Smart cities: two words which suggest a glittering future of technology and progress, where digital technology will help out with everything from getting bins collected to ensuring your drive through the city is as smooth as possible. Or, alternatively, an Orwellian nightmare where the poor are tossed out of our shiny new cities in favor of the upper classes, while governments use new smart technologies to track our every move.
Ours world is a city-powered planet. Our urban areas grow by 3 million people a week. Metropolitan and urban areas are the engines of the global economy, producing some 70% of its output, with some individual metro regions accounting for as much as a third of their national economies. Most important, they are home to just under 4 billion citizens who live, love, and contribute to their society in innumerable ways. Cities are powerful and dynamic engines of growth. They are growing in importance and impact.
Technology has always been a critical force deeply intertwined with the evolution of cities. From the first human settlements millennia ago to today’s 4th industrial revolution, technological breakthroughs have impacted the buildings we use, the way we get around, and how we live, work, and play in the urban space. Cities are beginning to, and will continue to, integrate technological dynamism into municipal operations, from transportation to infrastructure repair and more. The back ends of these systems are not always apparent to the end user – but as the integration of smart cities technologies becomes more visible in our everyday lives, we could begin to see large scale changes in our cities.
Now, as we are on the cusp of further rapid shifts in cities precipitated by technology, it is worth imagining what the connected smart city of the future will look like – and the associated impact it will have on our everyday lives. Cities can be the sources of innovation and creativity, bringing people together in new and unexpected ways and spawning the cultural quarters, the digital invention, the start-ups and connections that enable modern growth. Urban places where independence flourishes, where identity can be reinvented, where people can flourish, the place where our human ingenuity and our capacity to support each other flourishes. Cities can be places where we can be ourselves, liberated from some of the more stultifying aspects of small town life, and even, occasionally, our own families.
But cities can also be places of isolation, of poverty, and of misery. Places where innovation and creativity are driven out. Where the bonds of social engagement are attenuated and where solidarity is fatally eroded, where poverty is locked in. Places where progression and development is limited, where people without the support of family find alternative social networks impossible to access. Cities where the more vulnerable are shunned and ignored are cities of fear, not to mention huge potential costs. Cities where everyone is too busy to interact breed loneliness and despair. Cities where automation has made every interaction a soulless one, driving out human contact in the interests of speed and efficiency.
Technocrats think that clean, well marshalled data can solve everything. But the real data that powers social capital is often messy. It involves a close and detailed understanding of the web of relationships that keeps any city (and their neighborhoods) alive. Knowledge – real, informed, current knowledge – is vital to the development of social capital. Interventions that are rooted in how people really live – the ethnography of the city– are part of the modern skill set. Social capital comes from within.
Social capital is not an optional extra for a city. It is as fundamental as the financial capital and the skills base of any successful city. It is the depth and the breadth of social capital in cities that distinguishes the creative, lively, bonded city, from the miserable dystopia as painted above. Social capital is not formed in a vacuum. What happens is shaped by our external environment, and what is happening around us is different from that previous generations have experienced. Social Capital is in real peril. The labor market has changed, and changed fundamentally. At the bottom end of the labor market our current economy produces part time, insecure and poorly paid work. People doing multiple jobs just to get by is becoming the norm, and increasingly the much vaunted ‘gig economy’ is actually producing a group of people who, while technically self-employed, seem to me to have many of the working conditions of the 19th century casual laborer. At the bottom end of the labor market people lead poor and insecure lives, faced with higher costs and constantly managing debt. Work is undoubtedly for many of us the best route out of poverty. If the work is insecure, and has no progression (and four out of five people starting in low paid work are still low paid 10 years later) it does not provide a secure route.
Today, we face a revolution as profound as anything the nineteenth century pioneers had to contend with. We live in a globalized world in which the pace of change, and the sheer volatility of it all, sometimes simply feels too much. A world in which work is becoming faster, more demanding, and frequently much less secure. A world in which housing is a fragile asset, not a platform on which to build a secure life. A world in which mass movements of people can both enrich and strengthen, but can too often be experienced as threat and division. A world in which the distance between generations can seem overwhelming.
In this world there is more need than ever before for the conscious fostering of social capital. Modern social capital will need to foster skills for living as well as for working. It will enable and encourage the small acts of kindness that enable us all to survive. But it will also connect people across generations, and across faiths and nationalities. It will be built on the power of relationships, not on transactions. It will almost certainly be made up more of networks than of organizations. A more adaptive and informed social capital may look more like a set of movements than an institution. It will be more democratic, providing a platform for the dispossessed as much as tending to their needs. It will not be afraid of anger and of division – because social capital is messy, just like social change.
To this end, we must be deliberate in the development of smart cities and imbue equity as a primary goal so that the city of the future is a city for everyone. How do we ensure that our cities continue to catalyze social mobility, generate new ideas, and provide economic return without becoming brittle, unsustainable, or simply fake? How do we avoid the mistake of early smart city efforts which focused almost solely on optimizing the physical city without much thought at all to the experience of the actual human beings who live there? The exclusion of poorer citizens from the smart cities of the future – has come to the forefront in recent debate.
But no matter when we’re talking about smart cities we often do so in terms of individual systems or projects. Search the web for smart city and you’ll find no lack of top ten lists of projects that promise to improve your metro. But often these projects are so tied to specific new technologies that they will either fail or be obsolesced by the volatility of technological change. Most of all, this city would be a data-gathering machine. Sensors would adhere to every surface, monitoring air quality, foot traffic, crime, water use, and even how many insects were flying around. Algorithms to optimize everything in the city, routing traffic, stationing police officers — or planting trees to draw insects away from schoolyards.
It all sounds lovely in theory, and the idea has now leapfrogged out of the corporate R&D zone, into academic research and enthusiastic pop science books. But cities are ever-changing; the dynamism of the urban environment is a microcosm of the societal interactions that we have built throughout history. The problem is that making a city smart could also crush everything that makes it a city. Cities have a logic all their own, which is based on chaos and diversity. Making them smart and subjecting their citizens to the logic of algorithms, could be more like authoritarianism than freedom.
At the end of the day, technological developments will enhance our urban experience – but they also risk leaving more people behind. Though the idea of a smart city is appealing, it’s crucial to keep the dark side perspective in mind.