Redefining notions of urban intelligence

Saskia Sassen, acclaimed sociologist and professor at New York’s Columbia University, explains why the notion of ‘cityness’ should be used as a barometer of urban progress


Saskia Sassen.
Saskia Sassen.

New Delhi: For more than two decades, Saskia Sassen has been shaping our understanding of cities and urbanization. An acclaimed sociologist and professor at New York’s Columbia University, she authored the seminal The Global City, published in 1991. Her most recent book, Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy examines the connections between land, labour and capital in a dynamic, inter-connected world. In an email interview, she shared her views on smart cities and challenged prevailing notions of urban intelligence.

Urbanized technology

“The first phase of intelligent cities is exciting. The city becomes a living laboratory for smart urban technologies that can handle all the major systems a city requires—water, transport, security, garbage, green buildings, and clean energy. The act of installing, experimenting, testing, or discovering—all of this can generate innovations, both practical and those that exist mainly in the minds of weekend scientists. This is thrilling,” she writes.

While acknowledging the role of technology as a driver of urban innovation, Sassen remains concerned, however, about its “de-urbanizing” impact on cities, writing, “but the ensuing phase is what worries me; it is charged with negative potentials. From experimentation, discovery, and open-source urbanism, we could slide into a managed space where “sensored” becomes “censored.” What stands out is the extent to which these technologies have not been sufficiently “urbanized.”

Technologies are “de-urbanized”, first, when “they have not been made to work within a particular urban context. It is not feasible simply to plop down a new technology in an urban space. Consider the sharply varying kinds of architecture and building types that have evolved around the world in response to the need for increased density. Masdar looks nothing like Songdo. And compare Dubai and London: both have dense centres but they are built in very different styles. This means that technology systems that might work in one city might not be desirable in others, or would have to be dramatically reworked to be practical elsewhere. We need to push this urbanizing of technology further, and in different directions,” she advocates.

Second, technological systems, such as those that might be proposed as part of a Smart Cities programme, can be “de-urbanizing” because, even though they might be interactive, they tend to be closed systems, a point on which she elaborates later in the conversation. Cities, for Sassen, are open, incomplete spaces. Forces such as “the rapid expansion of massive surveillance of citizens in the most ‘advanced’ democracies across the world... silence the speech of the city and destroy urban capabilities,” she says.

Cityness and notions of smartness

Instead of relying on technology as a barometer of urban progress, Sassen proposes “the notion of cityness” to mark something more encompassing and complex than urbanity. “Cityness” is one way of opening up the category and allowing for more variability in what constitutes urbanity. This generates a whole field for research and interpretation, and invites us to reposition Western notions of what cities should look like and to explore a far broader range of building technologies and urban spaces, she says.

For Sassen, “The city is not just materiality, there are people, practices, subcultures, a conglomerate of things.” Essentially, “cityness” interprets the urban space “as a complex space that thrives on diversities and tends to triage conflicts into a strengthened civicness. Such capabilities get constituted as hybrids—mixes of the material and social physics of a city,” she says. In other words, “cityness” captures the ways in which an urban space expresses its civic intelligence, manifests its unique characteristics and negotiates threats and conflicts.

“Cityness” is expressed by urban spaces that “talk back;” spaces that possess their own “ecologies”, argues Sassen, suggesting a notion of urban intelligence that is derived from the intersection of people, places, activities and resources, not merely the presence of cutting-edge technology.

“When I use the term ‘ecology’, writing on the digital, I use the term to capture the fact that in interactive digital domains, one should not think that all that happens is simply a function of the technology. I argue that a larger ecology of meaning installs itself in that digital interactive domain, and it is generated by the cultures, politics, etc., where people are communicating online, where they live and work. So digital interactions cannot be reduced to technical capacities. These are pretty standardized nowadays and are similar across the world. But the social fabric that gets constituted varies considerably,” she points out.

Speech is a basic expression of intelligence, and a city’s ability to “talk back” is best illustrated with the following example, she says. “A car, built for speed, exits the highway and enters the city. It hits a traffic jam, composed not just of cars, but of people bustling around. Suddenly, this car is crippled. Built for speed, its mobility is arrested. The city has spoken.”

Another way of examining cityness is to look at neighbourhoods, or localities in cities, suggests Sassen. “When I emphasize their importance to a city and how different the neighbourhoods in a city can be, I am saying this as a core proposition I have developed: cities are complex but incomplete systems, and the diversity and specificity of neighbourhoods and localities make for a flexible tissue that will have a much longer life, than a huge megaproject built for specific uses.

“Cities have partly had such long lives, because they are complex, but incomplete systems. They have outlived all kinds of more powerful but closed systems—big corporate firms, governments or rulers, powerful bureaucracies. Across the centuries most of these no longer exist, but the city and its neighbourhoods exist, even as whole new types of people inhabit those old neighbourhoods and elite spaces,” she writes.

Challenges for local government

Unsurprisingly, this organic, people-centered and more complex notion of urban intelligence makes the application of modern technology more difficult.

“This is not necessarily easy. But it is not rocket science either, as they used to say. However, it does mean dealing with the diversities of cities – the diverse localities and people and institutions and causes and fights among diverse politicians. This is far more difficult than buying tech from respectable corporations and presenting it to the city’s people as: ‘We have now addressed this or that problem’,” points out Sassen, adding that “the big tech companies should learn more about what a city actually is.” The other challenge with Smart Cities-types projects relates to the role of large corporate suppliers of digital capacities, Sassen notes. “They are set up to deliver operating systems and infrastructure and other more minor digital capacities, but they are not set up to handle the settings. So we have seen cases where a municipal government buys all the equipment that the sales people say it needs, and that it will make all the difference, and then the corporate staff leave and the municipal government discovers that the types of spaces needed to install these instruments and machines do not quite exist, because they are crumbling, or they fill with water when it rains, or can be easily accessed by kids doing mischief on the street, etc. That is why it is so important to work with the residents of the city, to mobilize their intelligence and knowledge. They know what all is not working in their neighbourhood.”

Sassen illustrates her point, by referring to “the by-now famous pothole app developed by the Boston municipal government and provided for free to all residents,” calling it “a good example of how much the very simple little facts known by residents of diverse localities in a city can help –enormously so!! –local government to execute one of the tasks they must do. In this case the task is fixing potholes promptly, as these can break bikes, damage cars, and hurt bikers and drivers.”

“In a large city, the challenge is to know where the potholes are. With this app, all the driver or biker or passerby needs to do if they see a pothole is click on an app sent to her by the municipal government, and the precise location is transferred promptly to the specific government agency. This is a minor innovation that helps everybody and depends on very local knowledge. We need far more of this type of innovation that mixes residents’ knowledge and technical capabilities!”

Local governments should drive the conversations with providers, Sassen observes. “I have long argued that these meetings between corporations and municipal governments should reverse the typical roles. Typically, the tech people come and impress the municipal government people with all the things the new systems can do. They also assume that the municipal government people know little about tech. It should be the other way around—the municipal government should keep asking questions: what does this do for the city, will it solve this problem we face, and if so, show us how., etc etc…” Sassen’s recommendations are straightforward: “Building such a city at all is a daunting proposition, but I believe the biggest challenge is more conceptual: It is the need to design a system that puts all that technology truly at the service of the inhabitants—and not the other way around.”

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