Dumbing down the smart city


Does the smart city concept put technology ahead of people, ignoring the very things that make us human?  Adam Greenfield, Senior Urban Fellow in LSE Cities, discusses the growing public scepticism around claims that intelligent operating systems and data analytics are the key to our future.

The 2013 science fiction film, Her|, centres on an introverted man who develops a relationship with a computer operating system, designed to meet his every need.

The artificially intelligent system, imbued with a female voice and personality, takes us into a world set in 2025 where computers dominate, controlling our lives and in this case, our feelings.

Although the script illustrates the frightening emotional reliance that people now have with technology, the subtext reminds us that computers are no substitute for the real thing.

Adam Greenfield|, a New Yorker and urban designer now based at the London School of Economics, has no issue with technology per se. Like most of the world's 1.4 billion smartphone users, he embraces digital technology in both his work and home life. What he does object to, however, is the notion of the 'smart city' as a utopian ideal.

"The smart city essentially means deploying networked digital information technology in the form of sensors, CCTV cameras, RFID readers and other sensors to map the movements of a city and manage it seamlessly," he says.

Corporate IT businesses have sold the concept as the 'ultimate lifestyle and work experience,' where cities of the 21st century are shaped by technology without regard for the complexity and unpredictability of human behaviour, Adam argues.

In his recently published book, Against the Smart City|, Adam challenges not only the rhetoric of the smart city concept, but the media's lack of scrutiny and 'gee-whiz' reportage in relation to the 'smart' solutions that are aggressively marketed by IT firms.

"Most damningly of all, the smart city actually has very little to do with cities and what makes them work. Urban life is dynamic, unstructured and chaotic - smart cities are not. Cities are a complex diversity of pursuits, tastes, habits and schedules. Smart cities are predictable - people are not," he says.

"We must learn to design for actual places and populations, not for abstract, featureless terrain; to design for the here and now, rather than some nebulous, proximate future.

"Cities everywhere are already smart and their intelligence resides in the people. Our task, as designers, is finding out how best to harness that intelligence."

In this video, Adam explains why the rhetoric of the smart city fails to take into account natural human behaviour and ignores the very essence of what makes cities thrive.

Additional notes

Adam Greenfield is Senior Urban Fellow at LSE Cities, concentrating his research on the interaction of networked information technology with urban experience, and particularly on the implications of emergent technologies for the construction of public space and the right to the city. He is the founder of Urbanscale, a New York City-based practice dedicated to “design for networked cities and citizens.”

Posted 19 May 2014