Fri, Dec 07, 2012 - Page 9 News List

‘Smart cities’ have to be able to reflect messiness of real life

The urbanists meeting in London this week at the Urban Age conference should not forget that the utopias of the past have too often turned to nightmares

By Richard Sennett  /  The Guardian

Uniform architecture need not inevitably produce a dead environment, if there is some flexibility on the ground; in New York, for instance, along parts of Third Avenue monotonous residential towers are subdivided on street level into small, irregular shops and cafes; they give a good sense of neighborhood. However in Songdo, lacking that principle of diversity within the block, there is nothing to be learned from walking the streets.


A more intelligent attempt to create a smart city comes from work currently under way in Rio de Janeiro. Rio has a long history of devastating flash floods, made worse socially by widespread poverty and violent crime. In the past people survived thanks to the complex tissues of local life; the new information technologies are now helping them, in a very different way to Masdar and Songdo.

Led by IBM, with help by Cisco and other subcontractors, the technologies have been applied to forecasting physical disasters, to coordinating responses to traffic crises, and to organizing police work on crime. The principle here is coordination rather than, as in Masdar and Songdo, prescription.

Is this comparison not unfair? Would people in the favelas not prefer, if they had a choice, the pre-organized, already planned place in which to live? After all, everything works in Songdo. A great deal of research during the past decade, in cities as different as Mumbai and Chicago, suggests that once basic services are in place people do not value efficiency above all; they want quality of life. A hand-held GPS device will not, for instance, provide a sense of community.

Moreover, the prospect of an orderly city has not been a lure for voluntary migration, neither to European cities in the past 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; this is how they can come to take ownership over their lives.

There is nothing wicked about the smart city confab London is hosting this week. Technology is a great tool, when it is used responsively, as in Rio. However, a city is not a machine; as in Masdar and Songdo, this version of the city can deaden and stupefy the people who live in its all-efficient embrace. We want cities that work well enough, but are open to the shifts, uncertainties and mess which are real life.

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