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Unreal Cities? | The Nation

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Unreal Cities?

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The Prager Zeile in Dresden, inspired by Le Corbusier's "unités d'habitation."

The Prager Zeile in Dresden, inspired by Le Corbusier's "unités d'habitation."

Smart Cities
Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.
By Anthony M. Townsend.
Buy this book.

When wireless is perfectly applied,” declared the radio pioneer Nikola Tesla in Collier’s in 1926, “the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain.” To an avowed techno-skeptic and inveterate late adopter like me, this is a provocative statement. That anything wrought by the human mind could ever be applied “perfectly” to “the whole earth” is pure fantasy belied by the evidence of history. One need only consider that ongoing nuclear brinkmanship and global warming are but two outcomes of the human mind’s overweening ambitions. That the majesty of the world can be reduced to the material workings of a “huge brain” is Enlightenment-addled dystopianism of the first order. One could charitably dismiss Tesla’s conceit as an expression of his era’s awe at the emerging gadget-ridden mass consumer economy. Or one could interpret it, as Anthony M. Townsend does in Smart Cities, as an oracular vision of “the world into which we are now moving,” what he praises as “the untethered age.”

Those who enjoy the convenience of social media, smartphones and GPS but are uneasy about being data-tracked—and perhaps are befuddled by what’s at stake in the apparent war between Silicon Valley titans and hipster hacker heroes—could do worse than turn to Townsend for guidance. Townsend has a secure foothold in the various domains he covers in Smart Cities. With MA and PhD degrees in urban and regional planning, he advises corporate, finance and government leaders across the world on high-tech ventures from his “intellectual home,” as he calls it, at the Silicon Valley–based Institute for the Future. He also co-founded, in 2001, the nonprofit NYCwireless, an early effort to “hack”—that is, digitally create—free public Wi-Fi “hotspots” at a time when investors were determined to protect their post-dot-com-crash profits in fee-based Internet services. Townsend, who identifies with the “progressive left,” knows a lot about high-tech designs on cities and efforts to bend their wizardry to democratic purposes. And he has written a generous book in clean prose, one that will engage both advanced geeks and cyber-dolts—willful and otherwise—who merely tolerate terms like “open source” and are only dimly aware of how the Internet works.

Townsend does ask readers to accept some big assumptions, such as that current population trends will continue and that, by 2100, the population might be double what it was in 1990, or around 10 billion people. Or further, that in the age of global warming, the only way to accommodate such growth without social upheaval will be to expedite the ongoing historic migration from rural areas to megacities—and, particularly in the developing world, to do so in ways that “support a middle-class urban existence with only the carbon footprint of a villager.” He also believes, less obviously, that the constant thrum of “ubiquitous digital technology” will invariably lead to greater civic participation, sociability and inclusion. The Internet of Things, in which big-data-sorting devices talk to one another more than people do, ideally for the common good, “will be an immanent force that pervades and sustains our urban world.”

Townsend’s argument harmonizes with prevailing market opinion: as he himself explains, investors are poised to spend some $100 billion on urban automation, or “smart” IT infrastructure, over the next ten years. Cisco Systems has already invested $47 million on Songdo, a satellite city forty miles southwest of Seoul, South Korea, built from scratch on landfill beginning in 2004. This “test bed” features the three layers of digital technology on which multinational corporations—mainly Cisco, IBM and Siemans—are modeling their smart-city designs: an embedded sensor grid, with or without broadband, measuring all manner of conditions and movements (“instrumentation”); data-crunching computation capable of detecting patterns in everything from weather and water use to consumer choice (“urban informatics”); and management protocols for making efficient, predictive use of it all (“urban information architecture”). And while Townsend senses a whiff of Orwell in plans to trick out every dwelling—stacked in looming residential communities with names like “Worldstate”—with sensor-laden two-way video screens, he anticipates that everyday life in such a world will be “delightful.”

Imagine a late summer afternoon in Songdo a few years from now. Instead of thousands of individuals opening shades and adjusting thermostats, the entire city reacts to the setting sun in synchrony. Like desert plants, which open their stomata only at night to minimize water loss, Songdo’s smart buildings might order millions of remotely controlled motors to open windows and blinds to catch the evening sea breeze. Air conditioners and lighting are throttled back. Fresh air and the golden rays of the fading sun fill the city’s chambers.

I searched in vain for evidence that these words were written with tongue in cheek. 

* * *

According to Townsend, the trouble with having big corporate systems-engineering firms run urban automation projects is that the firms are ill suited to accommodating the swift adaptation and citizen participation that smart cities require and, above all, enable. These lumbering, top-down “technocratic” behemoths are preoccupied more than anything else with finding structural efficiencies and scaling up to replicable “cookie-cutter” models. They’ve done it brilliantly with air-transportation logistics over the past twenty years, and Townsend acknowledges that cities will need their expertise in engineering the complex embedded infrastructure of the digital age. What they can’t control, and what Townsend argues holds great democratic promise, are the innumerable ways users armed with mobile phones—and thus untethered to any one wired-in location—can hack out civic spaces and social experiments in real time, as was the case during the 2011 uprisings in Egypt. Indeed, in much of the developing world, where expensive stationary broadband is uncommon, that horse has already left the barn: 80 percent of the world’s mobile subscribers are in developing countries, including their massive slum dwellings.

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