Who are smart cities for?

There is an interesting article in Libertine magazine about smart cities.

There is an interesting article in Libertine magazine about smart cities. It is not a magazine that I had come across before, and although it titles itself ‘for interested women’, I am still not sure exactly who it is for. The idea of breaking away from the cliches of fashion, appearance and relationships which still dog most women’s magazines is appealing, but this magazine is so wide ranging (and not exclusively written by women either) that it just seems to me to appeal to interested people

Still, we should be grateful to people who publish intelligent writing, whatever the pretext. This article is written by Adam Greenfield, author of ‘Against the Smart City’, so you can guess what his take on it is. He says that so called smart cities impose their ‘smartness’ from above and are funded by big business. This, he says, makes them more interested in business efficiency than the well-being of individuals. I think this is probably simplistic and certainly there are a raft of fairly unambitioius measures that make city dwelling much more pleasurable. I am a great fan of Buschecker for example. And making cities more efficient can also reduce, for example, overall energy use, which has to be good.

But where Greenfield has an interesting point is when he talks about efficiency versus redundancy. He writes: ‘What looks like inefficiency on the surface may turn out to have hidden benefits, particularly those relating to a community’s ability to learn from its experiences, or to recover in a reasonably timely manner once disrupted. It’s a city’s seemingly inefficient excess capacity that allows it the luxury of trying various approaches to problem solving, and the freedom to search the total space of possibility for a better solution, even when things appear to be working well.
The same slackness grants individuals the opportunity to develop skills that might not seem useful, but which may one day turn out to be vital to their survival. And it buffers the whole system against the rise of unforeseen circumstances, as for example when otherwise vacant housing stock is used to shelter people displaced by a natural disaster.

‘The relentless focus on efficiency also overlooks the many simple pleasures afforded by city life that would be utterly unimproved by any notional optimisation. Most of us probably have a favourite example in mind, whether it be the evening stroll so distinctive of the cultures of Southern Europe, the fine art of summertime stoop-sitting in Brooklyn, West Philadelphia and Baltimore, or the impromptu game parlours you’ll sometimes see old men put together on the sidewalks of Seoul, out of little more than a gameboard and a folded piece of cardboard to sit on. These are experiences that have nothing to do with efficiency, that cannot be enhanced by computational analysis, and that would suffer terribly from any attempt to impose it.’

We all know about the serendipity of the happy accident. We need to preserve room for it in our cities.

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