Will the Smart City make us smart?

Étienne Roché

Étienne Roché

Digital Strategic Analyst

L'Atelier - BNP Paribas

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May 22, 2015 Drop a comment

In previous articles we have looked at the urban phenomenon from an anthropological viewpoint, as a means of responding to the needs of the city’s inhabitants, but at the cost of a certain degree of complexity, which tends to increase over time. But do cities have their own lives and can they be studied from an evolutionary perspective?

Aristotle asks in Book 1 of his ‘Politics’ whether the polis (city) can be understood at the same level as a colony of ants or bees. In which case the smart city would, from a Darwinist point of view, be nothing more than a more highly evolved town.

Luis Bettencourt, Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico, in the United States, who specialises in ways of modelling urban societies, has tried to apply to cities the physiological laws of living creatures, which apply universally from a certain size as they embody the energy exchanges between a body or entity and its environment. To the question ‟Does the city obey the known laws of Life?” we must answer in the negative: if the city were viewed as an organism it would simply elude the traditional laws pertaining to living creatures as its metabolism is really quite different. Moreover, it would be seen to follow what is known as a superlinear path, which means that certain elements grow faster than its size, for example productivity, capacity for innovation, and also the crime rate and pollution level. For example, a resident of Lisbon talks on average to twice as many people as someone who lives in a small town in Portugal, and eight million Londoners interact with other people twice as much as the 100,000 residents of the UK town of Cambridge. Here we see the emergence of a phenomenon which historians of science and economists such as Marc Giget – the initiator of the Cités Colline project – have always known about: cities are ideal meeting points for the exchange of ideas and culture. From Athens to Florence, from Babylon to Versailles, from Persepolis to Budapest, city environments have been a decisive factor for the intellectual and artistic fertility of the region and, at the end of the day, the influence it radiates. This has sometimes been driven by the sovereign or the powers that be, and sometimes has just been a consequence of history. Here of course we find some of the basics behind the thoughts of American urban studies theorist Richard Florida, who writes in ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’ that the city creates conditions that attract the ‘creative class’.

A digital hinterland

So will things change in the era of the smart city? Modern city infrastructure may reduce travel times to levels that are quite independent of the size of the city, but the growing capacity of communication networks is completely changing urban space-time geometry, and might even shake up the entire notion of a hinterland or countryside that is not actually part of the city. A person can stay connected to the economic development of a city via digital networks, wherever in the world s/he happens to be.

If we take a narrow ‘Darwinist’ view, the ability to compete can be seen as the only enduring determinant of long-term survival. However, a slightly more profound reading of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ reminds us that the ‘struggle for life’ is dependent on the ecosystem around it or, to put it another way, everything depends on having the right ratios of individuals of each species, thus enabling the overall food chain to be maintained (the Lotka–Volterra equations, also known as the ‘predator–prey’ equations): ‟One often needs a creature smaller than oneself,”  pointed out French fable writer Jean de La Fontaine and the Greek storyteller Aesop most certainly said the same thing before him, as this aphorism goes back a long way in time. So if a city were thought of as a living organism, the current era would be seen as one of sudden and profound change in the urban space as cities connect up with one another and their digital hinterlands merge. This would be true of all cities of a certain size where the only way forward would be collaboration rather than tooth-and-claw competition.

Six millennia after the emergence of the first towns in Mesopotamia, the way cities evolve is still unpredictable and they can emerge, thrive and die alone. However, the urban phenomenon has continued to evolve over the centuries, seemingly without ever going into reverse gear. So, given the consequences described above, it now falls to digital technology to foster environmental conditions conducive to intellectual fertility on a totally new – this time global – scale, but in so doing to remain open to initiatives from the political powers that be in any given city, whether local or far away.

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