De-smarting the city

Argue the message


The rationale of the smart as a means for improving, designing and building our cities has reached a tipping point of acceptability. Indeed, such is the take-up rate among urban planners that we are today returned to the age of the emperors, one in which it is possible – and considered by some desirable – to design, make and populate a city from scratch, the most obvious example being South Korea’s Songdo, the world’s so-called smartest city. Unfortunately, as enamoured as we are by our technological prowess, we are in danger of losing sight of what cities are all about: the experiences of people being people.

A dystopia

From the perspective of the urban planner’s spreadsheet, it’s easy to see why somewhere like Songdo in South Korea might appeal. Without history, built on reclaimed land outside of Seoul, it is a year zero purpose-built city, a clean, super-connected mega-sized business district, one that has borrowed, as its marketing materials often say, from the best of the world’s greatest cities. It has its own Venetian canal system. It has a central park. It’s underpinned by a package of ‘smart services’, managing everything from the home to traffic to health. It’s made for an environmentally sustainable community. It offers, in the words of one of its key IT providers, ‘the ultimate lifestyle and work experience.’ It is representative, as MIT’s Mike Joroff says, of ‘a new industry of city building’, one that has the engineer ride ideological point.

However, like the branded cities of old, built by kings as singular testaments to their omniscient powers, Songdo is also the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of what it takes for a city to be a city. A joint venture between American developers, South Korean constructors and local government, it mistakes people for categories of user. The planners and developers re-imagined the experiences of their “users” – into spreadsheet-led categories: financiers, technologists, bio-pharmacists, commuters, residents, patients, relaxers – as part of a vast and predetermined system of input-output solutions, one so technologically advanced as to have done away with the need for ‘3-D’ or ‘dirty’, ‘dangerous’ or ‘difficult’ industries.

Bereft of the messiness of manufacturing and municipal service industries, of crowds, of dirt, and of the organic and often anarchic growth of the street, it is an invention dedicated to an ‘international community’ of ‘forward-thinking individuals and companies’. It’s so clean – safe and predictable – as to be hyper-hygienically unnatural. It’s not home. It’s a technocrat’s wet dream- had in the 1950s.

<For full text, see Conscious Cities>