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Future cities: smart and resilient, but only for the rich?

Future cities: smart and resilient, but only for the rich?

There is a real risk that as our lives become more automated we become more like automatons. We will follow the guidance of our smart phones without reflecting on how we live our lives, and how we engage in our communities. Furthermore, there is a risk that the smart city draws attention and resources to those issues that can be easily quantified and calculated — for example, how to most efficiently re-route traffic — at the expense of complex issues that aren’t easily quantified — such as how to create public spaces that promote social inclusion.

Smart cities could lead to dumb citizens.

David Sasaki, Institute for the Future, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The prospect of an orderly city has not been a lure for voluntary migration, neither to European cities in the past nor today to the sprawling cities of South America and Asia. If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way; this is how they can come to take ownership over their lives.

Richard Sennett, No one likes a city that’s too smart, Guardian, 4 dicembre 2012

The technotronic era involves the gradual appearance of a more controlled society. Such a society would be dominated by an elite, unrestrained by traditional values. Soon it will be possible to assert almost continuous surveillance over every citizen and maintain up-to-date complete files containing even the most personal information about the citizen. These files will be subject to instantaneous retrieval by the authorities.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Between two ages: America’s role in the technetronic era, 1970

Governments impose stricter rules, and use increasingly sophisticated technology for monitoring and enforcement. They often mandate where you live within the city, how you travel, and how much energy you use. Chips embedded in everyday objects ensure compliance. Crime rates have dropped and traffic regulation has improved, but civil society organisations argue that the democratic process is dead.

City-states again hold sway over wider territories, as they did in medieval and early modern Europe.

renew-abad” scenario, from the report “Megacities on the Move”, by Forum for the Future

An ideal city strikes a balance between micro and macro, spontaneity and planning, local and global. An ideal city is open and complex. Its components are discrete and not interchangeable.

In an ideal city a tiny event can trigger unforeseeable consequences, spreading phenomenal changes throughout the entire system. It is therefore adaptable, resilient, socially, morally, ecologically sustainable, evolving, dynamic, heterogeneous, unpredictable, emergent, discontinuous, non-linear, non-repetitive, non-integrated, generous, hospitable, genuinely democratic and thus impervious to oligarchic, plutocratic corporatocracy, that is, massive concentrations of power (Elizabeth Warren, The Trans-Pacific Partnership clause everyone should oppose, Washington Post, 25 February 2015).

An ideal city implements the ideals of the American and French Revolution: liberty, equality, brotherhood and happiness.

It is an instrument for securing the common good (Architecture and urban design beyond the Pyramid Age, WazArs, 23 December 2014).

Smart cities, as they are usually conceived, are seldom ideal cities (Adam Greenfield, Against the smart city; Anthony Townsend, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia; Xavier de La Porte, Pour une ville intelligente qui soit aussi ignorante, affective et idiote; Gérard Magnin, Qu’y-a-t-il derrière les “Smart Cities’’?; David Sasaki, The Quantified City; Richard Sennet, No one likes a city that’s too smart; Courtney Humphries, The too-smart city; Mar Abad, ¿Cómo será la ciudad del futuro?; Stefano Fait, Città smart o città viva?).

In an age of steepening inequality, utopia must be pursued by radical decentralization rather than by striving to remake the world after a single, technocratic vision: abig number of small things is less threatening than a small number of very big things (Etsy and the ecology of crafters and makers, WazArs, 15 febbraio 2015).

Radical, top-down rationalization and streamlining may cause a previously bottom-up, organically evolved society to become less adaptive and resilient.

It all depends on the willingness of planners and decision-makers to really listen to what people on the ground have to say on how things could and should be done; to rely on their specific expertise.

A current major trend is people coming together (online or in a more traditional setting), to toss out ideas and find solutions to shared problems. Horizontal networks are empowering, and the quality and diversity of inputs make for a more resilient, open and flexible community, at once local and global (Farid Tabarki, From Big Brother to Radical Decentralization, Rozenberg Quarterly, May 2013).

Conversely, the abuse of the otherwise most useful term “resilience” by experts pretending to be free and open, serves to obfuscate objectionable agendas and to confer a semblance of scientific rigor and ethical validation (of a utilitarian kind) to prejudiced, elitist worldviews (Tom Slater, The resilience of neoliberal urbanism, Open Democracy, 28 January 2014; Henrik Ernstson, Stop calling me RESILIENT. Comment on Tom Slater’s blog post “The resilience of neoliberal urbanism”, Rhizomia, 4 February 2014). It is part of a a reactionary and disempowering rebranding strategy on the part of some of the élites, flying in the face of formally sovereign individuals who should be entitled to choose a different reality (The human spirit is enslaved, but “creatives” are no abolitionists, WazArs, 18 October 2014).

As things stand today, it is plausible that people will soon stand up and say that they are sick and tired of being treated like infants, beasts of burden or mindless consumers, being constantly monitored, corralled, exploited, while struggling under the weight of massive debt and being told that their future could well look like James Lovelock’s transhumanist AI dystopia, frighteningly resembling the nightmares portrayed in The Matrix, Terminator, Logan’s Run,THX 1138, Zardoz, etc.:

In a changing climate cities are much less vulnerable to external heat than our individuals. If most of us lived in cities, as it seems we soon will do, the regulation of the climate of these cities might be far easier, more economic and safer option in a hot climate than the regulation by geoengineering of the whole planet…I think like all organisms on Earth our species has a limited lifespan. If we can somehow merge with our electronic creations in a larger scale endosymbiosis, it may provide a better next step in the evolution of humanity and Gaia.

James Lovelock, We should give up trying to save the world from climate change, says James Lovelock, Telegraph, 8 April 2014

Unfortunately, Lovelock is not the only (mistakenly perceived as) progressive thinker (they are usually affluent anglo-americans) entertaining the idea of brutally separating humankind from nature and the countryside (Parag Khanna, When Cities Rule The World, 2011; If Mayors Ruled the World, 7 October 2013), a shift which would have extremely negative repercussions for most of us (e.g. Nature Deficit Disorder).

Giant ecodome cities would be a predictable outcome of the insidious tendency to denigrate human intelligence and shift the focus from the control of a territory (nation-states) to the control of transnational flows of capital, goods, and people (megacity-states), with the inevitable circumvention of public deliberation and political participation, as though there could only be a single, logically inescapable answer.

In the final analysis, because of parallel patterns of thinking occurring globally,we are on the brink of events of monumental proportions, the beginning of a new evolutionary cycle for our civilization. Looking ahead, we see a new paradigm of human cooperation arising, one marked by an emphasis on sovereignty for countries and peoples vis-à-vis corporations and the odious debt burden.

Largely as a consequence of this transformation, top-down plans for a growing concentration of people in megalopolises will fall through, as post-materialist/post-consumerist, creative, hi-tech communities will be scattered, decentralized, self-organized and linked in a global network magnifying their potential: nothing short of a new Renaissance (The Great Human Renaissance – Towards a New World Order, FuturAbles, 9 January 2015).

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About stefano fait

Social forecaster/horizon scanner, entrepreneur, Arts and Culture reporter for "Trentino" & "Alto Adige", social media & community manager, professional translator, editor-in-chief of futurables.com, peer reviewer and contributor for Routledge, Palgrave Macmillan, University of British Columbia Press, IGI Global, Infobase Publishing, M.E. Sharpe, Congressional Quarterly Press, Greenwood Press. Laurea in Political Science – University of Bologna (2000). Ph.D. in Social Anthropology – University of St. Andrews (2004). Co-author of “Contro i miti etnici. Alla ricerca di un Alto Adige diverso” (2010)

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