Rome and London are two huge, sluggish beasts of cities that have outlived millennia of eager reformers. They share a world where half the people already live in cities and another couple billion are on their way into town. The population is aging quickly, the current infrastructure must crumble and be replaced by its very nature, and climate disaster is taking the place of the past’s great urban fires, wars, and epidemics. Those are the truly important, dull but worthy urban issues.
The digital techniques that smart-city fans adore are flimsy and flashy—and some are even actively pernicious—but they absolutely will be used in cities. They already have an urban heritage. When you bury fiber-optic under the curbs around the town, then you get internet. When you have towers and smartphones, then you get portable ubiquity. When you break up a smartphone into its separate sensors, switches, and little radios, then you get the internet of things.These tedious yet important digital transformations have been creeping into town for a couple of generations. At this point, they’re pretty much all that urban populations can remember how to do. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent—these are the true industrial titans of our era. That’s how people make money, that’s how they make war, so of course, it will be how they make cities.
However, the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.
Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect. …
If you look at where the money goes (always a good idea), it’s not clear that the “smart city” is really about digitizing cities. Smart cities are a generational civil war within an urban world that’s already digitized. … It’s a land grab for the command and control systems that were mostly already there. …
“Smart cities” merely want to be perceived as smart, when what they actually need is quite different. Cities need to be rich, powerful, and culturally persuasive, with the means, motive, and opportunity to manage their own affairs. That’s not at all a novel situation for a city. “Smartness” is just today’s means to this well-established end.
The future prospects of city life may seem strange or dreadful, but they’re surely not so dreadful as traditional rural life. All over the planet, villagers and farmers are rushing headlong into cities. Even nations so placid, calm, and prosperous as the old Axis allies of Germany, Japan, and Italy have strange, depopulated rural landscapes now. People outside the cities vote with their feet; they check in, and they don’t leave. The lure of cities is that powerful. They may be dumb, blind, thorny, crooked, congested, filthy, and seething with social injustice, but boy are they strong.
What we continue to need are qualities like vision, courage, and the boldness to act in pursuit of better, specific places. The building out of the physical infrastructure of a place seems to be what makes it “smart,” and at a minimum building out the right sort of infrastructure, with the right models for its conservation and permanence, will make a place resilient to the shocks that the future inevitably brings.