Talking back to your intelligent city
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.