Cities in the machine age: all systems, no soul?

Saturday 18 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Cinema 2, Barbican Interrogating Megatrends

What is a ‘smart city’? The UK government takes great pains to explain that the concept is not static: ‘There is no absolute definition of a smart city, no endpoint, but rather a process, or series of steps, by which cities become more “liveable” and resilient and, hence, able to respond quicker to new challenges.’ In essence, many officially recognised smart cities claim that they incorporate networked, intelligent systems ostensibly ‘to make life better’. These systems include sustainable, integrated solutions such as automated utilities, instantaneous feedbacks to improve efficiency, networked infrastructure and online participatory technologies. It all sounds like an exciting, hi-tech future. Indeed, a recent report by the EU, European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities, aims to ‘unleash the full potential of innovation’.

All good news for technophiles… and hopefully beneficial for everyone in terms of increasing the efficiency of running the metropolitan machine. But is that all a city is: a machine for living in? lsn’t a city more than an assemblage of travel distances, population data, user criteria, feedback loops, etc? Does this technical approach simply reflect our contemporary data-obsessed, benchmarking culture, or is this data a tool for framing the next round of modernisation? And is it legitimate to assume an unquestioned acceptance of citywide monitoring, data gathering and mandatory-engagement strategies?

As more and more policymakers recognise the limitations of this approach, the smart-cities debate has moved on to the human scale. Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University, argues for ‘open-source urbanism’ as a means of subverting top-down smart city-ness. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has pledged £700million to its 100 Smart City programme - upgrading the decaying infrastructure, building new metro networks, cycling routes and bus lanes as well as roads, solar power and anti-pollution measures. Many smart cities are redefining themselves as ‘intelligent communities’ that deal with sustainable engagement in the workplace, digital inclusion and local advocacy. Ontario, one of Canada’s many smart cities, suggests that it allows ‘individuals to speak with individuals’, as if that wasn’t possible before. Paul Zanelli, chief technology officer for the Transport Systems Catapult, notes that ‘if high-speed internet is regionally available, homeworking (or working in other spaces closer to home) becomes more viable’. But once again, isn’t a city more than ‘the local’? Isn’t an ‘urban village’ a contradiction in terms, however ‘wired’ that village might be?

This year, the UK’s Centre for Cities noted that ‘cities have no clear sense of which issues they should focus on and which technologies they should implement’. Compare this to the ambitious ideas of the past. Norman Bel Geddes’ iconic Futurama vision from 75 years ago advocated total American interconnectivity via automated driverless motorways. Fifty years ago, the avant-garde architects of Archigram proposed the Walking City - an intelligent urban pod that would roam the world. A hundred years ago, Marinetti’s Futurist manifesto claimed that ‘everything must be revolutionised… every generation must build its own city’.

This session asks whether today’s smart cities follow in the footsteps of these historical radical city visions or whether they lack both radicalism and vision. In essence, do smart cities represent the real or the virtual, the global or the local, the urbane or the mundane? Press your button now!

Dr Francesca Bria
senior project lead and senior researcher, Nesta, UK Innovation Foundation; advisor, European Commission on Future Internet and Smart Cities policy

Alastair Donald
associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council

Léan Doody
associate director and smart cities lead, Arup

Tia Kansara
founder & director, Kansara Hackney Ltd; executive committee member, London Business School’s Global Energy Summit; co-director, CleanTechChallenge

Dr Paul Zanelli
chief technical officer, Transport Systems Catapult

Austin Williams
associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies

Produced by
Alastair Donald associate director, Future Cities Project; architecture programme manager, British Council
Austin Williams associate professor in architecture, XJTLU University, Suzhou, China; director, Future Cities Project; convenor, Bookshop Barnies
Recommended readings
India's smart city craze: big, green and doomed from the start?

Twice the size of Mumbai, the 'smart city' of Dholera is one of dozens planned in India – but critics say it will be built in a flood zone and will dispossess farmers. As investors pull out, will India's utopian experiment end in chaos?

Ayona Datta, Guardian, April 2014

Tomorrow's cities: Do you want to live in a smart city?

How do you fancy living in a city with which you can interact? A city that acts more like a living organism, a city that can respond to your needs.

Jane Wakefield, BBC, 19 August 2013

Megacities: soulless sprawl or shining future?

Whether we like them or not, megacities will increasingly become the future of our planet

Carl Björkman, World Economic Forum, 23 January 2013

follow the Institute of Ideas


Keep up to date with Institute of Ideas news and events by joining our mailing list.

Session partners

in association with