Richard Sennett: The title of my talk, or the pre­sen­ta­tion, is The Stupefying Smart City.” And it might seem to you that I’m there­fore going to give you a kind of anti-technology talk. But that’s not the case. What I’m wor­ried about is that with the tech­no­log­i­cal tools that we have today, as in the past, our first use of them is the least inven­tive that we can make. And the issue is how urban­ists can actu­al­ly use these new tools well rather than use them in a way which is harmful.

As I say in my paper, this has old his­to­ry in the his­to­ry technology—the inven­tion of the scalpel took near­ly a cen­tu­ry for peo­ple to fig­ure out how to use this super­sharp knife in order to do bet­ter surgery. And I think the same thing is true for the tech­no­log­i­cal tools that we have at our dis­pos­al for the smart city. At present, there are temp­ta­tions to use them in ways which are stu­pe­fy­ing to the pop­u­lace, in which the tool sub­sti­tutes for the judg­ment of the urban­ite. And that I think is some­thing that we have to counter and that we can counter. That we’re begin­ning to get a more sophis­ti­cat­ed sense of how these tools could be used, but its a pol­i­cy choice. And I’ll try and lay that out to you.

What I’d like to add to what I’ve writ­ten in the news­pa­per is the fol­low­ing. You could think in a way of the issue here of what this tech­nol­o­gy can take away from people’s capac­i­ty to rea­son, to feel, to make sense of com­plex­i­ty, by pos­ing the ques­tion Do you need a street to have street smarts?” And my answer to that ques­tion is yes. That is, to be a sophis­ti­cat­ed, com­pe­tent urban­ite, you need a street. And I’d like to make that a lit­tle more tech­ni­cal­ly clear to you, what that means.

In social psy­chol­o­gy now, there have been stud­ies for the last ten years about the ways in which peo­ple acquire an abil­i­ty to think and feel—both together—about com­plex­i­ty. There’s stud­ies of tran­si­tions from ado­les­cence into adult­hood. And they focused on the ways in which adults become adult by being able to deal with com­plex­i­ty. And these stud­ies have focused on three capacities.

One is the tol­er­a­tion of ambi­gu­i­ty as a con­di­tion of adult cog­ni­tion. The sec­ond is the abil­i­ty to pur­sue incom­plete action. That is, to bring some­thing for­ward, to act on it even though the results are say 80% rather than 100%, or 51%, or even 30% of what you intend­ed to accom­plish. And the third form of this adult cog­ni­tion is what’s called dia­log­ics, which is the abil­i­ty to lis­ten to what some­body means behind the words that they use. And it’s a real advance in under­stand­ing the sort of high­er lev­els of deal­ing with com­plex­i­ty that human beings can acquire as adults.

What the city does to these three forms of cog­ni­tion about com­plex­i­ty is pro­pose that you can learn how to tol­er­ate ambi­gu­i­ty, to pur­sue incom­plete action, or to prac­tice dia­log­ics with strangers. That is that strangers will stim­u­late you to prac­tice these forms of cog­ni­tion (and as I say, they’re both ratio­nal and emo­tion­al) more than being with peo­ple who are very famil­iar to you. So that there’s in prin­ci­ple a kind of— On the cultural/psychological side, there’s an inter­sec­tion between the social con­di­tion of the city, poten­tial­ly, and the process of becom­ing a sophis­ti­cat­ed adult.

Now, here’s where the sto­ry I want to tell you enters in. Because we can use tech­nol­o­gy to disable these forms of learn­ing com­plex­i­ty. And in my paper I’ve shown a cou­ple of exam­ples of how this can hap­pen. Of a use of tech­nol­o­gy that makes peo­ple more stupid—and that’s not quite a word I like, but it’s a won­der­ful title. But in which some­thing where peo­ple are not stim­u­lat­ed to deal with com­plex­i­ty in all of its forms because of the way in which we’re think­ing technologically.

Here for instance is Masdar, in the United Arab Republic. It’s a city planned with a tight fit between form and func­tion. It’s a very Fordist city in that way. For each func­tion there’s a place, and a form. And what that means is there’s not much stim­u­la­tion to think about dif­fi­cul­ty. Or to try and make sense of the rela­tion between where and what. It’s all been done in advance.

Similarly, you can see here how it works. It’s some­thing that is con­tained with­in itself. There are no fuzzy edges here— (I’m sor­ry, I don’t want go back to the talk that Ricky Burdette has accused me of being very philo­soph­i­cal about.) But this is a bound­ary rather than a bor­der. That is, the edges of this big giant build­ing are the edges of where set­tle­ment ends. There’s no periph­ery, there’s no ambi­gu­i­ty in the space. 

And the space itself is some­thing which is very direc­tion­al in its social log­ic. You know exact­ly what’s hap­pen­ing in each of the spaces by the kind of archi­tec­ture that’s made for it. It’s a very glitzy look­ing space, but it’s a space that requires no interpretation. 

Now, this… Masdar, extreme­ly expen­sive. It’s an exper­i­ment, as Saskia Sassen has point­ed out, in how far you can push tech­nol­o­gy. And per­haps only the UAR could afford it. But it’s an exper­i­ment in Fordism. And this kind of envi­ron­men­tal Fordism I want to argue to you is a way of stu­pe­fy­ing peo­ple. Of depriv­ing them of the spaces in which they devel­op those three street smarts of tol­er­ance of ambi­gu­i­ty, the pur­suit of incom­plete action, and dialogics.

Now, here is Songdo. It’s anoth­er smart city. It looks beau­ti­ful in a way. But when you look here you see some­thing that I think for urban­ists is a very very impor­tant prob­lem. There’s no hor­i­zon­tal val­ue in this space. I don’t mean sim­ply that there aren’t streets, but that the notion of hor­i­zon­tal­i­ty has been removed from the space. It’s a depri­va­tion— You don’t go out. Here everything’s con­tained in the building. 

Some of that has to do with the cli­mate of South Korea, which is harsh. But Koreans typ­i­cal­ly have over­come their cli­mate, and use the hor­i­zon­tal with base­ments. They’ve been very clever about using below­ground as a kind of hor­i­zon­tal. And the hor­i­zon­tal is a way of extend­ing out encoun­ters with oth­er peo­ple. This is a space, in my view, of depri­va­tion, because it has no streets. You can’t devel­op street smarts when you’ve tak­en away half of the visu­al vec­tor of what peo­ple need for their expe­ri­ence of oth­er people.

These build­ings each have a func­tion, and peo­ple are stacked up in them, again accord­ing to the Fordist prin­ci­ple of you go where you go where you belong, you are nev­er where you don’t belong. 

Here’s anoth­er part of it built up. You can see there’s no mean­ing­ful street here for human beings. 

By contrast—and I just bring this in, this is Third Avenue. This is a space in Third Avenue where the build­ing typol­o­gy, ver­ti­cal­ly, is as monot­o­nous as this. [slide not shown] I’m show­ing you an old­er build­ing. But the ver­ti­cal typol­o­gy is ter­ri­ble. But, at the ground plane the idea is that while up is pret­ty much uni­form, the ground plane is some­thing that’s dis­or­der­ly, con­fused, ambigu­ous, incom­plete, that needs to be read and needs to be inter­pret­ed. And my argu­ment to you as urban­ists is that what we’ve got to do in using this tech­nol­o­gy is fig­ure out ways in which we do not abol­ish the hor­i­zon­tal ground dimen­sion. It’s the dimen­sion of com­plex­i­ty, such as we know it today. 

Songdo and Masdar rep­re­sent I think ways of sim­pli­fy­ing the city even with its enor­mous tech­ni­cal com­plex­i­ty, sim­pli­fy­ing the space of the city, and mak­ing peo­ple unable to access this kind of mature devel­op­ment along these three axes that I’ve indicated.

I just as a counter to this want to say some­thing about Rio de Janeiro, which has used the information-gathering capac­i­ty (this is a won­der­ful project pur­sued By IBM and Cisco) to do coor­di­na­tion of what’s hap­pen­ing in the city, rather than a kind of pre­plan­ning of what should hap­pen. This is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent a mod­el of tech­no­log­i­cal use. One in which the tech­nol­o­gy deals with com­plex­i­ty on the ground rather than tries to pre­clude it through over­plan­ning and overde­sign. This is some­times known as the headache room,” and you can under­stand all those screens rep­re­sent traf­fic blocks, points where peo­ple have to get through, where ambu­lances have to get through, and so on. In oth­er words they rep­re­sent spaces in the city to which the tech­nol­o­gy is reac­tive, try­ing to enable what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground.

And to me this seems like a much more use­ful tool in think­ing about how to take tech­nol­o­gy for­ward than think­ing about the cen­tral pro­cess­ing sys­tems that we now have as pre­scrip­tive. This is coor­di­na­tive rather than pre­scrip­tive use of tech­nol­o­gy. And I think that’s the way for­ward for us as urban­ists, that we have to think more in that line than about how to make the city resem­ble a well-oiled, well-functioning machine. If we do that, we take away as it were the genius of the city that makes peo­ple com­pe­tent urban­ites. Thank you very much.

Further Reference

"The Stupefying Smart City" essay by Richard Sennet [different from this presentation] in the Urban Age: Electric City conference newspaper


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