Digital stardust won’t magically make future cities more affordable or resilient.
The term “smart city” is interesting yet not important, because nobody defines it. “Smart” is a snazzy political label used by a modern alliance of leftist urbanites and tech industrialists. To deem yourself “smart” is to make the NIMBYites and market-force people look stupid.
Smart-city devotees all over this world will agree that London is particularly smart. Why? London is a huge, ungainly beast whose cartwheeling urban life is in cranky, irrational disarray. London is a god-awful urban mess, but London does have some of the best international smart-city conferences.
London also has a large urban-management bureaucracy who emit the proper smart-city buzzwords and have even invented some themselves. The language of Smart City is always Global Business English, no matter what town you're in.
So if grand old London is smart, with its empty skyscrapers, creepy CCTV videocams, and sewers plugged with animal fat, then we probably needn’t fret about the Elon Musk sequins and stardust of digital urbanism. Better to reimagine the forthcoming urban future as a mirror of Rome, that “Eternal City,” where nothing much ever gets tech-fixed, but everything changes constantly so that everything can remain the same.
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Rome and London are two huge, sluggish beasts of cities that have outlived millennia of eager reformers. They share a world where half the people already live in cities and another couple billion are on their way into town. The population is aging quickly, the current infrastructure must crumble and be replaced by its very nature, and climate disaster is taking the place of the past’s great urban fires, wars, and epidemics. Those are the truly important, dull but worthy urban issues.
The digital techniques that smart-city fans adore are flimsy and flashy—and some are even actively pernicious—but they absolutely will be used in cities. They already have an urban heritage. When you bury fiber-optic under the curbs around the town, then you get internet. When you have towers and smartphones, then you get portable ubiquity. When you break up a smartphone into its separate sensors, switches, and little radios, then you get the internet of things.
These tedious yet important digital transformations have been creeping into town for a couple of generations. At this point, they’re pretty much all that urban populations can remember how to do. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent—these are the true industrial titans of our era. That’s how people make money, that’s how they make war, so of course, it will be how they make cities.
However, the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.
Whenever that’s done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it’s done wrong, it’ll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines.