Tech and the city: bird’s eye versus street life
The real intelligence of cities lies in the almost miraculous, unstable and spontaneous order of city life.
The social relationships between people generate the functional intelligence of cities. Imperfect, conflictive and disastrous at times, they are always open to improvement. Technology only facilitates certain processes, and the logic of collective life will defeat any attempt to implement systems that exceed the required level of sophistication. The technology which gives intelligence to the city and makes things work is invisible and has to do with diversity, reciprocal trust, finding another or the ability to appropriate and build the city together. Technological determinism inevitably collides with the unpredictability and complexity of urban life if technologically sophisticated top-down strategies are employed at a time, furthermore, of budget constraints for local authorities.
The most widespread discourse on smart cities has to do with goals such as knowing through the massive information management in real time any basic aspect of the functioning of the city. This aspiration is sensible, useful and largely possible, but only for certain urban areas and will always be only to some extent, especially for those that have to do with infrastructure and utilities management. Security, traffic and emergency management could be three fields that are clearly aiming to have complete control of the variables in order to manage and organize information to adapt management of these services (yes, I exclude surveillance, as no matter how much cameras you install, it will never work). That idea of a ghost town without people as a test bed for smart urban solution epitomises this extreme. But the constantly present promise of command and control has its own limits when you confront fabulous renders and integral visions of smart cities with real life how things happen in a city.
The main way to uncover these kinds of visions is to consider how cities are described in presentations and commercial brochures. A wide variety of the same bird´s eye views that dominate the debate share the same perspective from above. When an urban system is viewed from above – as usually occurs in the mimetic presentations you can always find rendering fabulous aseptic-ideal cities – the underlying concept makes that only infrastructures and urban form are visible. And when you can only see infrastructure, the aim to automate the control and management is the first reasonable temptation, but the city is much more than that. Those renders cannot even depict people (not to say the complexity of social interactions) and smart cities become a matter of managing infrastructures, designing cities from scratch and build an illusory feeling that everything can be under control.
Thus, scale and perspective determines what you see and how you see it. It’s going down the ladder to street level where we can find other things, no visible from above and not portrayable in a render. From this level, the intersection of urban life and technology raises issues, fields of knowledge, possibilities and consequences irrelevant for the kind of smart city visions dominating the landscape. This is the reason for the dialogue of the deaf that is occurring on this topic. Two different points of view and two different concepts of what a city is. It is not easy to find bridges considering they are two divergent concepts not purely aesthetic or semantic, but involving different conceptions of the cities, the needs to be answered and the tools to develop.
In a vision from above, a city is just a layout of streets, but what happens there is hidden. A street turns to be just the place to deploy sensors, a street is just a road where traffic flow occurs, a street is a physical feature and complexity can be comprised into algorithms that kill every piece of randomness. But taking the “city” dimension as a macro reference runs the risk of losing the idea of citizenship, politics, conflict, public space, etc, permanent elements of collective life that will remain beyond current technological sophistication. These ideas are hidden behind the futuristic skyscrapers, asphalt, urban form, road networks or electricity grid, the elements that are easy to find from a macro perspective and top-down analysis of the role of urban technologies. Pursuing a future of cities based on the aspiration to predict a whole city will have to confront the unexpected. And the unexpected is exactly what makes life amazing and is part of the real cities we are living in.