Why NOT designing a smart city is perfectly fine

How the chaos and all the randomness of the city aided to the millions of epiphanies and why the way we are thinking about cities is going to drastically reduce them.

Cities need to be complementary to people;Even when they don’t know about it.

Before I start throwing some weird allegations on city planning and start extrapolating the need of chaos or randomness in our cities I would like to start with a story. The picture below is of The Hidden City cafe in Richmond, California.The makers of the animated movie had met on a lunch here and later went to become one of the most celebrated group of animators. What I want to focus in the entire story is the importance of these places in the morphology of our cities and in a sense to our lives. As Steven Johnson the author of ‘Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation’ explains; the places where most of the great epiphanies have struck aren’t hi-tech bunkered Research and development facilities neither are they some laboratory in some ivy league colleges. The final inventions or a cutting edge product can come from an Ivy League but not ideas because the basic nature of them is to be fluid and not physical. And i personally think that all along that should be something that we should keep at the base and plan. Ideas and innovations seems to come from Un-planned activities, do we really want to head to a future where everything is planned ?

The hidden city cafe-Richmond,California

We need chaos; we need randomness. I know its a long jump from the story when connected with town planning. Nonetheless I frankly feel that it essentially boils down to a human scale of how does an individual behave while networking and collaborating. What we definitely need is a city that can increase the connect that we have manage to lose in this virtual worlds of Facebook and skypes. We need a city to facilitate such surroundings, places where people open up to network, collaborate even when we are unaware of what such environments bring about.One thing that we as humans should always take into account is that many a times great things happen when things are left to grow organically. One of the best cities in the world have been developed organically where the uncertainty and the randomness gave it the fluidity and the flexibility to change along with time.

About Chaos and should we plan for chaos ?

With the smart city agenda recently picking up great momentum in world forums and town planning meetings it has got a huge reach and hype.It is essentially about digitising every bit of information that treads around in the city and leveraging that information in a way to plan the final outcome. From trip destinations, automated homes, driverless cars to augmented roads and synced signals — everything turns “smart”. In a way everything becomes automated, with an algorithm running in its backend it removes the possibility of random out comings from the entire equation of the city. All this sounds great and futuristic but after having a look at google’s driverless cars it doesn’t sound all so futuristic. But the way we are proceeding towards a fully automated intelligent smart city I sincerely doubt there would be any chance of “ serendipity” left for innovations and collaborations between people because planning wouldn’t just be they way a city functions, it would soon be the way a human being behaves.

Carlo Ratti at the Sensable City labs : Massachusetts Institute of Technology in “A smart city needs a dose of chaos” talks about the trajectory Singapore is taking while initiating its Smart Nation Program(SNP). He concludes his paper with ‘In some cases it( a city) will also need a good dose of chaos — the opposite of optimal efficiency. The most creative solutions often emerge and thrive in less regulated and “messy” environments.’ What he is trying to explain is that we have somehow started to imagine binary outcomes when it comes to such plans. We have started to believe that it is either a smart city or we would be left with the same problems whatsoever. But may there can be a fray shade between the black and whites, may be there can be a mixture of simple interventions and a smart policies in a way to lead us to the same outcome. Possibly it might take a little more time, but the question is are we willing to risk the entire perspective that we as humans have developed over the years ?

Renaissance started in Florence and changed it forever,the Industrial Revolution did the same in London.Are we sure the smart city movement will ? For good ?

Arguably two of the biggest movements that brought about a complete change in everything, starting from the way people lived to the way they made their decisions, from the way they thought to the way they behaved, from the way the city transitioned in its demographic, political and architectural style. My point being, renaissance didn’t just solve the problem but it transformed almost everything, so did the industrial revolution and so will the ‘ Smart City Movement.’ What I am trying to debate is that the smart city program is still in a very nascent stage as was the suburbanisation and it was adopted with the same speed the smart city program is being adopted. What I fear is whether would we need to undo the effects of a movement the way we are doing with the issue of suburbanisation or try and take a holistic approach towards newer ideas and let them simmer until we are sure enough to adapt to those.

I couldn’t help but do a swot analysis on the whole issue i was debating about and tried to come up with an answer. Why are we even aiming for a smart city program? So that we reduce our travel timings or that we get a cooler room 5 minutes before we actually need it ? Why smarter cities ? I got to some obvious answers like saving energy or optimising our renewable sources or travel times. But do we stop at that ? Does smarter cities concept stop at that ? As Adam Greenfield, in his book ‘ Against the Smart City’ debates that“ The smart city concept brings in a bias in strategic interests that ignores the alternative avenues of a promising urban development.”

Like everything even the Smart City program should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Singapore and Dubai announces to be so called smart cities, while google launches its driverless cars in Los Angeles and suddenly every city is aiming to become a smart city. Every junction is loaded with a CCTV camera and everyone starts talking about Big data.

We as citizens of the future need to be sure of whether a smart city is actually a solution or is it just another fiasco as the suburbanisation movement or the flyover linking program. Every such movement started just as promising, trying to end city’s problems and here we are few years later battling the same problem along with undoing the effects of the so called solution.

I am not completely against the smart city movement. What I am vouching for is a judicious use of it. There is a difference between saving energy and loading the streets with sensors and computers to reduce travel time. There is a difference between innovating smarter commuting modes and installing driverless cars. The smart city movement is a huge set of solutions trying to solve huger sets of problems. What we need to make sure is that we opt for those which are solving a problem like cutting down energy requirement and try innovating different designs to those issues which are going to change the entire human lifestyle and behaviour. Smart city here is pointing one big huge finger at the ability of chaos and randomness to flourish right in the heart of the city, are we willing to give that away ? Because one thing we cannot, should not and must not forget is that the chaos is the only thing that allows that small singular quotient of serendipity in our lives, making our lives more human . Are we willing to risk that in a world that is entirely planned and controlled by algorithms and machines ?