Can Humans Live in the Smart City?

Feb 13, 2017 · 3 min read

Technology can help us make our cities “smarter” but only if we use it to understand people better

In this three-part series, Benjie and Gabe of talk about how smart city technologies can focus more on people

Benjie: About 8 years ago, when I was starting an initiative at the Rockefeller Foundation to look at cities, information and inclusion, I got to work closely with a company, let’s call it HAL, that was leading the charge on “smart cities.” We reached out to HAL because we were eager to learn what they had in mind beyond growing the market for their services.

They were great people to work with. We had the same concerns around the challenges of a rapidly urbanizing world — but we were coming at it from very different directions. As expected, they were very thoughtful about technology and technological change. We were concerned with what the disintermediation was doing to communities who were already excluded or were going to get excluded (because they still needed intermediation).

They also understood the cities as engineers. They saw the city as a machine that needed tuning and so “smart city” technology was going to make cities more efficient.

I remember exchanging diagrams about how we understood the city: Their diagram tried to answer the question of “what is a city” and featured a triangle of connected systems — power, water, transportation and buildings — mechanical, electrical, etc. Outside this triangle were the “residents,” the people who used and inhabited the system of systems.

HAL’s diagram of the city

My diagram started from what a city does. It showed connections between functions, representing transactions and relationships between people. From those connections emerged organizations and institutions: markets, governments; and the built environment. Roads and pipes to serve houses and markets.

A Functional Model for Cities — B. de la Peña

Of course, it’s always dangerous to try to reduce the complexity of the city into any diagram but students of urbanism will recognize the contradictions in our points of view. The difference in our diagrams represent the modernist vs. the Jacobsian understanding of cities. It is Le Corbusier’s Machine for Living vs. Jane Jacob’s “sidewalk ballet.” It is the tension behind the debates about how to intervene in a city.

(One of their senior scientists in charge of smart cities, in all seriousness, once actually asked, “Who’s Jane Jacobs?”)

Is the city the house with its pipes and walls and electric outlets? Or is the city the family that makes up the home?

Do humans just live in cities? Or are cities the expression of humans living in collectives?

Are cities about things? Or are cities about people?

The answer, of course, is both. Cities are organisms. Cities are objects and cities are systems. Cities are a series of connections. But what you put first in that duality and dynamic determines what you think makes cities “smart.”

“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” — Steve Jobs

(Up next: Part 2. It’s the people, stupid.)


We’re in the business of urban change management.


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Cityfi advises cities, corporations, foundations and start-ups to help catalyze change in a global, complex urban landscape. Twitter: @teamcityfi



We’re in the business of urban change management.