Saving the Soul of the Smart City

Joshua J. Yates at The Hedgehog Review: “…We, too, stand on the cusp of a revolutionary new urban form: “the smart city.” That form emerges from a new wave of intensive urbanization and the proliferating uses of information technology to “optimize” the city’s functioning. It takes shape not uniformly or seamlessly but in fits and starts—in a handful of places all at once, incrementally in others. As was the case with the commuter suburb before it, a potent combination of institutional interests, technological innovations, and cultural appetites fuels the smart city’s rise. But this fact only raises the stakes, demanding that we look as hard at the coming of the smart city as Whyte, Jacobs, and their colleagues looked at the suburban efflorescence….

We can begin taking a hard look at the smart city paradigm by examining its organizing concept: optimization. This term is ubiquitous in discussions about smart cities, and it provides a key to understanding the cultural reasoning behind this new urban form and what that reasoning might be committing us to, morally and civically, over the long run.

By definition, optimization simply means the act of making the most of a process, situation, or resource. It is maximizing potential in light of given circumstances. Facing situations of fiscal austerity, as many of them are, cities are drawn to optimization in their quest to economize. This much is easy to understand. But it is optimization in a more triumphant, maximizing register that underwrites the unquestioning optimism of boosters of the smart city and its potential. For instance, here is how Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley “accelerator” that created Airbnb, recently announced that it was getting into the smart city business: “We want to study building new, better cities. The world is full of people who aren’t realizing their potential in large part because their cities don’t provide the opportunities and living conditions necessary for success. A high leverage way to improve our world is to unleash this massive potential by making better cities….

Narrowing the horizon of living to one overriding register of value, a regime of optimization stamps out the broad, diverse array of conditions that make human life vital. It turns out that some of the things most necessary for human thriving cannot be optimized, and are greatly harmed to the extent that we try. Conviviality, family, friendship, serendipity, play, dependency, trust, calling, and yes, even happiness: These are just a few of the things that make life meaningful and which wither in the soil of optimization. Some of these qualities, as Jane Jacobs reminds us, are able to grow and blossom organically only from the self-organizing everyday forms of human contact that generate spontaneously from vibrant public places and street life. “The ballet of the good city sidewalk,” Jacobs famously wrote, “never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.” Such emergence, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, can come only “against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.”

Some, Jacobs and Arendt would agree, can come only through the civic friction that physical proximity and cultural particularity generate, and which can lead to genuine dialogue with our neighbors. But some, the philosopher Charles Taylor would remind us, come ultimately through the cultivation of the skills and virtues that power our commitments to working for the good of one another, even possibly at the expense of our own convenience and comforts. If the smart city is to contribute to a thriving human ecology oriented toward truth, justice, and goodness as well as prosperity, beauty, and sustainability, we stand in urgent need of a deep ethical and political turn that will help us cultivate the unoptimizable things for the purposes of making the city not just smart, but wise….(More)”.