Time for a new smart cities narrative?

A growing chorus is calling for a more nuanced discussion of the narratives applied to smart cities and the internet of things. See, for example, Bruce Sterling’s “The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things", Adam Greenfield’s “Against the Smart City”, Dan Hill’s "On the smart city; Or, a 'manifesto' for smart citizens instead“, and Anthony Townsend’s “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia”.

I should clarify that I’m not 'anti' Smart Cities or IOT, but I do agree in principle that we need to be more careful about giving an overly simplistic view of how cities work. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, in spite of significant advances in coming to grips with cities and society as self-organising systems of systems there is still an overwhelming tendency to approach them in a reductionist manner, thus giving the impression that if only we had enough information and control then we can magically conjure utopian cities out of a hat (or, black-box). If left untempered, this narrative risks passing wholly from marketing literature into the public psyche, taking with it the impression that all-powerful algorithms hold the promise of ultimate efficiency and order for cities through the omniscient observation and manipulation of city processes.

The positioning of the narrative is interesting, given that we observed not that long ago that the application of a reductionist lens to cities and their processes often spells trouble. This occurred under the banner of 'modernism' and the backlash that became known as postmodernism. On a philosophical, sociological, and cultural level some significant headway was made in elucidating these mindsets. (See, for example, David Harvey’s “The Condition of Postmodernity” and, for a shorter synopsis, David Lyon’s “Postmodernity”.) Many modernist-era architects and planners believed that new-found mastery of cities through all manner of technological prowess allowed the messiness of cities and society to be tamed through the sanitisation of their processes. Chaos was to be replaced with rational purity. Cities, and the buildings in them, were to be seen as machines: Efficient, organised, and above all, controllable. (Perhaps it is not coincidence that Le Corbusier was initially destined for the Swiss watchmaking industry?) This ideology and its inkling of power took architecture and planning schools by storm, and it required the plain-speaking frankness of Christopher Alexander and, particularly, Jane Jacobs, to point out (much to the consternation of architects and planners of the time) that the complexity that modernism sought to remove from cities was actually its energising lifeblood. Cities are dead without it. Fast-forward fifty-odd years and complexity science is telling us the same thing. Cities, and indeed all complex systems, thrive on complexity for the diffusion of energy and information in all kinds of interesting ways.

So why then, given the benefit of hindsight and the robust theoretical framework offered by complexity science, are we heading towards the quandary of reductionism all over again? Perhaps it is just the enduring allure of utopia. Though the answer may also be that whereas some are still quite painfully aware of this recent history, those framing the current smart cities narratives are frequently (though not necessarily) less so.

The solution is as before. Cities and all of their messy complexity can’t be tamed and attempts to prescribe their processes will generally come-up short. We need not more information but more contextually meaningful information and more open access to it, and it is not technology but its relevance in the hands of citizens that truly empowers. The subtle but important distinction is that, given sufficient access to information and feedback, the self-organisation of smart-citizens from the bottom-up is far more potent and resilient than overly engineered or contrived formulations, which are inevitably brittle and biased.