Smart City, Ideal City?

By May 04, 2016
Keywords : Smart city, town, Europe
La Cité idéale

Leaving aside the purely technological aspects of the Smart City, we can ask ourselves what this phenomenon is really all about and, most importantly, what its basic goals are.

Our last article in this series poses the important question: is the Smart City concept – with the long train of promises that is currently linked up with it – at the end of the day not simply the latest embodiment of that Ideal City which keeps resurging throughout History at major turning points in the development of human society?
Utopian cities have abounded in literature since ancient times – Plato’s Atlantis, Voltaire’s Eldorado, Thomas More’s Utopia, and so on. In each of these luxurious, golden cities lie lost fragments of Humanity. Is not the utopian city idea basically driven by the deep psychological need to give physical form to our joint human psyche – the perfect city as a witness to human achievement? Fragments of this idea are to be found everywhere.

Man and Society

One possible interpretation of the lost city of Atlantis as described by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus is that it is intended as a basic critique of Athens and its institutions rather than a factual account. In Plato’s Republic the selection of the Guardians of the City is a central theme, based on the argument that an ideal city requires an elite able to match this lofty ambition. From this need arise all considerations relating to the selection and education of the elite, and not least the way society is structured, with its laws and the rights and duties of citizens. Campanella’s ‘La città del Sole’ (City of the Sun), focuses on similar themes. On this point, the Smart City has already shown its potential to assist the political authorities in carrying out surveillance by managing some of urban complexity (see article: Smart City and Complex(c)ity), even if that might well entail a redistribution of power in some areas (see article: Smart City, Spin City?).

Man and the Cosmos: the physical world order

From the grid plans of Roman cities, to the garrison cities designed by French military architect Vauban and Jeremy Bentham’s designs, notably his ‘Panopticon’ penitentiary, we have through the ages seen ‘ideal’ city concepts based on a geometric approach in which physical alignment is intended to go hand-in-hand with the residents’ moral alignment with the group. In other words, mathematical rigour is invoked as a higher ordering force to shore up human weakness. Similarly, today’s Smart City also follows a very special geometry based on isochrones. While ancient city planners sought to minimise people’s movements from street to street, we now have smartphone apps designed to minimise time wastage (which can of course be quantified economically) by shrinking distance, slashing waiting times and reducing the friction caused by a surfeit of choice and disintermediation. This also creates the potential to re-model the urban form (see article in French: "La Banque d'une ville qui change").

Man and Nature: the environment, health, life and death

Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities, Le Corbusier’s vertically integrated housing units placed in vast parks… the ideal city is designed to combat the ills exuded by large cities – poor hygiene, pollution, contamination of nature due to urban sprawl, etc. – on a day-to-day basis. Here the Smart City notion reflects to some extent the transformation of Paris engineered by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who set out to equip the French capital with the very latest elements of modernity at that time: efficient sewerage, running water on all floors, public gardens within reach of every resident, following practically to the letter the lofty ambitions of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Count of Saint-Simon.
(see article in French: "Haussmann 2.0").

Man and his Destiny – and the conditions for achieving it

Until the relatively recent advent of ‘dormitory towns’ located far away from the town centre, cities had always been inevitably bound up with the workshops and factories that created much of their wealth. However, from Charles Fourier’s ‘phalansteries’ to community-managed agricultural federations, and the Godin ‘familisteries’, the wide range of experiments with the spatial integration of workplace and living accommodation demonstrated the limits of a utilitarian approach driven by pure economic logic. Now the work-home spatial debate is more or less settled: modern digital technology is enabling the spread of human capital across the entire surface of the planet while ensuring remote linkage. Smart Cities are becoming increasingly connected with their digital hinterland through growing networks. It simply remains to extend the technology to all those who are still cut off from it (see article:  Maslow and Laborit, Smart City planners?).

Cities without a past and without a soul

In quite recent times, the authors of the 1933 Athens Charter an urban planning sought to get away from the idea of a city as a single organic embodiment of human society. Their creed was functionalism – the principle that the built environment ought to be designed for specific purposes. They set out to formalise the notion that people’s needs are based on the four components of their day-to-day existence – living, working, leisure and transport. From this approach dozens of cities were created with neither a past nor a soul other than the spirit of instant modernity – cities such as Brasilia and the new towns planted on the outskirts of Paris where the latest movie in the Hunger Games series was filmed, mainly against the backdrop of Ricardo Bofill’s structures. All these were seen as snapshots of the ideal city of that era. Today model cities such as Nasdar and Songdo are emerging from the drawing boards of leading architects’ practices and town planning offices; it remains to be seen whether they will stand the test of time. The dream can very easily turn into a nightmare: the ideal features of today may become entrenched as rigid ideology, prey to excesses that may, sooner or later, slide into totalitarianism. This is how the Stalinist Empire style and Soviet brutalism began, i.e. initially in the guise of a total egalitarianism. For example, in twenty years’ time, how will people feel about having cameras everywhere, given that even today they are having second thoughts about them?

As regards the Smart City, although lots of useful data can be fed into the nice interfaces on our screens, this should not blind us to the fundamentals. After all, the ideal city is not necessarily a place where, based on analysis of everyone’s consumption patterns, pizzas can be put together automatically and delivered at high speed by robots. Technology is supposed to solve problems, not to increase social fragmentation and the Smart City as a purely techno-scientific venture is guaranteed to fail. So what should we do? Should we stop putting sensors everywhere, measuring the growth of every tree and tracking everyone’s movements? Is the ‘Quantify Everything’ approach a dead end? The ‘golden’ middle way is a very narrow path indeed. But perhaps this middle way can be found simply by maintaining a sense of balance in the choices we make? We need to work out what is the right thing to do at the right time and in the right place. Powerful computing in the service of human beings can certainly help. This should be what we mean when we call such tools ‘smart’. But is ‘smart’ the only criterion for our ideal city? If we insist on viewing everything through a prism called ‘smart’ we risk getting above ourselves and in the end falling prey to our own stupidity.

Ideal cities?

Meanwhile, somewhere in the wings there are waiting other sorts of ‘ideal city’ projects that do not necessarily require a major technological drive in their search for other kinds of equilibrium – such as balancing human habitat and the built environment by giving up on giant structures. A homogeneous habitat is the radical embodiment of equal opportunity, taking the notion of self-fulfilment to another level. For example, those areas of San Francisco where ‘Painted Ladies’ are to be found seem free of the destructive urge some people feel to take a sort of revenge against their surroundings, but they still do not escape the drive towards ‘gentrification’ under the pressure exerted by tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon and digital disruption specialists such as Netflix, Airbnb, Tesla and Uber. Anyway, could we perhaps think of the Smart City as a town that happens to be very big but is still on a human scale?

To extend Le Corbusier’s metaphor – he described one of his works as a ‘machine to live in’ – might a city be ‘a machine for creating society’? Along the lines of Auroville (City of Dawn), an experimental township in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, could the basic goal of the ideal city be to reduce human suffering? A roof over everyone’s head? Jobs for all? A sustainable environment? Universal education? A city may be deemed ‘smart’, but does that mean it will be an unfailingly considerate place to live? Could the Smart City equate to a Caring City?
The final consideration, in honour of the human spirit, must be the Arts and Sciences. A city which radiates cultural appeal is a city that is able to attract the most creative minds by showing tolerance. This is the thesis put forward by Richard Florida (author of ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’) fifteen years ago, which is gaining ever more credence day by day. However, we are now only just beginning to understand the life and death of these urban shooting stars which act like particle accelerators for human ingenuity (see article: Will the Smart City make us smart?), bringing about the emancipation of some categories of people (see article in French: La (Smart) Cité des femmes).

Compassionate cities?

We should pay special tribute here to Claude Nicolas Ledoux, Louis XV’s architect, who theorised on these different aspects, which he brought together in the Royal Saltworks at Arc-et-Senans in eastern France (see photo at the top of this article), a venture which was not however replicated on a large scale due to the outbreak of the French Revolution. Royal Architect by profession, he was also one of the architects of the Enlightenment in terms of his ideas. He took a radical, Rousseau-esque approach to urban planning, pondering whether cities might actually be the root of all our physical and psychological ills. He had a vision of a city where there would be no need for hospitals or prisons as these are among the excrescences of badly-developed cities that corrupt human nature and make people ill. Taken the other way around, people who live in a compassionate city will try hard every day to perfect it so that they can find inner happiness. This is certainly a tall order, but undeniably a noble aim!
In this context, while the Smart City will still inevitably be seen as a powerful technological means of urban transformation, this will certainly not be the end point but part of a continuum, an ongoing plan for continuous improvement of the human condition, on the spiritual and intellectual level as well as that of material well-being. Drivingly unswervingly towards an ideal that can never be finally attained may be seen as a truly noble political and philosophical goal. Seeking to improve existing reality on a daily basis by taking on board the reality of one’s own experiences, for example taking care with the footprint we leave on the environment around us – this kind of objective will always remain fresh and relevant.

To whom can the job be entrusted?

This is a project for everyone. It cannot just be left to ‘the few’ as described in Plato’s ‘Republic’ and as the Greeks set out to do long ago. The keys to the city have not yet been entrusted to the engineers because, as we have known for centuries, technology knows no ethics. This is not to say that engineers are lacking in morals but what they produce generally ends up in the hands of people who certainly do lack them. Nor does this role belong to financiers, whose economic thinking incorporates very little of the external social and environmental aspects. At the end of the day, time is still money to them. And what can we say about religious authority, military might or simply male strength? In the end this is a project which can only be entrusted to architects. Their training is still highly imperfect even after centuries of study going back to Vitruvius, and they are still experimenting. However these are clearly the only people who have shown across the centuries that they can build cities - admittedly still imperfect ones, but cities in which we are still living today. As Claude Nicolas Ledoux said: "There’s no man on earth who cannot be helped by an Architect..."


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