Open Systems, Smart Cities

OpenCanada talked to Columbia University Professor Saskia Sassen about building smarter cities out of smarter technology.
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February 12, 2013

Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University, is a leading expert on globalization, human migration, and global cities. She was the keynote speaker at the 2013 Peace, Conflict and Justice Society Conference, “The Urban Era: Comparing Challenges in the World’s Cities,” where she talked with OpenCanada about the challenges of building smart cities and deploying smart technology.

It’s predicted that two-thirds of humanity will be concentrated in urban areas by 2050. The environmental, economic, and social challenges emerging from increasing urbanization are generating many new ideas on how to build and manage cities, including “smart cities.” How would you define a smart city?

I see the idea of the smart city as something that we are still working out.

The truth is that right now, we don’t have a single smart city. The cities that are chock-full of the most advanced technology, of so-called “smart technology,” like Songdo International Business District, are not, ultimately, smart cities. This is because they’re actually over-technologized, which means they become obsolete more quickly.

Consider the accelerated obsolescence of computerized technologies today. The more technology of that sort you pump into a building, the faster that building will become obsolete, whereas a good building can last for 300 years. One of the markers of a well-built city is that it can outlive kingdoms, empires, and firms. It can do this when the buildings in the city are part of an open system that can be adapted to multiple uses.

The way I see it, a genuinely “smart” city will use the most advanced technologies largely – though not exclusively – to make the city function as an open-source system. One aspect of such a city, and it is only one, is that knowledge is crowdsourced and all the information, all the feedback, can be interpreted and used at some point – by other machines, by citizens, by urban governments. It won’t necessarily all be used, but the possibility, at least, is there. The recent Urban Age Electric City conference in London brought a lot of the best people thinking about technology and cities together.


What constitutes “smart technology”?

Smart technologies vary, so the term should not be narrowly defined. For example, many cities are now constructing eco or green buildings, where the buildings are covered with plants. In some cases, this may in fact be the smartest technology – it may make sense to let the complexity of the biosphere become part of a particular building. In many ways, a plain old building is an open-source system, able to make the most out of certain interventions.

But while I think the more we green, the better, that doesn’t mean we have to have trees growing on everything. We can do other things like embed solar photovoltaic cells in walls. And we can cover concrete walls with a bacterium that creates calcium deposits that seal off green house gas emissions and eventually, work to actively purify the air around the building. Using technology smartly involves recognizing diversity in the space, using biospheric capabilities of all sorts, and making sure that the building, the neighborhood, and the city can become part of the bigger picture.

What amount of smart technology must a city have in order to be considered a smart city?

The city is a collective project, and it has to be kept open. The point of openness lies somewhere on a curve: At the beginning, when you have no technology and you start adding it, it’s great. Then you add a bit more, and it’s still great. But if you add too much, you move to the other side of the curve, where the value of adding more starts to decrease, because as you add more technology, you also add rigidity. If we use too much technology – even smart technology – we risk producing a rigid system that is far more susceptible to obsolescence and possibly failure.

Before hitting that point, there are multiple possibilities which we should be able to explore, if we add technology and raise the complexity of the system carefully. This means ensuring that the system stays open, and thus incomplete. In a complete system, everything is taken care of for you. But when that’s the case, it is likely that you have made it so rigid that it is no longer smart. I am going to be talking more about this at TED 2013 in Los Angeles.

You’ve spoken about “urbanizing technology.” Is this a way of preventing rigidity from overtaking the system?

The typical notion of how technology should be applied to a city – the Cisco Systems notion – involves taking a ready-made system, implanting it, and outsourcing its management. Urbanizing technology is almost, but not quite, the opposite of this.

When technology is urbanized, the diverse characteristics of the space – whether a park, a neighbourhood, or a city – are recognized and become part of the bigger picture. The idea is to listen to the space and apply smart technologies to empower, rather than replace, its unique features. This approach is able to accommodate a much higher level of complexity.

In my forthcoming article in Public Culture, “Does the City Have Speech?” I use “speech” as legal scholars use it. I argue that the city actually talks back, in the sense that it can, and will, undermine the logic of the engineer who designed it. One of my favourite examples is when a car that has been designed for long distances and high speed hits the centre of a crowded city. Suddenly, the car is crawling along. The city has essentially hacked the car – it has destabilized the original logic behind its design. The car is now underutilizing all its properties. The city has made them all superfluous. The car’s capacity has become a burden.

So, urbanizing technology is about listening to the structuration of the neighbourhoods or sectors of a city, recognizing their particularities, and beginning to design technologies that can really make those particularities work. Consider a straightforward example: When China built its new underground system, it made it completely intermodal so that you have one card that you can use to travel everywhere and you don’t have to stand in lines. That’s a very simple application of smart technology, of course – others are much more difficult.

What would a more complex application look like?

Biologists are exploring capacities in the biosphere that could be used to replace what we currently do in factories. Essentially, (and I imagine biologists may speak about in different terms) it is about maximizing our use of biospheric capabilities. The more we are able to bring biospheric capabilities into human-made systems, the more we are able to replace what we currently make in factories and reduce our reliance on synthetics.

One example, discovered by biologists in Copenhagen, is a bacterium that when put in brown water (or organic wastewater), produces a molecule of a plastic that is resistant and durable but biodegradable, which avoids the big problem of synthetic plastics. This could allow cities to take their brown water, something that is burdensome and often poorly disposed of (which then causes environmental damage), and transform it into something we need and cannot do without at this point, plastics.

These sorts of innovations allow us to change the valence of something from a negative into a positive. Cities could apply these technologies and start working actively with the biosphere rather than against it, as most do now.

Are more cities starting to apply smart, urbanized technology?

Many cities are in the process of implementing great technologies, but, at this point, none are using smart technologies comprehensively.

There are many technologies being implemented that are more simple than smart, but that are making an environmental difference. For example, in Rotterdam, they connect ships waiting in the port to the electric grid rather than keeping them running on diesel fuel. It avoids the cost of cleaning up diesel emissions, which are really bad.

There are many examples of smart technologies being applied in cities. Asian cities have received most of the attention so far, but Scandinavian cities are in a class of their own. Much that is being discovered in research labs is already being implemented in Copenhagen. So, now I regularly check to see what they’re doing in Copenhagen, and then I go back to my research.

This interview was edited for length and clarity