Rem Koolhaas Asks: Are Smart Cities Condemned to Be Stupid?

Originally published by the European Commission as part of their "Digital Minds for a New Europe" series, this article is an edited transcript of a talk given by Rem Koolhaas at the High Level Group meeting on Smart Cities, Brussels, 24 September 2014.

I had a sinking feeling as I was listening to the talks by these prominent figures in the field of smart cities because the city used to be the domain of the architect, and now, frankly, they have made it their domain. This transfer of authority has been achieved in a clever way by calling their city smart – and by calling it smart, our city is condemned to being stupid. Here are some thoughts on the smart city, some of which are critical; but in the end, it is clear that those in the digital realm and architects will have to work together.


Architecture used to be about the creation of community, and making the best effort at symbolizing that community. Since the triumph of the market economy in the late 1970s, architecture no longer expresses public values but instead the values of the private sector. It is in fact a regime – the ¥€$ regime – and it has invaded every domain, whether we want it or not. This regime has had a very big impact on cities and the way we understand cities. With safety and security as selling points, the city has become vastly less adventurous and more predictable. To compound the situation, when the market economy took hold at the end of the 1970s, architects stopped writing manifestos. We stopped thinking about the city at the exact moment of the explosion in urban substance in the developing world. The city triumphed at the very moment that thinking about the city stopped. The “smart” city has stepped into that vacuum. But being commercial corporations, your work is changing the notion of the city itself. Maybe it is no coincidence that “liveable” – flat – cities like Vancouver, Melbourne and even Perth are replacing traditional metropolises in our imaginary.

In the late 1970s, "we stopped thinking about the city at the exact moment of the explosion in urban substance in the developing world." This can be seen in the New Urbanism movement, which from the early 1980s attempted to restore traditionalist urban design principles. Shown here, Seaside, Florida began construction in 1981. Image © Flickr CC user Paigeh


The smart city movement today is a very crowded field, and therefore its protagonists are identifying a multiplicity of disasters which they can avert. The effects of climate change, an ageing population and infrastructure, water and energy provision are all presented as problems for which smart cities have an answer. Apocalyptic scenarios are managed and mitigated by sensor-based solutions. Smart cities rhetoric relies on slogans – ‘fix leaky pipes, save millions’. Everything saves millions, no matter how negligible the problem, simply because of the scale of the system that will be monitored. The commercial motivation corrupts the very entity it is supposed to serve… To save the city, we may have to destroy it…

When we look at the visual language through which the smart city is represented, it is typically with simplistic, child-like rounded edges and bright colours. The citizens the smart city claims to serve are treated like infants. We are fed cute icons of urban life, integrated with harmless devices, cohering into pleasant diagrams in which citizens and business are surrounded by more and more circles of service that create bubbles of control. Why do smart cities offer only improvement? Where is the possibility of transgression? And rather than discarding urban intelligence accumulated over centuries, we must explore how to what is today considered “smart” with previous eras of knowledge.


The smart city movement is focusing on the recent phenomenon that more than 50 percent of the world’s population lives in cities. Therefore mayors have been targeted as the clients or the initiators of smart cities. Mayors are particularly susceptible to the rhetoric of the smart city: it is very attractive to be a smart mayor. The book If Mayors Rules the World proposes a global parliament of mayors.

This confluence of rhetoric – the “smart city”, the “creative class”, and “innovation” – is creating a stronger and stronger argument for consolidation. If you look in a smart city control room, like the one in Rio de Janeiro by IBM, you start to wonder about the extent of what is actually being controlled.


Because the smart city movement has been apolitical in its declarations, we also have to ask about the politics behind the improvements on offer. A new trinity is at work: traditional European values of liberty, equality, and fraternity have been replaced in the 21st century by comfort, security, and sustainability. They are now the dominant values of our culture, a revolution that has barely been registered.


The car is a key element in the smart city. It is now being equipped with increasingly complex monitoring devices. On the one hand, the devices improve the driver’s behaviour, but on the other hand they create a high degree of surveillance. I’m not convinced that the public will welcome this degree of monitoring. I prefer the car not to be a courtroom.


In the past two years we have, with the Harvard Graduate School of Design, looked at the architectural elements – like the wall, the floor, the door, the ceiling, the stair – and seen how they are evolving in the current moment. If the city is increasingly a comprehensive surveillance system, the house is turning into an automated, responsive cell, replete with devices like automated windows that you can open but only at certain times of the day; floors embedded with sensors so that the change in a person’s position from the vertical to the horizontal, for whatever reason, will be recorded; spaces which will not be warmed in their entirety, but instead will track their inhabitants with sensors and cloak them in heat shields. Soon a Faraday Cage will be a necessary component of any home – a safe room in which to retreat from digital sensing and pre-emption.

Grafitti in San Francisco demonstrating the tensions between Silicon Valley workers and other residents. Image via Affordable Housing Institute


The rhetoric of smart cities would be more persuasive if the environment that the technology companies create was actually a compelling one that offered models for what the city can be. But if you look at Silicon Valley you see that the greatest innovators in the digital field have created a bland suburban environment that is becoming increasingly exclusive, its tech bubbles insulated from the public sphere. There is surprise that the digital movement is encountering opposition on its own doorstep. Smart cities and politics have been diverging, growing in separate worlds. It is absolutely critical that the two converge again.

About this author
Cite: Rem Koolhaas. "Rem Koolhaas Asks: Are Smart Cities Condemned to Be Stupid?" 10 Dec 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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