humancities@NYC: Explorations of the smart city


Urbanization and the rise of Information and communication technologies (ICT) are global trends with potential to shape the 21st-century city at an unprecedented scale. The embedding of ICT in our buildings, communications, infrastructure, and transportation networks will redefine opportunities for how we conceive, design and build, and manage cities. As two-thirds of the world’s population becomes urbanized, with an ever increasing number of people equipped with personal device technologies, both bottom-up and system approaches are needed to address the shifting relationship between the citizen and the city, how they relate to one another and to the built environment.

The "smart city” as a term emerged in the first decade of the 21st century to define how cities could use ICT to improve urban operations. Technology companies, such as IBM and Cisco, were especially eager to partner with government to deliver promises of greater efficiency and cost savings. While smart cities have become a buzzword for urban enthusiasts similar to livability and sustainability, technology remains at its core. Researcher Anthony Townsend defines a smart city as a place “where information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and even our bodies to address social, economic, and environmental problems” (Smart Cities, 2014, p. 15). Furthermore, a smart city must be networked— allowing previously disparate units whether people, sensors, or personal computing devices— to communicate with one another and adapt their response according to real-time information.

Rather than asking “What is a smart city?”, our task is to ask “What kind of smart city do we want to build?” If cities are human-made entities that reflect our collective values as a society, then the smart city is a proxy for understanding how we envision the shape and form of our cities. It also defines our values and whom we believe the city should serve. As sociologist Robert Park wrote, "The city and the urban environment represent man’s most consistent and, on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire” (Social Control and Collective Behavior, 1967, p.3). In recognizing that cities are built for and by people, the smart city is yet another iteration of our yearnings as a society.

What does a smart city look like, and whom should it serve? Asking this question will lead to different responses depending on one's vantage point. Private companies of all sizes seek to monetize the smart city ranging from building multimillion surveillance centers, such as the IBM Rio de Janeiro Operations Center that captures every aspect of the city on life-size monitors to hardware companies that provide sensors and software companies that aim to make sense of the data— and perhaps sell this intelligence to willing customers. Urban planners, designers, and engineers embrace new ways to gather data that can in turn inform how they build infrastructure in their professional fields. Social justice advocates have leveraged technological tools to increase representation, mobilize resources, and provide services to marginalized populations. Lastly, the smart city has also opened up new forms of expression for designers and artists to redefine our cultural landscape and to capture the human experience in unexpected ways (e.g., Christian Nold’s bio mapping and Laurie Flick’s Walking Patterns, among others.)

As the largest city in the United States, New York has been an early proponent of adopting the smart city rhetoric. Former Mayor Bloomberg became popular for quoting statistician William Deming: “In God we trust; all others bring data” and was especially forthright in signaling these ambitions. While this legacy continues to be present in New York today, an alternative rhetoric is increasingly present. This alternative rhetoric suggests that, rather than a smart city, what is truly needed is a human city, defined by Stanford’s Human Cities Initiative as one that fosters human relationships and promotes social inclusion. More specifically, a human city strives to uphold the Four Pillars of Sustainability: environmental protection, economic vitality, social equity, and cultural continuity. New York City signaled this intent when Mayor de Blasio released his OneNYC Plan in 2015. This plan inherited the environmental and economic sustainability goals of its predecessor PlaNYC, but it diverged in its explicit emphasis on social equity, such as the goal to lift 800,000 New Yorkers from poverty over the next ten years (note that this roughly equivalent to the entire population of present day San Francisco!)

Given these two narratives, Human Cities NYC aims to invite diverse perspectives from the fields of government, academia, planning, advocacy, and design to explore what a smart city looks like within the context of New York City and the Human Cities framework. Are these narratives complementary or contradictory? Is it possible for the smart city to co-exist with the human city, or are these two narratives inherently at odds? How would coexistence manifest in physical form, and how would this redefine people’s existing relationship to urban infrastructure? What might be some pathways to achieve the human city in New York: who would be the the actors in such an endeavor, and what role would each play? Or instead of co-existence, would one narrative ultimately dominate over the other, resulting in consequences that one would need to anticipate? What might historically marginalized populations have to gain or lose, and how can we ensure that the development of the smart city can result in the betterment of all communities?