Oh, the smart city. I have “previous” here, over about a decade of writing about the interplay between cities and technology. And particularly, having written about The Street As Platform, and the Personal Well-Tempered Environment, and The Adaptive City, and about New Songdo City, and "new smokestacks", and how it’s easier to crowd-source a revolution than a light-rail system, and so on. And then worked on many projects, which I hope to scribble more about one day here, from Barangaroo to Brickstarter, Masdar to Melbourne.
During this time, what we might call a Urban Intelligence Industrial Complex (led by IBM, Cisco, General Electric, Siemens, Philips et al) has emerged and continues to try to insert itself into urban agendas; with little success, in comparison to the marketing spend, it must be said. One can imagine a quiet fading away of all those “Smarter Planet” promotional schemes soon, actually.
But it’s clearly not an idea that’s going to go away (for reasons good and bad.) I was be asked by both the London School of Economics and Volume magazine, separately, to write about the smart city (both were related to different speaking engagements.)
The piece for the LSE was a contribution to their Electric City conference newspaper (thanks Philipp Rode and Ricky Burdett). I spoke there about the Brickstarter project we started in Helsinki alongside many great contributions from the likes of Richard Sennett, Anthony Giddens, Saskia Sassen, Adam Greenfield, Greg Lindsay, Michael Kimmelman, Alejandro Zaero-Polo, Erik Spiekermann, Richard Rogers and others, all of whom lined up to critique the smart city idea, essentially. My talk was a little too hurried, I’m afraid, and I felt I failed to connect—which partly spurred me to present the following piece here.
While the LSE piece was written before Electric City, the Volume article was partly reflecting on an event in Rotterdam organised by the fascinating International New Towns Institute (only in the Netherlands, eh?), where I moderated a panel on New Songdo City. Their latest issue presents four case studies of new towns which can be seen as “smart cities” to some extent (Living PlanIT’s PlanIT Valley, near Oporto in Portugal; Lavasa in India; Strand East in London; New Songdo in South Korea). Really, however, they are contemporary variants on the new town idea—what Volume call “the city in a box” approach.
(Writer’s note: This may only be interesting to me, but faced with writing two pieces in quick succession, when I have essentially a single line of critique, I first of all did what I usually do, as regular readers know—I wrote too much—and produced one piece. I then snapped this in two, trimmed around the edges, and gave one half to LSE and the other to Volume, for further edits. Both published pieces have a distinct and self-contained critique, but they spring from same source, and both suggest the key idea of “smart, engaged citizens”. I’ve stitched them back together into one whole, cleaned up a bit and added a few ornamental details, and am sharing here as one single critique of the smart cities movement. It is different to the original, and so a fourth variation on a theme. It’s a peculiarly baroque and labour-intensive outcome (oh to be able to write precisely first time round) but as a process it had a certain value.)
So, as a whole this is different to the pieces published by LSE and Volume, but is constructed from the basic components of both. I hope you can’t see the join. Look carefully nonetheless, as this might appear at first glance like a destructive critique of technology in the city. It is not. Technology is culture; it is not something separate; it is no longer “I.T.”; we cannot choose to have it or not. It just is, like air. There are different forms of technology in different cities, of course, but given that technology and culture have fused (arguably, always had) the issue is now a cultural one; what kind of culture do we want in our cities? How do we orient ourselves, with regards to today’s particular technological cultures?
We know how our cities were oriented as regards irrigation, language, currency, double-entry book-keeping, clocks, looms, trains, sewage, power plants, elevators, cars, containers—these are all forms of technology, which were in some way aligned to, and sprang from, the core urban dynamics of their age (and perhaps those eternal urban drivers of culture and commerce.)
So, how do we orient our cities as regards The Network? And how might this then address the core issues of our age?
So the goal is entirely constructive, and to shift the debate in a more meaningful direction, oriented towards the raison d’etre of our cities: citizens, and the way that they can create urban culture with technology.
Although it says “manifesto” up there, this is not a manifesto in the sense that Marinetti would write one—probably for the best—but instead a quest for the right questions. As such, you might infer your own manifesto from it (even in opposition to it!)
The essay surveys three types of activities, and scenarios, demonstrating active citizens, noting some issues along the way, and then critiques the opposite—the production of passive citizens—before asking a couple of questions and suggesting some key shifts in attitude required to positively work with the grain of today’s cultures, rather than misinterpret it. (Read on below.)