Maslow and Laborit, Smart City planners?

Étienne Roché

Étienne Roché

Digital Strategic Analyst

L'Atelier - BNP Paribas

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February 16, 2015 Drop a comment
Keywords : Smart city, America, Cities, Asia, EMEA

Having looked at the Smart City from the cultural angle, we can also take a sociological viewpoint.

Pyramide de Maslow

The urban phenomenon arose many centuries ago and nowadays the trend towards city-dwelling is accelerating. This is basically because cities respond to fundamental needs and desires felt by the gregarious being that Man is. The city organises society in an especially resilient manner, and it is also quite an efficient way of managing a spatial area, channelling collective energy from and to everyone. So what do individual residents find there?

The famous – but frequently derided – pyramid model constructed by US psychologist Abraham Maslow represents a hierarchy of human needs which, he argued, must be satisfied in the given order. Similarly to the various stages of the pyramid, the city is in fact able to provide people which what they need at each level. At the basic level of physiological needs, the city traditionally supplies all the flows of resources and raw materials sourced from its hinterland, providing water, power, heat, etc through ever more closely meshed networks and systems. The city of course also provides shelter. Regarding safety and security, early cities quickly met the threat of aggression by developing defence systems such as strong walls and later organised police forces internally. Moving upwards in the Maslow hierarchy, the city meets our need for love and the sense of belonging in the way it organises community life, applies law and justice on its territory and sets internal behavioural rules. Our need for esteem is met through the exercise of individual power, through work and such institutions as universities. Finally the need for self-actualisation is met through the quest to make sense of the world, through religious sites and places of worship, and by identifying oneself with a collective history.

The city can therefore be seen as a means of responding to man’s needs at every stage of the pyramid, allowing of course for a few traditional imperfections to which the urban space is susceptible.  This is a constant theme explored by movies, Italian neo-realism, for example, where the city is depicted as a magnet for a rural population seeking a better life in which – so far at least – they are well served by the latest technology.

Centralisation versus decentralisation

However, there are limits to the attractions of the city. Once a city has reached a certain size, opposing forces start to appear. Urban sprawl arising from the construction of residential suburbs, leisure areas and shopping malls creates a corresponding surge in road traffic as people seek to get from place to place, plus the pollution that comes with it. Stretching the urban space to breaking point can then cause cultural voids to appear which are difficult to fill, accentuating the tendency for people to feel isolated and anonymous. Although cities have proved able to cope with the critical mass at each stage of the pyramid, they nevertheless meet the stumbling block of not being able to develop their historical heritage at the same rate. What happens to the city’s original centre, which enshrines its founding culture and history?  The fact that it is in the centre is not only of cultural importance. A city’s historical centre has an influence on the terrain around it. So living in the city centre can help to meet a person’s need for self-actualisation, the top layer of Maslow’s pyramid. However, when you apply this idea to the whole group, it simply does not work. So in order to regenerate the community, you have to make sense of things for people, to provide meaning on a very large scale.  But how can this be done? Should cities be built in an entirely different way? Should city centres be more densely populated, avoiding sprawl? Do you need to legislate on human flows and personal mobility? Unsolved urban stresses have in recent years begun to result in the appearance of inner-city deserts.

Flight, violence or accommodation?

Different types of action have been taken in different places at different times to reconfigure the city in order to respond to the problem. The analysis grid conceived by French physician, writer and philosopher Henri Laborit can help us here. It categorises our behaviour in response to dense occupation of the territory in a way that in fact more or less applies to every animal species. First there is escape to Utopia. Seeking to rush forward into the future, such plans for new cities tend to take a ‘tabula rasa’ approach to the past, ignoring the cooperatives, communes and ‘phalansteries’ of old, and pursuing a utopian vision based on emotion-filled policies and golden tomorrows.

Unfortunately there is no collective history for these concepts and their origin lies in an Eden that has never existed, so there is little hindsight to help plan a future for them. Henri Laborit also talked about the Coercive City, which is based on violence. In other words, people who set out to control others, to regiment flows of people, tend to fix the history of a city in a photograph set in an age deemed to be perfect, and warn that any deviations from this idyll will result in chaos and violence. One example of this phenomenon – which was widely covered in the media – was the demonstration of force by the Mayor of Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, who used a tank to crush a car that was parked in the bike lane!

Finally we have the Smart City, an approach based on cautious accommodation i.e. not trying to sweep away the existing situation but continuing to support increasingly dense flows and finding ever-better ways to incorporate them. This is probably the most realistic approach considering that the trend towards urban living is probably unstoppable, so we will need to incorporate new techniques. We can mention here cybernetics (from a Greek word meaning ‘rudder’) and retro-control, within the limits inherent to this type of approach. In short, the Smart City can be regarded as a rational approach to managing the urban phenomenon on a massive scale, mitigating the negative effects which can already be seen at the current scale. All we have to do now is to ensure that the edifice we are building is solid enough to remain standing.

See Smart Cities and Art Cities: Two pillars of sustainable development for cities

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