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A (Smart) City Is Not a Tree

Like “sustainability” before it, “smart cities” has become a buzzword that means almost anything and almost nothing. Behind the often-empty words lie ideas with real merit, however—the ideas that resonated enough to make both terms buzzwords in the first place. Faced with this confusion, and not wanting to waste time peeling back the layers of nonsense, it’s tempting to  simply say that if you have to ask what smart cities are, you’ll never know.

Smart cities. That thing IBM is doing in Rio. You know, IBM—the inspiration for HAL 9000. What? Smart cities sound less fun when you imagine that an antagonistic supercomputer is what will make them smart. Haven’t decades of dystopian fiction inoculated us against wanting to run human institutions with powerful, centralized technology? Two pieces I’ve recently come across have helped to crystallize my thoughts about this: an article by Saskia Sassen and a blog post by Adam Greenfield.

Sassen and Greenfield both make a similar point: The biggest part of the hype about smart cities has been directed toward built-from-scratch experiments like Masdar City (Abu Dhabi), Songdo International Business District (South Korea), and Eden-Olympia (just kidding—for the Ballard fans). These examples, Greenfield notes, resemble high modernist, centrally-planned totalities that have been “consecrated to the needs of the administration.” History has shown repeatedly that the people who actually live in such environments give up more than they get back. Sassen characterizes the risks accompanying smart cities as follows: “From experimentation, discovery, and open-source urbanism, we could slide into a managed space where ‘sensored’ becomes ‘censored.'”

As an alternative, Sassen and Greenfield both call for, in Greenfield’s words, “technical systems in which value is both produced from the bottom up and primarily returned to the parties responsible for its production.” In short, smart city technology will not make cities better places unless they are transparent and responsive to the inhabitants of those cities. Greenfield cites Foursquare as a prime example of a convivial, decentralized tool that belongs to and benefits those who use it. A truly smart city is one in which individuals have the capacity to use information about their environment for their own ends, and in this sense, Greenfield points out, “cities are always already smart.”

The top-down Smart City is at worst a panopticon and at best an iPod. At worst, the dystopian fantasies could be somewhat true, with everyone on their best behavior knowing the “city” is monitoring them at all times (this is extreme, I admit). At best, the Masdars and IBM-operated Rios could be like Apple devices: anticipating everything you (think you) need better than you can, running smoothly almost all the time, wowing you with their design and consistency, but good luck opening the hood to see how the thing works, much less modifying it to your own specifications. A city is not a device, a tree, a consumer product, or a unified system. It’s a messy assemblage. At least, the ones that you’d actually want to live in are.

3 Comments on “A (Smart) City Is Not a Tree”

  1. bncrain says:

    This reminded me of an old Where post from ’08. Yes, I’m promoting myself on your blog before you’re even a dozen posts in. ;-P

  2. kneelingbus says:

    Go ahead, promote away. That’s a great post. It’s amazing how long ago 2008 seems when you talk about the internet–a lot of stuff that seemed new then feels now like it’s been around forever.

  3. In Detroit the trees are just the right smart

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