Without Architects, Smart Cities Just Aren’t Smart

Visualization of Masdar City © Foster + Partners

Arguably the biggest buzzword in urbanism right now is the ‘Smart City’. The idea, although certainly inclusive of eco-friendly practices, has even replaced “sustainability” as the major intent of cities planning for positive future development. Smart City thinking has been used successfully in countries as diverse as Brazil, the US, the UAE, South Korea, and Scotland (Glasgow just won a £24million grant to pioneer new schemes throughout the city).

But what exactly are ? What benefit do they bring us? And, more importantly, how can we best implement them to secure our future?

The answer, in my opinion, lies in the hands of architects.

More on the potential of Smart Cities after the break…

The Rio de Janeiro Control Center. Image Courtesy of IBM

A coherent definition of what makes a Smart City, as well as a ‘Future City,’ is often difficult to pin down. The idea is easily entangled in the swirling mass of utopian thinking that encompasses sustainability, , societal progress and economic prosperity. One useful explanation has been provided by Boyd Cohen of Fast Company:

“Smart cities use information and communication technologies (ICT) to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint – all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy.”

Rick Robinson, Executive Architect at IBM, has elaborated on this definition by defining the Future City as an economically successful city that is well positioned to continue that success, which creates sustainable and equally distributed growth, and operates efficiently to allow citizens to “do their best”. In turn he describes a Smart City as one that aims to achieve the goals of a Future City by implementing computing technology.

Ideas to incorporate high technology into the operations of cities have been around for some time; a major factor in driving this thinking has been the moral imperative of sustainable development, which strongly links ideas of measurable efficiency with the process of building. The pioneers of this approach therefore ditched the inefficiencies of existing urban areas to develop a city from scratch, with the most well known of these being Masdar City in Abu Dhabi.

Among the most radical technologies used in Masdar are the public transport systems; cars are banned within the city and transport is provided by ‘Public Rapid Transit’ – automated electrical podcars that travel to the destination selected by the user, almost like an automatic taxi. The city also makes use of almost every green energy technology going: energy will be generated by a combination of photovoltaics (PVs), solar panels, wind farms, geothermal energy and a hydrogen power plant.

A Masdar podcar © Jan Seifert

Another highly successful example of this tabula rasa approach to smart cities is Songdo in South Korea. Whilst in its outward appearance Songdo seems more recognizable as a global city than Masdar, there is a ubiquitous information network underpinning the city. The primary motivation for this plan was once again environmental, with energy use and other essential city services monitored and in some cases controlled by city officials, using algorithms to provide efficiency. This network in turn provides citizens with useful tools such as video conferencing and a (non-identity linked) smartcard that acts as credit card, access pass and house key all in one.

However the pioneering approach of entirely new cities has come under fire. Representatives of Greenpeace have indicated that whilst developments like Masdar are commendable, we need to place more emphasis on retrofitting the cities we have inherited from our unsustainable past. In an article for the Guardian, Richard Sennett outlines what he sees as a more fundamental problem in the social fabric of Masdar:

“The city is conceived in “Fordist” terms – that is, each activity has an appropriate place and time. Urbanites become consumers of choices laid out for them by prior calculations of where to shop, or to get a doctor, most efficiently. There’s no stimulation through trial and error; people learn their city passively. “User-friendly” in Masdar means choosing menu options rather than creating the menu.

“Creating your own, new menu entails, as it were, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In mid 20th-century Boston, for instance, its new “brain industries” developed in places where the planners never imagined they could grow. Masdar – like London’s new “ideas quarter” around Old Street – on the contrary assumes a clairvoyant sense of what should grow where. The smart city is over-zoned, defying the fact that real development in cities is often haphazard, or in between the cracks of what’s allowed.”

Songdo, South Korea © elTrekero

What Sennett fails to realize though, is that many of the technology-sector advocates of Smart cities have already moved on from developments like Songdo and Masdar, and begun to learn from them – after all, the information technology industry moves at astronomical speed compared to the construction industry. Again, Rick Robinson is arguably the most enlightening source of information: he advocates “messy, informal, organic and bottom-up forms of innovation in hyperlocal contexts within the city” in order for existing cities to make the transition to smart cities. In order for this to happen, he recognizes the necessity of communication between government and other institutions and local communities.

Similarly, Shane Mitchell of Cisco stresses a need to think outside of political boundaries: “The politically defined city insufficiently describes an emerging digitally connected city, and a multi-centred urbanised region.” Smart City theorists have already moved beyond the kind of political determinism that Richard Sennett was so put off by, now describing a highly interconnected, inclusive and holistic approach to developing the Smart City.

This approach they hope will give rise to what is often called the ‘internet of things’. This concept is similar to Songdo’s ubiquitous data network except ever changing, constantly modified and added to by the businesses and individuals in the community. By using data generated by this internet of things on traffic flows, parking patterns, shopping habits, energy consumption and much more, planners can gain feedback on the efficiency of the city and use this information to inform future policy. Furthermore, information can be provided to citizens to allow them to make informed decisions.

In Rio de Janeiro, a control center has been built to make responses to emergencies quicker and more effective. The center links normally discrete groups of information such as CCTV, weather information and reports of crime, and proved very effective last year when a building unexpectedly collapsed in downtown Rio. The control center quickly had gas and electric companies close off supply to the area, temporarily closed the subway, evacuated the area, closed the roads, alerted the emergency services and informed local hospitals. It also informed citizens of what to do via twitter and facebook.

The Rio de Janeiro Control Center. Image Courtesy of IBM

In San Francisco, each parking space has been fitted with sensors that detect whether it is in use. This feeds information to local government to monitor the efficiency of the car park, but is also used to power a real time parking app which drivers can download. Instead of circling endlessly around filled parking lots, drivers can now plan where to park before even entering the city.

However, this proliferation of sensors, detectors and information inevitably raises concerns about citizens’ privacy. To quote Saskia Sassen, “when does sensored become censored?” An interesting phenomenon that has arisen out of the explosion of digital technology is a blog curated by James Bridle called the “New Aesthetic”. The New Aesthetic consists simply of images that reveal aspects of our new digital world, a sort of curiosity box of digital technology.

However, in an article on the subject for Aeon magazine, writer Will Wiles highlights how “Instances of the New Aesthetic are often places where a glitch has exposed the underlying structure”, and that these glitches expose how these potentially intrusive technologies are being incorporated seamlessly into everyday life without us realizing:

“In making these connections invisible and silent, the status quo is hard-wired into place, consent is bypassed and alternatives are deleted. This is, if you will, the New Anaesthetic.”

A parking space with a sensor in San Francisco © Frank Chan

This issue is certainly a thorny one when it comes to Smart Cities. Companies such as IBM and Cisco tend to generate seamless solutions which open up their Smart City projects to damning criticism. In a follow up to his article Wiles highlights design consultancy BERG as a company that works on ‘beautiful seams’ rather than seamlessness – in theory this approach at least does not ‘bypass consent.’

But what if, when people can see the intrusion, they tend to deny consent? This eventuality would surely cripple Smart Cities initiatives.

The benefit of designers is that they are usually better versed in engaging society and walking the tightrope between what could be perceived as either intrusion or improvement. They bring a different, often more human-focused understanding of technology which may complement the technology driven strategy of current Smart City advocates.

This is not the only reason architects should be involved in the Smart Cities movement: as many have learned when dealing with the issue of sustainability, it is much easier to design a building with new technology already in place than it is to retrofit a pre-existing building. If we are really going to develop a ubiquitous ‘internet of things’, new buildings already ought to be designed with this in mind – however technology companies do not seem to have engaged with architects in this manner since the development of Songdo.

After the grand projects of Masdar and Songdo, pioneers in technology such as IBM and Cisco have forged ahead with new concepts of the Smart City, leaving architects behind. Though clearly unintentional, this contradicts the theory that technology experts themselves present: that of holistic, integrated solutions that encompass all sections of society. What Smart Cities need most now are architects and designers.

By better employing the skills of architects, who can mediate between new technology and the people it aims to serve, the “smart city” will cease to be a mere buzz word, and truly become an integrated movement towards intelligent urban development.

Cite: Stott, Rory. "Without Architects, Smart Cities Just Aren’t Smart" 02 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 19 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=353281>
  • Jason

    “What Smart Cities need most now are architects and designers.” And engineers.

  • sean

    I find it interesting that you don’t see the Internet of Things as representing some sort of loss of autonomy. I don’t believe the IoT is an adequate response to the issues raised by Sennett. In fact, I think it most likely represents a further form of determination, not a further degree of freedom by any means.

    To make a long idea short, I think that any “internet of things” system will intrinsically reflect the humanity of those responsible for it, and considering the actual development and creation of a complex system such as this won’t be a fully democratized process the culture it will reflect will be a specific one. What this might mean, in the end, is that the internet of things will inevitably be a political statement (“this is the proper way to live”) as opposed to a neutral backdrop for all lifestyles.

    • Rory Stott

      Sean – I think you raise a valid point, however it is worth noting the similarity between what you (probably correctly) predict for the development of the IoT and the creation of traditional cities. The production of space has long been a largely undemocratic negotiation between developers with money & influence, government, and the citizens that occupy the space.

      Whilst I believe both the SF Parking scheme and the Rio Control Center are well intentioned and indeed commendable, you are right to suggest that they can limit options to some citizens, but my point is exactly to question the parties responsible for them: government, in collaboration with technology companies.

      My argument is to incorporate designers, so that they can use millennia of experience negotiating these issues and apply them to this new phenomenon. In short, the Internet of Things is going to happen – but it needs to happen in a way that reflects normal patterns of urban development, rather than an invisible & insidious form of development.

  • sean

    “Furthermore, information can be provided to citizens to allow them to make informed decisions”

    This is a lot more startling than it seems at first glance.

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  • Philip

    rePlace Urban Studio has been working and thinking about these issues for a while now. Specifically, since our work on Masdar’s Korean Clean Tech Cluster. Check out our post at http://replaceurbanstudio.com/?page_id=515 and some of the work we proposed for the Clean Tech Cluster. http://replaceurbanstudio.com/?page_id=315

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