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Digitalt Byliv: Matt Ward – ‘Smart cities’ are not so smart

The smart city will not be so smart - therefor we put it in inverted commas. They are in fact unimaginably complex, and rather than looking at them as merely consisting of things, we could choose to see that they have (according to Robert E. Park) "a state of mind" - a way of doing things. We should emphasize the intangible aspects of cities and human life that give cities their character, and avoid killing the chaotic complexities we love in the name of efficiency.


It was almost surprising that Jane Jacobs was not named directly by Ward. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she described the complexities of urban life the city as producing the bottom-up logics that constitute urbanity, which contrasted with the over-simplified modernist urban models being implemented around the world. Her description of the intricacies of urban life (e.g.. ‘the Sidewalk Ballet’), constitute a powerful imaginary that dominates urban discourse to this day, and she is a foundational reference for an astonishing spectrum of actors in planning and studies of urban life, – including the proponents of the ‘smart city’, that argue that the ‘smart’ choices enabled by technology would trigger a kind of consumer based urban intelligence. The compact city is the spatial model most often applied in the realization of ‘smart cities’ and it reflects the qualities proposed by Jacobs, including a teaming urban public life which is a result of mixing housing, businesses and other urban function build at densities that optimize transport, energy consumption (and property values).

According to Ward, we should “defend the right for the city to be irrational, shrouded in imagination” and should not “leave humanity to engineers”. What would be the impact of the smart city on our collective imagination – when the realities of the city are laid out in the particular configuration that the ‘smart city’ represents? The problem is that ‘the smart city’ solidifies into models that monopolize the imaginary of the city – potentially locking down the scope of the future relationship between cities and technology.

Fortunately, “the image of the city is not quite the city itself” – leaving a gap where imagination can thrive. Ward argues that it is necessary to engage representations of the city, using the powerful manipulation of reality represented by photographic and filmic techniques. But of course – like the ‘smart city’ – movies can also represent particular imaginaries, so they also can contribute to closing down the possibility of a variety of futures for cities

But fortunately the ‘smart city’ will never be a reality – or it will only appear in tiny fragments – and it will probably not be in the configuration of technology and infrastructure imagined today. Perhaps the ‘smart city’ represents the edge where architecture starts to break down – where soft side of architecture and the city appears as inescapable and even more real than the ‘hard’ city. As Ward shows, through photography and movies: cities are spaces of imagination – and perhaps this is the importance for being a ‘smart city’: creating the many new urban imaginaries of complexity

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