City Metamorphosis

E-mail Melanie Martella

There's an excellent recent article in the Boston Globe, written by Courtney Humphries and titled "The too-smart city" that looks at the concept of smart cities and asks how the influx of smart city technologies can change how cities operate and whether some of those changes are desirable in the long term.

The concept of smart cities—those that incorporate systems that smooth the operations involved in traffic, waste management, utilities, mass transit, and parking, among others—is an attractive one, promising greater efficiencies for city management and better services for its inhabitants. But as the critics in the article stress, while the promise of smart cities is real and exciting, there is the need for serious thought and discussion of how these systems are implemented, who owns the systems, and who owns and manages the data collected. Implementation can make the difference between a friendly, open city that works for those who live in it and something out of dystopian science fiction—and we've seen those movies; it never ends well. Cities are a complicated dance between infrastructure and people and if we're going to drastically change that infrastructure, it behooves us to consider the effects on the people affected by those changes.

In the closing paragraph, Humphries says:

"The orderly, manageable city is a vision with enduring appeal, from Plato's Republic to Songdo, an entirely new smart city constructed near Seoul. But there's an equally compelling vision of the city as a chaotic and dynamic whirl of activity, an emergent system, an urban jungle at once hostile and full of possibility—a place to lose oneself. ... In a city where everything can be sensed, measured, analyzed, and controlled, we risk losing the overlooked benefits of inconvenience. It's as if cities are one of the last wild places, and one that we're still trying to tame."

I can't tell whether it's natural optimism or naivete, but I'm not particularly worried by this possibility, because cities contain people and people historically find ways to bend systems to their will, regardless of how the systems were originally designed. What's more intriguing to me is the tools that these projects give to urban planners, allowing them to assess the efficacy of their projects in ways that were either previously impossible. And what happens to a city when its inhabitants are more engaged in its operation? For those of you who have experience of these projects, either for implementation or as an end-user, what are your thoughts on the matter?