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Smart cities, smart people

Smart cities, smart people

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I recently had the pleasure of attending The Economist's conference on the future of cities. At the heart of the conference was a thoughtful presentation by Richard Sennett of the LSE on "smart cities".

"Smart cities" are a much-hyped phenomenon. Technology providers have promoted "smart" solutions to urban challenges, with varying degrees of success. All too often, their ideas have foundered on political and bureaucratic obstacles, or have proved unworkable because of conflict between the vision of clean technological solutions and what Sennett describes as the "messiness" of people's lives.

Sennett outlined two approaches to "smart city" planning:

  • prescriptive: what we might call "top down" planning, where technology is designed into the city plan from the start.
  • coordinated: where technology responds to the way people actually live.

Sennett's "prescriptive" approach bothered me hugely. Generations of planners and architects have tried to redesign cities according to "modern" principles (for their time). They have the best of motives, but too often their solutions are inadequate. Changing the form of a city does not change its substance.

I was reminded of Le Corbusier's vision of a "radiant city". Appalled by the poverty and deprivation in the slums, Le Corbusier set out to define an architecture which would replace the grim, overcrowded dwellings in the poorer parts of cities, and also - more importantly - change the way in which people lived. He envisaged his architecture enabling new, vibrant communities to develop. But when his ideas were put into practice, the reality was rather different. Brasilia was designed according to his ideas.....Brasilia, castigated by Kit Malthouse of the Greater London Authority as an example of how NOT to plan a city.  Le Corbusier's vision, as applied by Niemeyer, became an inhuman monstrosity. Among other things, Brasilia was designed without pavements, because it was anticipated that no-one would walk anywhere - but most of Brazil's population was too poor to afford cars. And most people are still too poor to live there. Around it now have grown up shanty towns and villages. They aren't beautiful like central Brasilia - but at least they are real.  For Malthouse - and for me -  "heavily planned cities don't work".

Closer to home (for me) is Pepys Estate in Deptford, where I briefly worked as a housing officer. That too incorporated some of Le Corbusier's ideas. But here, the effect was not to build new communities - it was to tear existing communities apart. Pepys Estate was an award-winning estate and, at the start, a highly desirable place to live. It had walkways - lots of them, suspended between the housing blocks at many different levels. And it had large areas of Le Corbusier's "clean" plate glass in its tower blocks. But by the time I worked there, the plate glass was constantly smashed, the laundry rooms and lifts on each floor of the tower blocks were vandalised, the communal areas were filthy and the walkways had to be shut off because they made it impossible to catch the criminals who infested the estate like rats. I felt so sad.....it should have been a lovely place, built on the Thames waterfront with large amounts of green space and really nice, well-built flats. But it was in one of the poorest parts of London, and the reality of people's lives there was grinding poverty and crime. Security in the blocks has improved since, but nothing else has changed much - except in the part of the estate that has been sold to private developers. There, the refurbished flats are sold for £millions to City types. The BBC documentary The Tower poignantly showed the contrast between the life of the rich in the private area and the life of the poor in the part that is still social housing. No "clean, modern" architecture and no "smart" technology can ever overcome the problems of poverty, crime and social alienation - but money can.

And yet....the "coordinated" approach is not without its problems. Like Malthouse, I am more comfortable with a more evolutionary approach to city development. However, Sennett commented that coordinated approaches to smart technological implementation in cities often rely heavily on GPS to track people's movements and respond accordingly. There are obvious issues with privacy and individual freedom. And a piecemeal approach to city planning can result in pockets of "smart" technology adding no real value because they are disconnected from other, crucial, functions. Top-down planning at least has the benefit of being comprehensive.

Smart technology can do beautiful things. In Bradford, there is an artificial lake, complete with fountains, outside the town hall. It self-empties every night, so the basin can be cleaned. In the morning, you can walk across the lake on dry land, but by lunchtime it has filled up. And in the evening it lights up, proving a nightly laser show for residents and visitors. For a city that lacks a natural waterway, it is a lovely solution to the human desire to live and work by water, with technology compensating for the absence of the self-cleaning capabilities of natural lakes and rivers.

But smart technology can also result in some terrible mistakes. Sennett talked about GPS technology making it possible to remove road signs so that people are forced to "read" each other's behaviour at road junctions. The problem with this is that some people are jerks, and you don't know from a GPS signal whether the other driver is a jerk - though the sort of car they drive might be a clue. Recently there was an experiment with "shared space" in the centre of Ashford, Kent. All road signs were removed, and pedestrians, cyclists and cars shared the space equally. It was hailed as a success, because the general speed of traffic slowed down considerably and there were very few accidents. But it was unpopular. Pedestrians said they felt unsafe, so avoided the area completely. Perhaps this is because we are all so conditioned to observe road signs and walk only on pavements, or drive only on roads, that when these controls are removed we don't know how to behave. But it just shows how difficult it is to change people's behaviour. It may be that GPS signalling will make road signs redundant. But it won't eliminate the minority of the population who are jerks, and it won't stop people being afraid that the driver of the car opposite them is one of that minority. Technology alone cannot make people feel safe when the things that they have previously relied on to make them safe are removed.

Sennett himself is not blind to potential problems. He outlined six issues with "smart city" technology.

1. Too tight a fit between form & function leaving no room for growth. Technologies need to be able to change and develop along with the cities they serve.

2. Insufficient demand to push down prices - there aren't that many large cities

3. Over-reliance on generic solutions - one size does not fit all, but cost considerations may encourage city plans to adopt off-the-shelf technology that ill fits the needs of the population

4. Lack of democratic control of technology.

5. Disabling people's natural "inductive capabilities"

6. The technological dream of a "friction free" environment can trivialise human relationships.

Of these, for me the last three are the most important.

As our lives become ever more controlled by technology, we gradually lose control of our own destinies. This happens in two ways: firstly because we have no means of defining the technology upon which we depend - it is defined for us by the designers and creators of that technology; and secondly because as we become more dependent upon technology, we become less capable of doing things for ourselves.

The second of these is obvious, really. Decline of human capabilities and creeping reliance on technology has been evident for a long time. Things like mental arithmetic, for example: when calculators are readily available on smartphones, does anyone really need to know how to work out their shopping bill in their heads? As a singing teacher, I resist the temptation to "teach to the machine" - showing singers how to use a microphone instead of teaching them how to project their voices. But not all teachers are as purist as me: it is now widely accepted that a human cannot make themselves heard in a large space without a microphone - even though for thousands of years humans have done exactly that.

But the first problem is perhaps more insidious. When we live in a technologically-defined world, we become dependent on the design of that technology. If we have no say in how it is designed, we are effectively disenfranchised. We may have the illusion of control, but in reality our lives are subtly controlled by the makers of the technology - unseen, unelected and largely unaccountable - a more pervasive and even less visible version of the "department of Nudge".

Sennett asked whether it was possible for the users of technology in some way also to be the creators of it - whether the design and development of algorithms could be crowdsourced, for example. Open source applications do allow this, and these days anyone can design an app, it seems. But smart city technology is still a specialist area, with knowledge of the solutions held within large providers. The challenge for the people living in smart cities is to take back control of their own technology from those providers. And in order to do this, they need to understand it. Deep understanding of technology is becoming essential for full participation in society. This has implications for democracy, which Sennett found worrying but I find exciting. Our present "democracy" skews benefits towards the old and the wealthy, while the young and the poor are effectively disenfranchised. But if the future of democracy lies with those who understand technology, then the balance of power will in future shift towards them - and they are the young and, perhaps, the relatively poor.

And the final issue identified by Sennett is the most deadly. The dream of technology is to create a "frictionless" society: everything works without human intervention, no-one needs to put any effort into anything, there is no struggle. This would be fine if it were only restricted to technology. But the danger is that the desire for a "frictionless" society extends into human interactions, too. The "friction"  in human relationships is what creates energy and dynamism - "animal spirits", as Keynes put it. When there is no friction, there is no reason to change. Anger is a driving force for change: sometimes it gets out of hand, and then the result is bloody, but absence of anger is unnatural and dangerous, leading people to accept the unacceptable without complaint. Do we really want our relationships reduced to the superficial? The friction in human relationships engages our deepest emotions - and from those come our greatest creative energies. Without emotion, we cannot innovate: and without innovation, without the constant renewal that comes from imagination and creativity, we slowly die. A friction-free society, where everything is done for us and there is never any struggle or difficulty, eventually becomes a dead society.

Would we really allow ourselves to become so "comfortably numb" that we allow the world around us to become stultified? Or would we eventually reject technology that made life too easy for us, destroying our ability to think and create? It's hard to say. But I was struck by a comment from Charbel Auon of Schneider Electric. He objected to the use of the term "smart" about cities. "Cities aren't smart", he said. "People are". Ultimately, a city is only as smart as the people that live and work within it. No city can be called "smart" if the effect of the technology it employs is to reduce the smartness of its people.

Technology is intended to be the servant of people, not their master. We can no more mould people to the demands of smart technology than those who would build an airport on a bird sanctuary can evict the birds. Just as the birds will inevitably still come back to their ancestral home, creating a hazard for aircraft, so technology - and architecture - that does not meet people's real needs will be bypassed, ignored or changed. For people are, and I hope always will be, smarter than technology.

Image is of Bradford's fountain and mirror pool at the heart of its City Park development, the UK's largest artificial water feature. Photograph by Christopher Thomond, courtesy of the Guardian. 


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