Smart cities are a hot topic. They’re launched and maximized, emboldened by technology, and designed to perform. But let’s get real. Your digital platform might just be another man’s privacy nightmare; your sensors and actuators are likely generating noisy distraction to solving the problems of poverty and quality of life in our urban environments. And further, do we really have any confidence that we are indeed improving economic, societal, and environmental outcomes in our cities? Are we making a difference? We are fascinated with order, efficiency, and optimization.
We desire facts, evidence of progress, and colorful charts and graphs that purport to fully predict and prescribe our measurable activities in the real world. And yet, for every detailed examination of the structure of our lives; each identification of every urban specimen; every survey, scrutiny, and study, we have greater potential to drown in the perfect data that fails to deeply and meaningfully account for the way we as human beings exist as part of the fabric of the landscape.
Our vitality cannot be easily harnessed or applied, nor can our spirit and consciousness be manifested in our plans for the massive investments of time and money in our socalled smart cities. In fact, nowhere in our documents, defined processes, or project plans are we likely to see a serious treatment of ideas that are not somehow demonstrated through the scientific method. After all, we are often more comfortable with the winnowed truth, over those of cosmologists, artists, teachers, philosophers, and theocrats.
We find it difficult to include these voices in our assembly of the components within our material world. We are drawn to the idea that if something counts, then we must account for it. But for all the value that the emerging smart city can bring to us from its sensors, advanced models, and actuators, there are many things that become so much less by their deconstruction.
Left to the pressures of social media today, Moby-Dick might have been written in bursts of 140 characters with the hashtag #whitewhalerevenge, and related videos and still shots tagged #blubber #oil #leviathan showing Pip sobbing and beating on his tambourine.
With so many of our hours spent tagging and posting every moment of our human voyage, we are in danger of failing to comprehend the full story of our lives in our natural and physical environments. In our cities, where our buildings stand tall; our streets roll long; and our movements create an urban buzz composed of busker music from the subways, slamming car doors, engine brakes, the whirring of vending machines, the murmur of TVs, the cries and goo-goo-ga-gas of babies, and the whoosh of the revolving door—the things that make up the vital spirit of our urban lives.
Simply, it is the buildings we reside in, sleep in, work in, and so often are born and die in that have personal properties that will either support our greatest capacities as human beings, or tear them down.
It is all these things, coupled with global transportation, telecommunications, infrastructure, and climate constraints, that drive extremely complex conditions to emerge where we dump massive amounts of money and resources to build smart cities.
Yet, our population centers are far from intelligent or coordinated, and despite many pockets of innovation, our cities have had little net-positive impact on carbon control. Moreover, an uncertain relationship between the shifting demographics from rural to low-income urban remains. It’s time to acknowledge that the problem with many smart city efforts is the tendency to oversimplify the issues that cities face and to dangerously assume that those problems can be solved by technology alone.
It seems clear that the florid vision of smarter cities as gleaming, efficient towers bursting from the sands, where a one-size-fits-all technology approach creates a sustainable living environment is misguided at best and a cultural failure at worst. But I sincerely believe that it is indeed technology that may play the most important role in helping us improve our urban environments. We just need to find a better way to engage technology for the benefit of people.
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