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Taking control of our lives

We want cities that are open to uncertainties, not ones that are too smart, writes Richard Sennett.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2012 22:56 IST

London will soon host 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’. The smart city’s computers will calculate where offices can be laid out most efficiently, where people should sleep, and how all the parts of urban life should be fitted together. Thanks to the digital revolution, at last life in cities can be brought under control. But is this a good thing?

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 centres. 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. You might come up with Masdar, in the UAE, 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 centre. The city is conceived in ‘Fordist’ terms — that is, each activity has an appropriate place and time. There’s no stimulation through trial and error; people learn their city passively. Masdar assumes a clairvoyant sense of what should grow where. The smart city is over-zoned, defying the fact that real development in cities is often haphazard, or in between the cracks of what’s 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 — but now heat, security, parking and deliveries are all controlled by a central Songdo ‘brain’. Uniform architecture need not inevitably produce a dead environment, if there is some flexibility on the ground. But 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. 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 organising police work on crime. The principle here is coordination rather than, as in Masdar and Songdo, prescription.

But isn’t this comparison unfair? A great deal of research during the last decade, in cities as different as Mumbai and Chicago, suggests that once basic services are in place people don’t value efficiency above all; they want quality of life. 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.

Technology is a great tool, when it’s used responsively, as in Rio. But 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.

The Guardian