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Smart Cities – “Thinking the Unthinkable”

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At one of our meetups with the Young Urbanists. There was a discussion on the need to understand the influence of ideologies in design. The Young Urbanists is a platform for open dialogue, engagement and action aimed at solving historical and contemporary urban issues facing our cities. This prompt discussion got me thinking. It put into perspective much of the questions I had around the smart city movement. To quote Robert Park he says. “If the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live”. Living in a city means more than just being an inhabitant, the city also lives through us. It influences our perception of ourselves, relationship with others and imaginations of what is possible.

The current discussion on smart cities centres on the supposed benefits they bring. Efficiency, productivity to name a few. It is becoming clear that the smart city product is part of a process one would call extra-statecraft. This is where new zones that govern human activity emerge. It is said computing is not about computers anymore, it is more about living. Based on the need to imagine new models of urbanism. The smart city movement is built on infusing information and communication technology into every aspect of the built environment.

The smart city concept is dual in nature, both in design and in delivery. A smart city is engendered by the logic of prototyping, testing, versioning and demoing. In design, we see the smart city driven by the idea of pre-emptive hope. A major catastrophe is anticipated and a system is designed to withstand the associated extreme conditions. Urbanization is one event seen as a potential catastrophe that could lead to a serious humanitarian crisis if not managed. In other discussions, it can be interpreted as disaster capitalism. In its delivery, we see the smart city logic driven by control and accumulation. Technology is itself a political phenomenon. If we choose to see technology as a type of legislation, we see that we must genuinely take seriously those who are the legislators. New technologies are institutional structures within an evolving constitution that gives shape to a new polity. In the past decade, we have been increasingly living in this new technopolis. New technologies design and create systems and codes that govern society. For the most part, this constitution still evolves with little public scrutiny or debate despite its lasting impact on human development.

There is a firm belief within the smart city movement that technology will solve all the problems of 21st-century urbanisation. This speaks to many significant systems of urban living such as water, energy and transport. What if these technologies just like any other technologies built don’t turn out to solve all the problems? These technologies could even trigger and accelerate unintended consequences. In the development of technology, engineers are not simply crafting better machines. They are designing and creating systems and codes that govern society. Shielded by the conviction that technology is neutral and tool-like, a whole new order is built — piecemeal, step by step, with the parts and pieces linked together in novel ways — without the slightest public awareness or opportunity to dispute the character of the changes underway. The reality is that the creators and the condemned are not usually the same.

Albeit the ability of smart technology to genuinely transform the urban landscape. There is a lack of hindsight in looking at smart cities from a humanist perspective. How do we position people at the center of these smart city concepts apart from a consumption perspective? Thinking the unthinkable can dictate a whole new approach to building and redesigning cities using technology. What if smart technologies don’t deliver the efficiency or if they turn out to be less effective ? Smart technology is driven by energy. If smart technologies don’t improve economic productivity and fail to pay for further improvements in energy efficiency how will resource distribution be structured? What if only the wealthy thrive, retreating to smart enclaves sustained by captured resources managed solely for their own benefit to trade on onerous rates with the poor. It is self-delusional to think that all these smart city concepts will come with solutions that will absolutely be positive. Thinking the unthinkable needs to be a core element of our discussions about the future of the city, the role technology should play and how we manage the risks that come along with it. Only in this way can we exploit the benefits of better ideas fostered in improving the quality of urban life.


Nigel ZhuwakiNigel Zhuwaki

Nigel is a research Engineer with experience in platform design and urban data analytics and is based in Cape Town, Africa.



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