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Voices Cities

Talking back to your intelligent city

Saskia SassenColumbia University

Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and co-chairs the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University. Her recent books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton University Press, 2008) and A Sociology of Globalization (W. W. Norton, 2007). Forthcoming is the fully updated fourth edition of Cities in a World Economy (Sage, 2011).

Much of what is put under the “smart city” umbrella has actually been around for a decade or more. Bit by bit (or byte by byte), we’ve been retrofitting various city systems and networks with devices that count, measure, record, and connect. For example, Amsterdam Innovation Motor (AIM), a public–private effort that identifies the potential for intelligent technology in a broad range of settings, has devised a way to connect ships anchored in port to the electricity grid, allowing them to turn off the diesel generators. Delft University of Technology, the leading technical and scientific university in the Netherlands, has developed a vast range of practical technical innovations. (It also has developed the ultimate hurricane-proof umbrella, of which I am a proud owner; let me alert the reader that its odd aerodynamic shape will attract attention on the street). A visit to their Web site is a worthwhile voyage through the minds of brilliant technologists, architects and urban planners, and scientists—all, it seems, with a strong urban sense.

The current euphoria, however, centers around a more costly, difficult-to-implement vision. Rather than retrofitting old cities, the buzz today is about building entire smart cities from scratch in a matter of a few years (hence the alternative name “instant city”) at what seems to be an average price of $30 billion to $60 billion dollars—a lot even in devalued dollars. Building such a city at all is a daunting proposition, but I believe the biggest challenge is more conceptual: It is the need to design a system that puts all that technology truly at the service of the inhabitants—and not the other way around.

The best known example of an instant smart city is Songdo International Business District, an intelligent city near Seoul that’s equipped with advanced sensors and monitors from Cisco Systems, features that are humorously described by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay in the new book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next. The city’s multitasking devices are able to open and close, turn on and off, or stop and start everything from the toaster to the videoconference with your boss to the video camera view of your child at play. All of this can be done from both your home and your office, though the distinction between the two becomes increasingly fuzzy in a fully “sensored” city. Songdo is also about recycling and greening. It is built on reclaimed land and deploys all the latest green technologies.

The other famous example would be Masdar City, in Abu Dhabi. Designed to be carbon free, it is both more scientific yet, in many ways, less “intelligent” than Songdo. It is common to emphasize the commercial side of Masdar as a showcase for products from firms around the world. But I think it is incorrect to simply see it as a commercial event. I would also describe it as a laboratory, or what social scientists refer to as a natural experiment: a piece of real life that functions as a window, allowing us to learn about an abstract, complex condition (for example, a fully intelligent and green city), that we cannot replicate in the university laboratory.

Masdar has the same upper and lower worlds that all cities have, but in this instance, the lower world includes much more than the usual pipes and tunnels. In Masdar, it also includes a hidden trove of advanced technologies for handling all of the basic urban systems—all that flows in and out of the city, whether water or refuse, is measured and monitored and thus produces information. In this sense, everything in Masdar is considered significant. Even refuse is not simply refuse—it is a source for building knowledge. Meanwhile, the upper part of Masdar, built on a raised platform to give the technology “plumbers” access to the pipes, is a showcase for an enormous variety of green technology.

All of this brings me to the second reason why I think of Masdar as a laboratory, albeit a lived-in one: few places in the world will be able to replicate Masdar. It is a multi-billion dollar investment for 40,000 residents. While the work of AIM can be replicated throughout the world, in rich and poor cities alike, it is unlikely that anyone will replicate Masdar.

On the other extreme is China, which is also building cities—at least 20 of them are on the drawing board as I write. China will need to house well over 300 million people in the next few years. Its new cities will be planned and intelligent but they will not be little Masdars, with its frills and luxuries. They will be giant cities. They will have generous budgets of several hundred thousand dollars to plant and maintain millions of trees, and, with luck, they will have bike lanes and solar voltaics everywhere. That would be a good practical beginning. We need both—the laboratory for the ideal as well as the practical solution.

The word on the (everyday) street is that the smartest city of them all will be PlanIT Valley, under construction near Porto, Portugal, by Living PlanIT, founded by Steve Lewis, formerly of Microsoft. What makes PlanIT Valley different is that it is more about smart urbanism than smart systems. The concept is to build intelligent networks that combine diverse insertable and removable electronic services. In other words, the organizations charged with building and maintaining hardware and software systems can reconfigure them with reusable components as needs change. In this way, rather than allowing the technology to control the urban environment, the environment shapes the technology. With this “service-oriented architecture,” one aim is to reduce the vast amount of waste in the design and construction industries by extending the lives of the design, the software, and the hardware beyond a single project.

The first phase of intelligent cities is exciting. The city becomes a living laboratory for smart urban technologies that can handle all the major systems a city requires: water, transport, security, garbage, green buildings, and clean energy. The act of installing, experimenting, testing, or discovering—all of this can generate innovations, both practical and those that exist mainly in the minds of weekend scientists. This is thrilling. And these are projects that will involve foreign and local inventors, scientists, technologists, firms, artists, and curious tourists from around the world. This phase is likely to create a public conversation, not just between the residents and the city leadership but also horizontally, among citizens comparing notes. It could lead to a new type of open-source network, where instead of simply having IT workers detect and fix software and code problems as they see them, there would be a collective upgrading and problem-solving dimension involving citizens, a sort of open-source urbanism.

But the ensuing phase is what worries me; it is charged with negative potentials. From experimentation, discovery, and open-source urbanism, we could slide into a managed space where “sensored” becomes “censored.” What stands out is the extent to which these technologies have not been sufficiently “urbanized.” That is, they have not been made to work within a particular urban context. It is not feasible simply to plop down a new technology in an urban space. Consider the sharply varying kinds of architecture and building types that have evolved around the world in response to the need for increased density. Masdar looks nothing like Songdo. And compare Dubai and London; both have dense centers but they are built in very different styles. This means that technology systems that might work in one city might not be desirable in others, or would have to be dramatically reworked to be practical elsewhere.

We need to push this urbanizing of technology further, and in different directions. There are qualities that we in the West have come to associate with urbanity—for instance, a high-density center with crowded public spaces where invisible rules of comity operate, such that bumping into someone else does not become a source of offense, as it might in another locale. Urbanity might well take on different shapes in other cultures, including some unrecognizable to the Western eye. Perhaps we need a new word as a way of opening ourselves to other possibilities. Cityness is one way of opening up the category and allowing for more variability in what constitutes urbanity. This generates a whole field for research and interpretation, and invites us to reposition Western notions of what cities should look like and to explore a far broader range of building technologies and urban spaces.

Wherever I go in the world, I find at least some technologists, urbanists, and artists who are beginning to “urbanize” technology. Cloud9, a Barcelona-based project that mixes science, technology, and architecture is a good example, one that draws all types of people—children, professionals, and tourists alike. When this happens, the city becomes a heuristic space; it talks with the average resident or visitor rather than simply commanding them. The technology becomes visible and explicit and can be understood by any passerby. I have long thought that all the major infrastructures in a city—from sewage to electricity and broadband—should be encased in transparent walls and floors at certain crossroads, such as bus stops or public squares. If you can actually see it all, you can get engaged. Today, when walls are pregnant with software, why not make this visible? All of our computerized systems should become transparent. The city would become literally a publicly shared domain.

The challenge for intelligent cities is to urbanize the technologies they deploy, to make them responsive and available to the people whose lives they affect. Today, the tendency is to make them invisible, hiding them beneath platforms or behind walls—hence putting them in command rather than in dialogue with users. One effect will be to reduce the possibility that intelligent cities can promote open-source urbanism, and that is a pity. It will cut their lives short. They will become obsolete sooner. Urbanizing these intelligent cities would help them live longer because they would be open systems, subject to ongoing changes and innovations. After all, that ability to adapt is how our good old cities have outlived the rise and fall of kingdoms, republics, and corporations.

  • Interesting free-ranging discussion, filled with salient and compelling examples. Still, I find it hard to believe that there was no mention made of climate change issues, including low carbon design and planning for the ultimate “abstract complex conditions”: climate change impacts (floods, heat waves, megastorms, drought, mass migrations). Nor was there mention made of energy impacts in the city of the future, including volatile energy prices and supply. Any intelligent urban designs will need to plan technologies for and design systems to measure, manage and react to these impending issues.

  • J Jeyaseelan

    Cities are economic engines, perhaps the only engines that have the capacity to realize the economies of scale as far as people are concerned. Economics, after all, is about people coming together and pooling their resources to create a viable market for each others products/services.

    Cities have however, evolved thus far on their own, feeding on the implicit economies of scale. It would be certainly more appropriate to plan and create cities that are deliberately designed, from the start, to maximize such economies of scale. While I am all for using new cities as test beds for new technologies including green technologies, I believe the primary focus ought to be still on maximizing the the economies of scale and scope.

    A vital factor that contributes to such economies of scale is better time utilization. Resource utilization efficiency comes next. City building technologies must therefore facilitate the best possible utilization both time and resources. The definition resources must be broadened to include the environment including components like air, water, land and people.

    One of the failings in most urbanization plans is the lack of focus on technology obsolescence management. This aspect must receive adequate attention in planning new cities as well.

  • Christopher Frey

    I believe that planning cities is an exciting job and a challenge for any visonary on earth. Beside of that is produces consulting and engineering income, even low skilled labour employment and stimulates many different branches of science which makes it to an incubator of interdisciplinary research.

    In reality, and maby the old book “social life of information” could be a trigger for some more reflection, in reality, new cities are somehow like new shoes. Designers are proud of them, people on fashion shows might be excited about them but in everyday life they tend to wear their old shoes.

    In reality nobody wants to live in new and designer made cities but in the old historical places. There is a different stimulus that is shining from a traditional place with thousands of years of history. People do not wish architects to plan their daily life, they want to live and develop their way. Urban planning leads to acardiac monsters. In the best case the result is some kind of Las Vegas, with or without casinos depends on the respective regional culture or religion.

    But again for the architect it is a way to become famous and it creates some income and of course in times of incertainty mediocre investors may prefer stupid investments. Stupid money does not search excellence but the next bubble.

  • Leo D

    Transparency, since the rise of modern architecture, a very appealing aesthetic argument. A much-needed, again, updated mind-blowing and appealing vision of the future.

  • Technology is changing at the speed of novel thought… we the people remain flexible to change and open to a continuum of the proverbial building of a better mouse trap.

    In large part, open to remain a pragmatic source for Smart Architecture | Print | Social Media | Creative | Business Process Improvement | Marketing | SEO/SEM | Advertising for Realtors in Santa Monica | Los Angeles | S CA.

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  • This is in line with what I’m trying to do with B2BTMS, Business to Business Transportation Management System, a business listing, as well as a transportation load board. Bring freight transportation into the 21st century through IT.

    DC being in control while dsyfunctional unless you have a million dollars to hand each party is a deal breaker.

    Connect every business in every state through a database so we have available freight as close as possible to freight being delivered. Freight shippers post freight free, if our representatives worked with truck shops, have certified diesel mechanics do inspections during regular maintenance {inspections the FMCSA now does,} have a system set up much the same as medical records we could save time, and money while creating jobs.

    Promote energy independence, lower emissions, reduce traffic congestion, wear on roads, lower infrastructure costs, reduce accidents, injury, death, and health care costs while creating jobs.

    Have college graduates working on the IT creating more jobs rather than DOT and FMCSA harassing truck drivers.

    Give tax incentives to motor carriers who buy American made tires, wiper blades, all truck related, and other goods.

    If the President Obama, Congress, Senate, and Governors of every state would give tax incentives to freight shippers/buyers who get motor carriers loaded/unloaded inside two hrs so they can maintain FMCSA HOS we’d save time/money too.

    Carriers can then get to their next appointment, reduce accidents, and bankdruptcy as result of taking shortcuts to make up for lost time and money. 9 out of 10 trucking companies go under in the first two years, 82% of lease to own carriers go under in six months.

    Give tax incentives to motor carriers who use GPS, electronic lags, and prepass the FMCSA promotes on their web site as proven and used for ten years:

    Let truck shops and mechanics do inspections so the FMCSA can do their job, audits:

    The facts show why we face all the problems we do and how we waste billions through an outdated 1980s system of freight transportation running over an infrastructure $2.2 trillion in disrepair.

    We need a transportation bil ASAP with 21st century IT bringing US into the 21st century. Why the financial crisis came to be. how much it costs to operate a truck, why carrers go under, to you name it. Why we don’t have jobs yet Presidnet Obama uses the stock market to measure US economy when US companies promote slave labor, we police the world costing trillions while out of work Americans buy Apple computer with unemployment cks so the rich can have tax cuts for jobs that don’t exist? Through efficiency we can be more competative. While healthcare is unaffordable we have egg recalls and I can’t get republicans who vote against health care reform to look into unsaitary conditions in the highly subsidized dairy industry.!/profile.php?id=100000998640285;housing Every state in the nation is broke, looking secretly at bankruptcy as if that’sa solution?

    Faster Better: points out many of the same problems as the FHWA site:

    In 2002 the US had 29 million deadhead freight miles, 20% of total 145,173 million freight miles were empty trucks. Other site suggest many more miles.


    Watch videos from Supply Chain Brain archives.
    National Freight Policy, US Dept of Commerce with Joe Holecko
    We spend $200 billion a year due to traffic congestion, will spend 14% of GDP in 2050 numbers are not the same, but they all point out millions of miles and billions of dollars in waste from lost time to health care to damage to autos, and you name it.

    Then we have the EPA and Prresdinet Obama all about better mileage and Smartway partnerships: an attempt to get motor carriers, shippers, and even trucks shops on board in support of energy independence, lower emissions, better fuel mileage, and more. The EPA has a partner list, ratings included: and while the EPA doesn’t endorse private business they promote partner shippers, freight/rail carriers, logistics companies, and truck stops to become partners.

    Look at this you see a map of the nation, every state in the lower 48, all connected through our highway, insterstate highway $2.2 trillion in disrepair, and freight transportation running on a 1980s model costing US billions of dollars ayear in waste.

  • echnological advances has no direct correlation to assist in improving the quality of life for the city’s denizens.

  • thank you all…very very helpful comments. i really appreciate the care in these comments. and yes, the environmental issue is critical. i am doing a serious project on this —“Bridging the ecologies of cities and of the biosphere.” Soon I will have a first version to put out there. …and would of course love to get your comments and observations and critiques. 🙂


  • arnaud queyrel

    very relevant and useful article + discussion.

    I suggest you take a look at the article “The City that thinks with you” published last month in the Fraunhoher magazine (pp. 34-35). Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is the german and european biggest research center. You will find interesting connections with your projects. A german researcher states in the article : “the idea is devising new technologies and linking them in an intelligent fashion to guide flows of information, traffic issues, energy efficiency or administrative matters”.

    Now, I’d be delighted to read your project regarding environmental issue and to interact with you on the subject. I’m at the moment contributing to the french book “ vertical farms, a urban truck farming” taking a critical point of view (the biodiversity perspective of (peri)urban green spaces and vegetable farming vs vertical farming). I still don’t know who has already written on the subject.

  • Dave

    Nice article. As someone who works in for a “built environment” consultancy i thought this was interesting and very relevant.

    I agree that we need to see more engaged technology and infrastructure of what makes our cities cities. The fact that everything is so cost-centric right now gives a great jumping off point to help drive this transparency and open sourcing of ideas which can truly help deliver a more for less experience to the average city dweller.

    The real challenge is to get people to see that by urbanizing, they can actually achieve greater outcomes of a more engaged citizenship for a lower financial outlay.

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