The city of the future empowers citizens instead of systems

byMark Minkjan

published on 28/1/2016

We need smart cities that exist because of their citizens, not because of their technologies.

Two years ago I visited Masdar City, a new city in the desert just southeast of Abu Dhabi. Masdar’s existence is in technology. It relies on solar energy and renewable energy sources. Its underground driverless electric podcars move you from A to B. Sensors switch lights and water taps on and off, causing huge energy and water consumption cuts. The outside areas have smart cooling techniques, making the streetscape around 15C to 20C cooler than the desert surrounding it. Its technological features are impressive.

Still, Masdar feels dead and artificial, like an airport or a hospital. It doesn’t feel like the city exists because people want to live there. It doesn’t feel like people working and living there (in Masdar it’s mostly MIT students and Siemens employees – the company moved their headquarters there) have a sense of ownership of their city. Masdar is an experiment in technology, not a city that has grown from the desires of its residents.

With an exponential growth in the kinds of technologies at hand, both at a personal level and that of managing a city, we are starting to believe that urban life can finally be understood and made efficient. We have become used to calling this the ‘smart city’.

Masdar's beautiful but lifeless streetscape in 2014.

If cities are only technology-driven, they most probably turn out to be too imposing and too rigid to adapt to the ever-changing needs of their citizens. Many top-down smart cities show a resemblance with 20th century modernism, both techno-enabled ways of city making: smart cities are fuelled by digital innovations, modernism was made possible by then-new options such as reinforced concrete, metal and glass.

While modernism did emerge from a desire to create a better society for all and free people from unhygienic, crumbling and cramped neighbourhoods, it was also an elite that thought up the ideal urban setting. There was little direct involvement of citizens, and the use of these places wasn’t very flexible. The resulting rigid and rational environments often failed to meet the desires of their residents and weren’t able to adapt to changing ideals and needs. Smart cities show similar flaws: if they exist primarily because of their technologies, they might end up forcing ways of life upon people. And that’s the wrong way around.

Social City on the contrary embraces technological innovations, as long as they relate to the needs and ambitions of citizens that they share with us. Technology should be enabling and empowering, not commanding.

Equally crucial, the latest innovations should be able to serve everyone. Most Social Citizens indeed want a great deal of (digital) technology in their ideal city. In the real world, we can already have our Tesla car, intelligent Nest thermostat, smart groceries-ordering fridge and iPhone 6 connect to each other so that everything in life will run smoothly, comfortable and efficient. At least in theory, that is. And only for those among us who have quite some extra money to spend. Social City aims higher than this.

The first challenge is to apply and distribute technology in such a way that it helps people get access to education, jobs, healthcare and government, and that it fosters human contact. These are the crucial elements of an intelligent city; a socially smart city is inclusive and provides opportunities for all. 

Last week the World Bank reported that nearly 60% of the world population is still offline. This shows that of the first things to accomplish is to bridge the digital divide between the connected and the disconnected, so that the benefits of digital technology are accessible to more and more people.

Smart urban hardware should be there only to support the software: the wellbeing of citizens. We need smart cities that exist because of their citizens, not because of technology.


Top image: The envisioned future of Masdar in 2010. Forgemind ArchiMedia/Flickr


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