For or Against Smart Cities: Where Should Planners Stand?

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Two recent books, Anthony Townsend's Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia and Adam Greenfield’s Against the Smart City, take on the good, the bad, and the ugly of smart cities. I'm currently teaching a free course, TechniCity, where we are exploring many of the issues raised by Townsend and Greenfield in the course. 

As I read these books, I was struck by the challenges that face city planners in the future, which gave me serious pause because I don't believe that we are planning for the future we are likely to see in 30 years. As I read various comprehensive plans for cities, counties and regions, they focus on the reality of today—the way that we act as a society here and now. They don't seem to recognize the vastly different future that is likely to come. And the future that is forecasted rarely considers the role technology will play in reshaping our cities. Our cities should be thinking more about technology.  

Townsend points out that in the next 100 years we are going to build as "much urban fabric as we've built in all of human history." He argues that technology is critical to addressing the challenges we will face. What a tremendous opportunity for city planners to shape the future. But who is it that is shaping this future?  

Greenfield raises the cautionary flag, making the important point that there is a limit to considering technology in the future of our cities. He points to cities that have been planned with technology as the foundation. He focuses on New SongdoMasdar City and PlanIT Valley as examples of cities where technology is integrated into "objects, surfaces, spaces, and interactions that .... comprise everyday life." New Songdo, for example, is expected to wire every single part of the city to run on information. Townsend reports that Songdo is the world’s largest experiment in urban automation, “with millions of sensors deployed in its roads, electrical grids, water and waste systems to precisely track, respond to, and even predict the flow of people and material.” For example, in order to save electricity, lights will be off on blocks that are empty and will automatically turn on when a pedestrian is detected. The people behind New Songdo have plans to roll out 20 new cities in China and India using Songdo as a template. Greenfield finds this most extreme technology-based city planning to be absurd, because these cities are not being designed to serve the interests of the people who live in them. He argues that while we can sense and monitor all kinds of systems, but that isn’t what makes a city real—it’s the people and how they use the city.

How do we get to this two ends of the spectrum, with cities that aren't considering technology and those that are planned on a foundation of technology? In part it’s who is shaping these plans. The smart cities that Greenfield discusses are being planned as a result of partnerships with firms such as Cisco, IBM and Siemens. These companies are trying to bring planners solutions to a wide range of problems. While certainly well intentioned, can we really expect the technology companies of the world to understand how cities work and what makes them truly livable?

These initial smart city building efforts are premised on rationality—that is, if we have enough information, then we can have cities that reduce energy consumption, minimize traffic congestion and provide a high quality of life. Greenfield and Townsend both challenge us to remember our history. Townsend takes the reader on a journey through our cities as they become increasingly automated, pointing, for example, to efforts at building automation during the oil crisis in the 1970s. Given how rapidly technology changes, the technology of today may go the way of the eight-track and electric typewriter. I look back to the way we planned our cities in the 1960s. At that time we thought that technology was going to be transformative for our cities. Ciudad Guayana in Venezuela was planned by a joint team of planners from Harvard and MIT using the latest technologies of the time. In the case of Guayana, today it is a city that has inadequate public transit and substantial spatial inequality. We can point to the mistakes that planners of the past made across the world. Yet are we making the same kinds of mistakes today by either ignoring the technology that is coming or by over relying on technology to solve our cities' problems?

My personal view is that technology has great promise and that as planners we need to be deeply engaged in learning about emerging technology. Yet technology is not a panacea, it is simply a tool. We need to embrace the potential of technology as a tool to achieve goals, such as reducing traffic congestion through better sensing systems. But if we as planners don’t take the time to understand the rapid evolution of technology, we may see our roles usurped and our cities being shaped by the companies developing the technologies. There is a delicate balance and we should rise to the occasion, understanding how to best use technology to share our cities. I am using TechniCity as a platform to have a deeper conversation about technology and how it can help in shaping our cities, as well as understanding the risks. Feel free to join in the conversation. 

Jennifer Evans-Cowley, PhD, AICP, is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Administration for the College of Engineering and a Professor of City and Regional Planning at The Ohio State University.

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