Richard Sennett

No One Likes A City That’s Too Smart

City at night © Creative Commons

Smart cities are making the headlines of newspapers and symposia on urban planning. Rightly or wrongly, they—sometimes simultaneously—intrigue or concern people. Cities situated at the fringe of the world that have barely been founded are universally known even before having any residents. Whatever their potential, this overexposure is a sign of the times; reflective of our concerns with the way that technology will affect our lifestyles. In his study of smart cities, Richard Sennett compares Songdo, Masdar and Rio to promote a vision in which technology will improve coordination and collaboration, as opposed to preconception, circumscription and control—actions that would render cities barren.

Richard Sennet is a historian and sociologist. He teaches at the London School of Economics and at Columbia University.

The Guardian,

December 4th, 2012

Let’s hope Rio de Janeiro, rather than Songdo or Masdar, is the inspiration for the jamboree of computer geeks, politicians, and urban planners from around the world that London is hosting this week.

At the Urban Age conference, they will discuss the latest big idea in high tech: the “smart city.” Doing more than programming traffic, the smart city’s computers will calculate where offices and shops can be laid out most efficiently, where people should sleep, and how all the parts of urban life should be fitted together. Science fiction? Smart cities are being and, they have become a model for developers in China, and for redevelopment in Europe. Thanks to the digital revolution, at last life in cities can be brought under control. But is this a good thing?

" Rio's Favelas"

You don’t have to be a romantic to doubt it. In the 1930s the American urbanist Lewis Mumford foresaw the disaster entailed by the “scientific planning” of transport, embodied in the super-efficient highway choking the city. The Swiss architecture critic Sigfrid Giedion worried that after World War II efficient building technologies would produce a soulless landscape of glass, steel, and concrete boxes. Yesterday’s smart city, today’s nightmare.

The debate about good engineering has changed now because digital technology has shifted the technological focus to information processing; this can occur in hand-held computers linked to “clouds,” or in command-and-control centers. The danger now is that the information-rich city may do nothing to help people think for themselves or communicate well with one another.

Imagine that you are a master planner facing a blank computer screen and that you can design a city from scratch, free to incorporate every bit of high technology into your design. You might come up with Masdar, in the United Arab Emirates, or Songdo, in South Korea. These are two versions of the stupefying smart city: Masdar the more famous, or infamous; Songdo the more fascinating, in a perverse way.

Masdar, United Arab Emirates © Quartier Libre
Masdar, United Arab Emirates © Quartier Libre
Masdar, United Arab Emirates © Quartier Libre


Masdar is a half-built city rising out of the desert, whose planning—overseen by the master architect Norman Foster—comprehensively lays out the activities of the city, the technology monitoring and regulating the functions from a central command center. The city is conceived in Fordist terms—that is, each activity has an appropriate place and time. Urbanites become consumers of choices laid out for them by prior calculations of where to shop or to get a doctor most efficiently. There’s no stimulation through trial and error; people learn their city passively. “User-friendly” in Masdar means choosing menu options rather than creating the menu.

"Masdar Institute Campus" © Quartier Libre 

Creating your own new menu entails, as it were, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In mid twentieth-century Boston, for instance, the city’s new “brain industries” developed in places where the planners never imagined they could grow. On the contrary, Masdar—like London’s new “ideas quarter” around Old Street—assumes a clairvoyant sense of what should grow where. The smart city is over-zoned, defying the fact that real development in cities is often haphazard, or in between the cracks of what is allowed.

Songdo represents the stupefying smart city in its architectural aspect—massive, clean, efficient housing blocks rising up in the shadow of South Korea’s western mountains, like an inflated 1960s British housing estate—but now heat, security, parking, and deliveries are all controlled by a central Songdo “brain.” The massive housing units are not conceived as structures with any individuality in themselves, nor is the ensemble of these faceless buildings meant to create a sense of place.

Uniform architecture need not inevitably produce a dead environment, if there is some flexibility on the ground; in New York, for instance, along parts of Third Avenue monotonous residential towers are subdivided on street level into small, irregular shops and cafes; they give a good sense of neighborhood. But in Songdo, lacking that principle of diversity within the block, there is nothing to be learned from walking the streets.

A more intelligent attempt to create a smart city comes from work currently under way in Rio de Janeiro. Rio has a long history of devastating flash floods, made worse socially by widespread poverty and violent crime. In the past, people survived thanks to the complex tissues of local life; the new information technologies are now helping them, in a very different way to Masdar and Songdo. Led by IBM, with help by Cisco and other subcontractors, the technologies have been applied to forecasting physical disasters, to coordinating responses to traffic crises, and to organizing police work on crime. The principle here is coordination rather than, as in Masdar and Songdo, prescription.

But isn’t this comparison unfair? Wouldn’t people in the favelas prefer, if they had a choice, a pre-organized, pre-planned place in which to live? After all, everything works in Songdo. A great deal of research over the last decade in cities as different as Mumbai and Chicago, suggests that once basic services are in place people don’t value efficiency above all; they want quality of life. A hand-held GPS device won’t, for instance, provide a sense of community. Moreover, the prospect of an orderly city has not been a lure for voluntary migration, neither to European cities in the past nor today to the sprawling cities of South America and Asia. If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way; this is how they can come to take ownership over their lives.

There’s nothing wicked about the smart city confab London is hosting this week. Technology is a great tool, when it’s used responsively, as in Rio. But a city is not a machine; as in Masdar and Songdo, this version of the city can deaden and stupefy the people who live in its all-efficient embrace. We want cities that work well enough, but are open to the shifts, uncertainties, and mess which are real life.

"IBM, The operation Center, Rio de Janeiro" © Quartier Libre

(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)