Urbanising technology

Periods of rapid transition have heuristic potentials. The velocity of change itself makes novel patterns legible. When the object of study is cities, legibility is even more pronounced insofar as the material reality of buildings, transport systems, and other components of spatial organisation are on the surface, so to speak. Simultaneous rapid transformation in several cities with somewhat comparable conditions also makes the variability of such spatial outcomes visible, even when they result from similar novel dynamics. Our global modernity is one of those periods of rapid change. Major advances in building and other technologies have left a massive imprint on urban space.

What stands out is that these technologies have not been sufficiently ‘urbanised’1. On the one hand, cities tend to urbanise technologies – it is not quite feasible to simply plop down a new technology in urban space. This becomes clear, for example, in the fact that the spatial formats through which density is constituted vary sharply across cities; it means that each city partly reshapes even standard technologies. On the other hand we need to push this urbanising of technology further, and in different directions. For instance, the elusive quality we in the West have come to call urbanity and tend to associate with a high-density centre might well take on different shapes in other cultures. The notion of cityness helps us take some distance from that western notion and allow for a far greater variability in what constitutes urban density and its technologies. This opens up a whole field for research and interpretation, and invites us to reposition western notions of urbanity and to explore a far broader range of articulations of building technologies and urban space.

A first step into this exploration of what it means to urbanise technology is to engage the notion of intelligent systems, a rapidly expanding input for cities. In other words, what does it mean to use intelligent systems without de-urbanizing cities?

The limits of intelligent systems

Much of what is put under the ‘smart city’ umbrella has actually been around for a decade or more. Bit by bit (or byte by byte), we have been retrofitting various city systems and networks with devices that count, measure, record, and connect. The current fashion, however, centres around a costlier, difficult to implement vision. Rather than retrofitting old cities, the buzz today is about building entire smart cities from scratch in a matter of a few years (hence the alternative name ‘instant city’) at what seems to be an average price of US$30 to US$60 billion (€23.5 to €47 billion). Building such a city is a daunting proposition. But I think the biggest challenge is more conceptual: it is the need to design a system that puts all that technology truly at the service of the inhabitants, and not the other way around: the inhabitants as incidental users.

The best known example of an instant smart city is the now famous Songdo International Business District, an intelligent city near Seoul that is equipped with advanced sensors and monitors from Cisco Systems, among others. The city’s multitasking devices are able to open and close, turn on and off, or stop and start everything: from the toaster to the video conference with your boss, or the video camera view of your child at play – and that is just from the perspective of workers. All of this can be done from both your home and your office, though the distinction between the two becomes increasingly fuzzy in a fully ‘sensored’ city. Songdo is also about recycling and greening: it is built on reclaimed land and deploys all the latest green technologies.

The other famous example would be Masdar City, in Abu Dhabi. Designed to be carbon free, it is both more scientific, yet, in many ways, less ‘business intelligent’ than Songdo. It is common to emphasise the commercial side of Masdar as a showcase for products from firms around the world. But I think it is incorrect to simply see it as a commercial showcase. I would describe it as a laboratory, or what social scientists refer to as a natural experiment: a piece of real life that functions as a window, allowing us to learn about an abstract, complex condition (for example, a fully intelligent and green large city), that we cannot replicate in a university laboratory.

Masdar has the same upper and lower worlds that all cities have, but in this instance the lower world includes much more than the usual pipes and tunnels. In Masdar it also includes a hidden trove of advanced technologies for handling all of the basic urban systems: all that flows in and out of the city, whether water or refuse, is measured and monitored and thus produces information. In this sense, everything in Masdar is considered significant. Even refuse is not simply refuse – it is a source for building knowledge. Meanwhile, the upper part of Masdar, built on a raised platform to give the technology ‘plumbers’ access to the pipes, is a showcase for an enormous variety of green technology.

All of this brings me to the second reason why I think of Masdar as a laboratory, albeit a lived-in one: few places in the world will be able to replicate Masdar. It is a multi-billion US$ investment for 40,000 residents. While the retrofit innovations of Amsterdam Innovation Motor (AIM) can be replicated throughout the world, in rich and poor cities alike, it is unlikely that anyone will replicate Masdar.

At the other end of the scale is China, which is also building cities – at least 20 of them are on the drawing board as I write. China will need to house well over 300 million people in the next few years. Its new cities will be planned and intelligent but they will not be little Masdars. They will be giant cities. They will have generous budgets of several hundreds of thousands of US$ to plant and maintain millions of trees, and, with luck, they will have bike lanes and photovoltaics everywhere. That would be a good practical beginning. We need both: a laboratory for the ideal as well as the practical solution.

What comes next is worrisome

The first phase of intelligent cities is exciting. The city becomes a living laboratory for smart urban technologies that can handle all the major systems a city requires: water, transport, security, waste, green buildings, and clean energy. The acts of installing, experimenting, testing, or discovering can all generate innovations, both practical and those that exist mainly in the minds of weekend scientists. This is thrilling. And these are projects that will involve foreign and local inventors, scientists, technologists, firms, artists, and curious tourists from around the world. This phase is likely to create a public conversation, not just between the residents and the city’s leadership, but also horizontally, among citizens comparing notes. It could lead to a new type of open-source network: instead of simply having IT workers detect and fix software and recode to solve problems as they see them, there would be a collective upgrading and problem-solving dimension involving citizens, a sort of open-source urbanism.

But the ensuing phase is what worries me; it is charged with negative potentials. From experimentation, discovery, and open-source urbanism, we could slide into a managed space where ‘sensored’ becomes ‘censored’. What stands out is the extent to which these technologies have not been sufficiently ‘urbanised’. That is, they have not been made to work within a particular urban context. Consider the sharply varying kinds of architecture and building types that have evolved around the world in response to the need for increased density. Masdar looks nothing like Songdo. And compare Dubai and London; both have dense centres but they are built in very different styles. Technology systems that might work in one city might not be desirable in another. But it also tells us that a city can urbanize that technology and wire its capacities into an older concept of the urban or into a whole new visual order.

The push to urbanise technology

We need to push this urbanising of technology further, and in different directions.

Wherever I go in the world, I find at least some technologists, urbanists, and artists who are beginning to ‘urbanise’ technology. Cloud9, a Barcelona-based project that mixes science, technology, and architecture is a good example, one that draws and needs all types of people – children, professionals, and tourists alike. When this happens, the city becomes a heuristic space; it talks with the average resident or visitor rather than simply commanding them. The technology becomes visible and explicit and can be understood by any passer-by. I have long thought that all the major infrastructures in a city – from sewage to electricity and broadband – should be encased in transparent walls and floors at certain crossroads, such as bus stops or public squares. If you can actually see it all, you can get engaged. Today, when walls are pregnant with soft- and hardware, why not make this visible? All of our computerised systems should become transparent. The city would become literally a publicly shared domain.

The challenge for intelligent cities is to make the technologies they deploy responsive and intellectually/practically available to the people whose lives they affect. Today, the tendency is to make them invisible, hiding them beneath platforms or behind walls – hence putting them in command rather than in dialogue with users. This secluding of technologies reduces the possibility that intelligent cities can promote open-source urbanism.

Open source urbanism?

Taking the urbanising of technology to the next stage would increase and diversify the articulations between technology and urban space. It would unsettle current internal boundaries in cities and cut across the traditional domains ­– the economy, the polity, the social, culture. Technology and the environment can come together in many more ways than they do today in most cities.

‘Urbanised’ technology can make the city a heuristic space. It could tell the average resident or passer-by something about the most advanced types of applied technologies used in cities and about the variability of spatial forms through which these uses of technology work and become legible to the passer-by. This variability of spatial formats can become a powerful representation of the many ways in which technologies can be urbanised. It can show how multiple applied technologies within a city also make the diverse interactions that can take place in urban space visible, thus having the double effect of being both operational and inform the passer-by on what it means to urbanise technology. This brings to the fore the differing degrees of openness of cities. I prefer to think of this as the incompleteness of cities, which means that they can constantly be remade, for better or for worse. It is this incompleteness that has allowed some of the world’s great old cities to outlast kingdoms, empires, nation-states and powerful enterprises.

Let me take the imagery of incompleteness further. Powerful actors can remake cities in their image. But cities talk back2. Sometimes it may take decades, and sometimes it is immediate. We can think of the multiple ways in which the city talks back as a type of open-source urbanism: the city as partly made through a myriad of interventions and little changes from the ground up. Each of these multiple small interventions may not look like much, but together they give added meaning to the notion of the incompleteness of cities, the city as somewhat of a mutant.

In sharp contrast, I think there is a futile search to eliminate incompleteness in the model of ‘intelligent cities’ as propounded by and through the purveyors of increasingly massive intelligent systems. The planners of intelligent cities make these technologies invisible, and hence put them in command rather than in dialogue with users. One effect is that intelligent cities become closed systems, and that is a pity. It will cut their lives short. They will become obsolete sooner. And, as these complex technical systems become obsolete, they may drag down with them the buildings within which they are housed. This becomes particularly acute given the accelerated rate of technological obsolescence.

Beyond the imagery of open-source urbanisms, can we strengthen the positive scenario of the city’s incompleteness by actually deploying open-source technologies in a variety of urban contexts? Can we urbanise open-source technology itself, and might the complexity of urban settings help us do so?

As a technological practice of innovation, open source has not quite been about cities, but about the technology. Yet it resonates with what cities have and are at ground level, where its users are. The park is made not only with the hardware of trees and ponds, but also with the software of people’s practices. A good example here is the turnaround of New York’s Riverside Park from being a no-go zone in the 1970s to being a park for all those who wanted to use it, in part because dog owners started to walk their dogs in large numbers. Having a dog was itself an effect of feeling insecure in a city of high murder rates and much mugging. But the city allowed people to talk back: get a dog, walk your dog, usually a routine of mornings and evenings which produced a group effect, and you recover the territory of the park. This shows us how the mix of urban space and people’s daily practices generated a public good –no matter how selfish the dog walkers might have been. I see here an urban capability at work3. The proliferation of farmers’ markets was also not a top-down decision. It resulted from a mix of conditions, primarily the desire of city residents to have access to fresh produce. A thousand individual decisions created a possibility for viable farmers markets.

Could urbanising open source technology and its cognates generate such capabilities? Sorts of events whereby hundreds of individuals react to a condition in a similar way to produce perceptible civic outcomes: buying dogs/recovering the park, or wanting fresh produce/creating farmers’ markets? And how can this open sourcing be used to better predict and avoid negative outcomes? How can we urbanise the actual technology?

In many ways, cities tend to urbanise technologies semi-autonomously, since it is still not quite feasible to simply plop down a new technology in urban space. It requires modifications, mediations. Major advances in building and other technologies have left a massive imprint on urban space. This is perhaps most visible in the sharp increases in density and networked systems that the new technologies have made possible. But a closer look suggests that these modifications have to do with overcoming rigidities and risks, especially risks catalogued by insurance companies. This mode is then only vaguely one of urbanising the technology.

Since open source is different from those technologies and technological applications, I am interested in understanding how it can take us to the next step. I see in open source a DNA that resonates strongly with how people make the city theirs, or urbanise what might be an individual initiative. And yet, as a technology it has mostly not engaged the city. I think that it will require making. We need to push this urbanising of open source technology to strengthen horizontal practices and initiatives. Leading urban civic institutions matter in this effort, but they tend to verticalise the work of making the urban. I think of this project as a sort of ‘Urban Wikileaks’. By this I mean, for instance, vertical institutions that begin to leak some of their power and bureaucratic control to a more generic operational space that enables citizens to work with at least some of what is useful in those leaks. This is akin to horizontalising what is now vertical, imposed by top-down authority and expertise. Developing an Urban Wikileaks would take cities in a very different direction from the intelligent city model – and for the better.

There is much work to be done. Recovering the incompleteness of cities means recovering a space where the work of open-sourcing the urban can thrive.

This piece is based on a two-year research project with the same title supported with an AUDI research grant.

1 “Urban Stories, or…Towards a Hermeneutics of Big Data” Presented at the Urban Code: Big Data Conference, SENSELab, MIT, November 15, 2012.

2 This is further developed in “Does the City Have Speech?”, Public Culture, forthcoming.

3 “Urban Capabilities.” Journal of International Affairs, Spring/Summer 2012, Vol. 65, No. 2, pp.85-95

Saskia Sassen is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Co-Chair Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University.