a Smart (?) City History

May 2016, York (UK), an upcoming theatrical performance based on the beautiful short story by E.M.Forster: ‘the Machine Stops’, written in 1909. The main character – Yuno – finally escapes from an underground city in a post-apocalyptic world in which all individuals live in standardised cells while technology facilitates and supplies all they ever need. Connectivity to the natural world is impossible; it is the machine that frames and determines one’s daily life and ultimate destiny.

The question thus arises why this quite dystopian story has gained attention again, in particular since we witness a renewed interest in parallel stories and projects; some of them – like Forster’s story – dating decades back. The fact that many of these projects – see e.g. the Archigram projects, Constant’s New Babylon – were considered utopian does not deny that these were primarily thinking-projects. Some were – ultimately – technologically achievable, but in reality over a longer period of time to come. Whether we call these ideas/projects ‘smart cities’ may be an academic discussion; but now that increasing technology facilitates a substantial use of control, maintenance and infrastructure it seems appropriate to remember and above all contemplate the contemporary values of these projects; utopian or not.

Rethinking the term ‘smart city’ and its recent history the conclusion could be that before there was no such thing; thus neglecting the given that the citizen is smart by definition. Much of the ‘smart city’ development still is tech-driven; it is possible and therefore ‘necessary and inescapable’. The city, this wonderful framework and exposure of human social life, this hybrid mixture of built environment, of public and private space has long caused discussions about how to adapt and/or react to technological developments. The city, often centuries old, is the – in part – timeless platform that assimilates technology; its environment does change due to adding digital infrastructure for a variety of reasons. The fact however that we gather and use ‘big data’ is in itself no guarantee that life in the city will improve; as long as we fail to recognize its (dis)advantages and define what we gain and/or miss.

The American economist Robert Gordon recently stated that the major inventions have been made and that all that is developed now does not add up to the quality of life. At the same time philosopher Slavoj Zižek argued for the need for ‘a new utopia’. Both may seem independent statements but, together with many other critics reflect to me the discomfort that many express about the way human values are addressed and valued. Technology serves people, enhancing experience and imagination; the city is a perfect illustration of both. Smart too often refers to control, surveillance, utilitarian use; the fact that we are now able to monitor, control and steer city life does not do justice to human life in the vibrant hybrid world a city is.

this blog/article was published on Smart Cities World on June 15th. 2016