Putting an end to the Smart City
Published 20 September 2016 by Ewen Chardronnet
On September 16 and 17, Barcelona hosted the international conference “Responsive Cities” on the new technologies and urbanism of tomorrow. That buries the concept of “Smart City”.
Barcelone, special envoy
The Advanced architecture institute of Catalonia (IAAC) has been for many years at the avant-garde of new ways of thinking the city. First via its Fablab Barcelona and its ambitious initiative Fab City, but also thanks to the Knowledge Alliance for Advanced Urbanism, a research program that proposed on September 16 and 17 at the Caixa Forum an international symposium on the theme “Responsive Cities”.
An old concept… of the 2000s
Urbanologists from IAAC founded the motivation for this symposium on a criticism of the Smart City, a vision of urbanism specific to the 2000s. To summarize this pre-crisis vision, you need to come back to the aftermath of the explosion of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the 1990s. Urban development policies started to invest in technology, considering that it would make it possible to set up new urban services management systems, like transport and water for example, but also to manage intelligent energy networks or buildings that are economical in energy, to mention just a few examples.
“Intelligent devices and systems have formed a new hidden layer, enabling the improvement of performance, but remaining fundamentally distinct from the materiality and spatiality of the city. This hidden layer was named Smart City.”
Introduction text to the “Responsive Cities” symposium
Researchers point out that this vision of the “intelligent city” has been theorized, described and developed by ICT companies that have prevailed over the knowledge and access to technological progress to the detriment of architects or urbanologists’ visions. This is in fact what Tomas Diez from the fablab Barcelona is commenting on, pointing out the fact that “the Smart City was, and is still, essentially promoted by digital technology companies”.
The foreseeable obsolescence of the Smart City
Guest star of the conference, the American Saskia Sassen, the sociologist of global cities and economic globalization, and author this year of Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, in fact drove the point home. Smart City policies never thought to consider how social logic alters technological capacities. So-called “intelligent cities” run the risk of technological obsolescence because they do not incorporate the customary deviations in their models and can become overwhelmed faster. Sassen reminds us that historically, the city is formed through its complexity and its incompleteness, its unfinished nature, always developing and expanding, with no clear limits. According to her, setting up enclosed technical systems in a building to govern all its main functions can only weaken this vital mix. Saskia Sassen then opens the debate on this technical accelerationism: how do we “organize the defense of workers in a semi-robotized society, for example in cases where the machine goes wrong”? She raises here the severe lack of legal experts to apprehend the ongoing technologization of the city.
The interface city
The IAAC brings forward as a counter-model the “Responsive City”, where architecture turns into a scalable body, capable of reacting in real time to a variety of data. Portable technologies embedded in clothes such as virtual reality give us the promise to be connected with one another and the environment at augmented levels. New software and equipment widen the scope for the Internet of things, linking the object to users in spatial interaction experiences with our body of data, even our cognitive functions. Technology is incorporated in our everyday lives and we have gone far beyond the era of the simple desktop computer. We therefore need to think of an “adaptive” urbanism today, according to Areti Markopoulou from the IAAC.
The Finn Mariina Hallikainen from the video game company Colossal Order presented Cities Skylines, an example of urbanism gamification where players embody city mayors who control urban development, zoning, roads, taxes, public services, public transport, etc.
“Cities Skyline After Dark” (2015), trailer:
The open source city
At the same time, the symposium notes that DIY open source cultures encourage the democratization of technologies and means of production, by bringing users closer, allowing them to actively participate through a pair-to-pair learning process. We need to “open source the neighborhood” says Saskia Sassen.
Nowadays, technology is not only presented as the catalyst, but as the very basis of social interaction. It is therefore urgent to reassess, imagine and try to describe this period in order to leave behind the debate for technology in itself, to open the way for a more profound spatial and social vision. Understanding the learning synergies is in this sense essential. “Enhancing access to technologies is not enough, one must also take into account customary cultures”, says Saskia Sassen. And to conclude facing the urbanologists, a little too keen on portmanteau words: “You cannot conceal the gigantic electronic garbage can that produces the obsolescence of the so-called Smart City.”
Because yes, it is truly one of the flaws of these “advanced” urbanism meetings: the multiplication of portmanteau words that remind you of a “bullshit bingo”. The city of the speakers is a sharing city, a co-city, a contributive city, collaborative city, senseable city, adaptive city, even a “resili(g)ent city”, a mix of resilient and intelligent… We were close to a marketing language indigestion, even if the concepts deployed led to interesting reflections.
The sharing city
In his introduction to the symposium, Albert Cañigueral from Ouishare Barcelona attempted to define the criteria that, according to him, made the city collaborative, a combination of sharing city, co-city, contributive city and fab city.
The “shareable city” is a city where administration includes civic solidarity, he says. He takes as an example the Sharing City Seoul and Amsterdam Sharing City. The “co-city” is based for example on participative and civic funding and on crowdsourcing. Albert Cañigueral cites the Datashift experiences in Argentina, Nepal, Kenya or in Tanzania, where “data generated by citizens is produced so they can directly observe and manage change on issues that concern them”. Other reference, the Bologna regulation charter of urban commons produced last year, where the city offers to help its citizens to work collectively towards the improvement of urban commons while guaranteeing that their ideas remain freely accessible and shared.
Albert Cañigueral suggests that the collaborative city must devise innovation according to the model of the quintuple helix. He adds that the city becomes contributive when it stands out with the co-creation of commons where solutions for a city can be applied to other cities, like in the case of the platform Fixmystreet.
Fab City: objective 2054
The global Fab City initiative, supported by the Fab Foundation network and the Fablab Barcelona, and launched in Lima in 2011, is contemplating a joint countdown set for 2054 for cities that give themselves the objective to be self-sufficient. As Tomas Diez explains, “Fab Cities will be cities that produce locally while being connected globally”. He cites as an example the open source restaurant Leka, designed with the Fablab Barcelona.
The Leka restaurant opened within walking distance from the fablab Barcelona last year:
The objective of the Fab City is to move from the original model and use of materials “Products In Trash Out” (Pito, importation of objects, ejection of waste) to the “Data In Data Out” model (Dido, control through back and forth exchanges of data). Diez highlighted the entry of Paris in the initiative during the symposium by confirming that the Fab City conference will be held there in 2018.
The “ad hoc” city
Difficult to mention all the approaches addressed. Finally, we will retain the concept of “adhocratic city” presented by Ethel Baraona Pohl from dpr-Barcelona. Adhocracy is a nomadic exhibition program, already presented in Istanbul, New York, London or Athens, that explores the maker culture and the open source movement in its quest for the fabrication of commons.
The word “adhocracy” was popularized by Robert H. Waterman as “any form of organization that exceeds customary bureaucratic standards to effectively resolve joint problems”. Ethel Baraona Pohl cite as examples the Friction Atlas or The Concrete Tent initiatives and adds that the concept wants to express ad hoc collective actions, created for the urgency of the occasion and intended to be temporary, a form of urban conscientious objection. She pointed out how awkward it was for her to use the terminology of the Occupy movement, considering that we don’t really “occupy” public areas. Because public areas are common goods that belong to us collectively.
The Responsive Cities symposium website
The Knowledge Alliance for Advanced Urbanism website