Can we design the smart cities of the future?

Traditional views of the smart city are very data-centric. Should we be thinking more about the human touchpoints?

As smart phones lead to smart objects, which combine to form smart cities, we face the challenge of making all these services work together. Usman Haque has written a fascinating piece for WIRED which explores the problems inherent in that. If we plan too hard, based on the data that smart cities surface, we’ll leave ourselves open to the laws of untended consequences – and there’s historical precedent for this…

These aspirations for orderliness worryingly echo rationales of the 60s and 70s for building Pruitt-Igoe high-rises and Robert Moses highways, which in many cases we now regret because of their immense social and environmental costs. Overly planned “smart” cities, with their fetish for and dependence on data, are highly likely to have similar unplanned consequences.

The problem with the data-led design approach, he suggests is that it assumes that cities are knowable – that they’re finite systems we can define. Not so.

Yet, cities are what Russell Ackoff might call a “mess”. Every issue interrelates to and interacts with every other issue; there is no clear “solution”; there are no universal objective parameters; and sometimes those working on problems are actually the ones who are causing them. Urban data isn’t simply discovered, it is invented, manipulated and crafted.

His solution? An interplay between centralised planners and emergent behaviour from the citizens themselves. Bottom up intervention subverts and invents, even as planners respond and manage:

Grub City citizens recognise it’s through the activity of measurement, not passive interpreting of data, that we understand our environment; that we build up intuitions about how we affect it; and through which we develop our own standards of evidence. It’s the ensuing heterogeneity of understandings, explanations and attempts to control (as well as the heterogeneity of goals implied) that is essential for any sustainable model of city-making.

It’s a wonderfully organic model of the smart city idea, far removed from the somewhat sterile, almost technocratic view that the data-centric approaches often take.

It’s a view of the smart city designed for human touchpoints – and cities are homes to humans, not data.