. Their application can inhibit experiment by ordinary urbanites in their everyday lives. A large city can be thought of as a complex organism whose innards do not work perfectly in sync, whose parts do not add up to a unified whole. Yet there is something valuable just about these dissonances. They can create opportunities economically, when someone seizes on a market irregularity, while lack of coherent control enables personal liberty, and disorder might make subjective experience rich and multi-layered – at least novelists from Defoe to Proust hoped so. To take advantage of these possibilities, the big city needs to be learnt. The risk is that new technologies might repress the inductive and deductive processes people use to make sense, for themselves, of the complex conditions in which they live. The smart city would then become a stupefying smart city.

When a new tool proves deadening rather than liberating in use, our first instinct may be to blame the machine itself. That is what Lyon’s silk weavers in the eighteenth century did; they attacked mechanised looms as ‘perfidious works of the devil’. Instead of blaming the machine, we want to ask how the new urban technologies can be used more intelligently – which is more a question about urban planning and vision than about machinery. What kinds of urban design empower people in the street to experiment with their behaviour, and to draw their own conclusions from those experiments?

In the 1930s, urbanists like the American Lewis Mumford and architects like the Swiss Sigfried Giedion worried about machines and materials in relation to urban design. Mumford challenged the urban planners’ uncritical embrace of the automobile; Giedion attacked the architects’ conservative use of new building materials. Digital technology has shifted the technological focus to information processing. This can occur in handhelds linked to ‘clouds’ or in command and control centres. The issue is: who controls such information and how is this information organised? Which in turn raises new issues of urban design. The questions the technology poses are much more profound than which software to buy.

In this light, I want to make first a comparison between designs that create a stupefying smart city and designs that envision a stimulating smart city. By drawing this contrast, a formal issue then appears: that of the difference between a closed and an open system. And a social possibility emerges as well: the use of stimulating, open system technology to render the city more informal. My own comments here draw on a decade of research done by Urban Age on the visual and social conditions that can enable urbanites to take ownership over their lives.

Two Stupefying Smart Cities

Imagine that you are a masterplanner facing a blank computer screen and that you can design a city from scratch, free to incorporate every bit of high tech into your design. You might come up with Masdar, in the United Arab Emirates, or Songdo, in South Korea. These are two versions of the stupefying smart city, Masdar the more famous, or infamous, Songdo the more fascinating in a perverse way.

Masdar is a half-built city rising out of the desert, planning of which has been overseen by the master architect Norman Foster. The plan comprehensively lays out the activities of the city, in which technology monitors and regulates the function from a central command centre. This is to conceive of the city in ‘Fordist’ terms – that is, each activity has an appropriate place and time. Urbanites become consumers of choices laid out for them by prior calculations of where to shop or to get a doctor the most efficiently.

Such practical knowledge is always necessary; the question is how urbanites get it. Foster’s idea is that there is a one-way flow from the central command centre (CCC) to the handheld. The handheld (that is, the urbanite) can report information, but the CCC makes the interpretation of what it means and how the handheld should act upon it. Masdar is an extreme in this, and also in conceiving that no knowledge of the city has to be fought for. So there’s no cognitive stimulation through trial and error, no personal encounter with resistance. User-friendly in Foster’s plan – expensive fantasy that it is – means choosing menu options rather than creating the menu.

There is a further issue here: creating a new menu entails, as it were, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In nineteenth-century European cities, for instance, new markets for semi-legal goods developed at the supposedly dead zones near the city’s walls; so in twentieth-century American cities like Boston, new ‘brain industries’ developed at the edges, in places whose zoning never imagined their growth. Foster’s idea of the city on the contrary assumes a clairvoyant sense of what should grow where. Put crudely, Foster’s city is over-zoned: the algorithms of the CPU do not envision their own violation.

Songdo represents the stupefying smart city in its architectural aspect. It is no accident that Songdo is so badly designed. The massive units of housing are not conceived as structures with any individuality in themselves, nor are the ensemble of these faceless buildings meant to create a sense of place. The structures are programmed simply as functions. Uniform architecture need not inevitably produce a dead environment, if there is some flexibility at the ground plane. In New York, for instance, the ground plane of essentially monotonous residential towers is subdivided into small irregular units, which yield, along the Third Avenue in the 1920s or again the 1960s to the 1990s, a sense of neighbourhood. But in Songdo, lacking that elemental principle of diversity within the block, there is nothing to be learnt from walking the streets. And user intelligence of urban space arises basically from ground-plane experience.

When working in Mumbai, Urban Age research found Songdo-like efforts at urban design to be counterproductive. In Mumbai’s Dharavi slum, a city in itself of nearly a million people, many efforts have been made to erase the anarchy that seems to reign on the streets, to push the built environment upward, off the street, in order to make it more orderly. These efforts have largely failed, rejected by people who instead use their own street smarts for survival.

A Smart Smart City

A more intelligent attempt to create a smart city comes from work currently under way in Rio de Janeiro. Rio existed long before the computer, and its history includes the appearance of massive poverty and of violent crime, but equally of complex and living tissues of local life. Its collective physiology is not that of a well-balanced organism, made worse by its topography, a city subject to devastating flash floods. Yet its inhabitants, struggling against the odds, have made a life for themselves which most of them prize.

The role of new information technologies in such a city could not be more different than that in cities designed from scratch like Masdar and Songdo. Led by IBM, with assistance from Cisco and other subcontractors, the technologies have been applied to forecasting physical disasters, to coordinating responses to traffic crises, and to organising police work on crime. The new command centre for these activities, IBM’s local director tells us, looks forward to getting the city in reasonable condition to host the next Olympic Games. To make this centre work has required more political effort than sheer technological innovation, since Rio’s government bureaucracy has been a landscape of isolated silos; the implementation of new technology has required an engaged mayor.

The advent of computerised information sharing has not been entirely benign, in the eyes of some citizens, since the police can now be more coercive more effectively – and technological modernisation, like other forms of modernisation, can be used as a cover for disempowering or physically dispossessing the poor. Still, the principle of machine use here is coordination rather than prescription, as were the cases in Masdar and Songdo. The technology is meant to be responsive to conditions not of its own making.

It could be objected that this comparison is unfair. Would not people in the favelas prefer, if they had a choice, a pre-organised, already-planned place in which to live? The research Urban Age has carried out over the last years suggests that once urbanites rise above the poverty level, they in fact don’t. The prospect of the orderly city has not be a lure for voluntary migration, neither in the past to European cities, nor today to the sprawling cities of South America and Asia. If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way: that is how they can come to take ownership over their own lives.

Open and Closed Systems

There is a formal issue involved here: the contrast between the determinative and the coordinative use of technology shows at a deeper level the difference between a closed and an open system. Put simply, a car engine is a closed system while a discussion is, or should be, an open system. More detailed, in a closed system unforeseen activity is either integrated into the existing rules – the algorithms – of the system, or expelled as irrelevant ‘noise’. Both feedback loops and exclusion help the closed system maintain its equilibrium. Whereas in an open system, balance is not so much the aim: the system is programmed to evolve, being open to the unforeseen, changing its very structure as it absorbs new data. ‘Noise’ is valued. Yet another way to think about the difference is that open and closed equate linear and non-linear. In a closed system, when change occurs it is meant to happen in a one-after-another problem-solving fashion, whereas the process of change in an open system does not try to resolve all conflicts; its greater emphasis on chance means that the system inhabits non-linear time.

Cities are open, non-linear systems. They grow in unpredictable ways, which would be missed by closed-system thinking. For instance, increasing population density in cities follows an erratic, non-linear path – even more so in today’s Asian and Latin American megacities than in the European cities of the nineteenth century. It would be bad science if we tried to model this growth using closed-system concepts of equilibrium and integration. Again, at a certain point large size and high density make for new urban forms; Rio is something more of a public realm than the addition of all its individual streets. The danger of much closed-system urbanism is to treat the city instead as nodes and locales that can be added up, a linear progression up from the small to the large or down from the large to the small. Exactly this kind of urbanism appears in the planning of Masdar and Songdo.

Informality

In sum, a better use of new technologies would focus more on coordination than on command, and it would suppose an evolutionary, open system rather than a steady-state, closed system. Further, smart-smart urbanism should follow specific planning principles, privileging the complexity of ground-plane design, recognising the cognitive value of pedestrian experience. The result would be that technology might aid informal social relations rather than repress informality in the name of coherent control. The use of Facebook in the Arab Spring of 2011 is an obvious and extreme example of doing so, but in more peaceful urban conditions why should we want to marry the technological and the informal?

Informal social processes are the genius of the city – the source of innovation economically and the foundation of an arousing social life. Technology must be part of the process of giving the city that informal energy – and can do so, if we think of our new technological tools as enabling the open systems of the city.

Richard Sennett is Professor of Sociology at LSE and New York University.