Waiting for the smart city

Nowadays when we talk about the smart city we don’t necessarily talk about smartness or cities.

I feel like when the term is used it often obscures more than it reveals.

Here a few reasons why.

To begin with, the term suggests something that is yet to arrive. Some kind of tech-enabled utopia. But actually, current day cities are already smart to a greater or lesser degree depending on where and how you look.

This is important because too often we postpone action as we wait for the smart city to arrive. We don’t have to wait. We can act to improve things right now.

Furthermore, ‘smart city’ suggests something monolithic that can be designed as a whole. But a smart city, like any city, is a huge mess of interconnected things. It resists topdown design.

History is littered with failed attempts at authoritarian high-modernist city design. Just stop it.

Smartness should not be an end but a means.

I read ‘smart’ as a shorthand for ‘technologically augmented’. A smart city is a city eaten by software. All cities are being eaten (or have been eaten) by software to a greater or lesser extent. Uber and Airbnb are obvious examples. Smaller more subtle ones abound.

The question is, smart to what end? Efficiency? Legibility? Controllability? Anti-fragility? Playability? Liveability? Sustainability? The answer depends on your outlook.

These are ways in which the smart city label obscures. It obscures agency. It obscures networks. It obscures intent.

I’m not saying don’t ever use it. But in many cases you can get by without it. You can talk about specific parts that make up the whole of a city, specific technologies and specific aims.


Postscript 1

We can do the same exercise with the ‘city’ part of the meme.

The same process that is making cities smart (software eating the world) is also making everything else smart. Smart towns. Smart countrysides. The ends are different. The networks are different. The processes play out in different ways.

It’s okay to think about cities but don’t think they have a monopoly on ‘disruption’.

Postscript 2

Some of this inspired by clever things I heard Sebastian Quack say at Playful Design for Smart Cities and Usman Haque at ThingsCon Amsterdam.

Reboot 9.0 day 1

So here’s a short wrap up of the first day. I must say I’m not disappointed so far. The overall level of the talks is quite high again. Here’s what I attended:

Opening keynote – Nice and conceptual/theoretical. Not sure I agree with all the claims made but it was a good way to kick off the day on a gee whizz way.

Jeremy Keith – Good talk, nice slides, didn’t really deliver on the promise of his proposal though. I would’ve really liked to see him go into the whole idea of life streams further. The hack day challenge sounded cool though.

Stephanie Booth – Very topical for me, being a bilingual blogger and designer often confronted with localisation/multilingual issues.

My own talk – Went reasonably well. I guess half of the room enjoyed and the other half wondered what the f*** I was talking about. Oh well, I had fun.

Ross Mayfield – Could have been much better if it hadn’t been for technical screw-ups and perhaps some tighter pacing by Ross. Still the work he’s doing with social software is great.

Matt Jones – Very pretty presentation, nice topic and Dopplr looks cool. I’m not a frequent flyer but I can see the value in it. Still not quite sure it will improve the consequences of air-travel though.

Nicolas Nova – Came across as the high concept, theoretical twin to my talk. Lots of cool pervasive game examples. Nicolas always boggles my mind.

Jyri Engeström – Cool to see how he’s developed his talks throughout the past Reboots. I guess he delivered on his promise and stayed on the right side of the ‘I’m pushing my product’ line.

The evening program – No micro-presentations (which to be honest was fine by me, being quite exhausted). Good food, nice conversations and plenty of weird generative art, live cinema etc. All good.

On to day 2!