This week London hosts a jamboree of computer geeks, politicians and urban planners from around the world. At the Urban Age conference, they will discuss the latest whizz idea in high-tech, the “smart city.” Doing more than programming traffic, the smart city’s computers will calculate where offices and shops can be laid out most efficiently, where people should sleep and how all the parts of urban life should be fitted together. Science fiction? Smart cities are being built in the Middle East and in South Korea; they have become a model for developers in China and for redevelopment in Europe. Thanks to the digital revolution, at last life in cities can be brought under control. However, is this a good thing?
You do not have to be a romantic to doubt it. In the 1930s the US urbanist Lewis Mumford foresaw the disaster entailed by “scientific planning” of transport, embodied in the super-efficient highway, choking the city. The Swiss architecture critic Sigfried Giedion worried that after World War II efficient building technologies would produce a soulless landscape of glass, steel and concrete boxes. Yesterday’s smart city, today’s nightmare.
The debate about good engineering has changed now because digital technology has shifted the technological focus to information processing; this can occur in handheld computers linked to “clouds,” or in command-and-control centers. The danger now is that this information-rich city may do nothing to help people think for themselves or communicate well with one another.
Imagine that you are a master planner facing a blank computer screen and that you can design a city from scratch, free to incorporate every bit of high technology 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, whose planning — overseen by the master architect Norman Foster — comprehensively lays out the activities of the city, the technology monitoring and regulating the function from a central command center. The city is conceived 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, most efficiently. There is no stimulation through trial and error; people learn their city passively.
“User-friendly” in Masdar means choosing menu options rather than creating the menu.
Creating your own, new menu entails, as it were, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In mid 20th-century Boston, for instance, its new “brain industries” developed in places where the planners never imagined they could grow. Masdar — like London’s new “ideas quarter” around Old Street, east London — on the contrary assumes a clairvoyant sense of what should grow where. The smart city is overzoned, defying the fact that real development in cities is often haphazard, or in between the cracks of what is allowed.
Songdo represents the stupefying smart city in its architectural aspect — massive, clean, efficient housing blocks rising up in the shadow of South Korea’s western mountains, like an inflated 1960s British housing estate — but now heat, security, parking and deliveries are all controlled by a central Songdo “brain.” The massive units of housing are not conceived as structures with any individuality in themselves, nor is the ensemble of these faceless buildings meant to create a sense of place.