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Smart cities are not so smart. Bruce Sterling explains why

Sci-fiction writer Bruce Sterling about smart cities: urban intelligence design should originate from the desire to solve social issues. But it doesn’t. And that’s not smart at all…

Bruce Sterling answers the phone while sipping a coffee. It is early morning in Austin, Texas, where the writer of sci-fiction, considered the father of cyberpunk, lives for half of his time. The rest of it, he spents it in Turin, Italy. The previous day, Sterling  gave a lecture at the conference of American mayors. «I went there to say my opinion on smart cities», he explains. Which is definitely against the current. Especially for someone like Bruce Sterling: who since 2003 has been editing the blog Beyond The Beyond on Wired. «Smart cities are not smart at all».

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Smart cities are not smart. What do you mean?

«That those who work on them don’t do the smartest thing. Which should be to focus all developments starting from one issue: how to reconciliate the differences between those who have money and those who don’t. The social issue should be the core of the smart city. What happens, on the contrary, is a total attention on technology: and on making people believe that this is done for their own good. Partly, this is true, of course. But the main reason is that smart cities will bring tons of money into the hands of companies, and will make people more and more dependent on the services they provide».

Yet widespread intelligence could also mean quality of life. Or not?

«That is of course true. In theory. In fact I have ardently believed this in the past. But, you see, it all depends on the motivation behind each project. If the aim was social, then we could create impeccable paradises: ecological, functional, built in the name of brotherhood and equality. If, however, the only real aspiration is to attract new capital (as it normally is), we will find ourselves with unnecessary carcasses, places where money is made thanks to surveillance systems, to the extraction of data. A digital balkanization».

What did the mayors tell you?

«There are no immediate solutions and certainly I do not have to supply them. I do not want to seem cynical. But I never met a politician who thought he had enough power or one who did not want – even in the name of the community – to have control over the situation he is responsible for. That’s why the smart city is such a seductive concept. The promise is that of apps and services that help to govern, organize, protect and grow better. Now, however, I have the impression that more and more mayors are becoming aware of the weight of tech giants in this development, which see where the axis of power is moving: from public to private. Well, nobody really knows how to face this challenge».


What would you do?

«For instance, I look with interest to those who try a multitude of little experiments, without being afraid of failing. As in Barcelona, where Francesca Bria, the city’s Chief Technology Officer, has set up a network of software designers who are designing the city’s digital infrastructure. A sartorial project, that will belong to the citizens. But that, of course, is exquisitely in the spirit of the Catalans. Would it work elsewhere? I’m not sure».

Do you think that the character of the inhabitants still has an important impact on the cities? Even when these are pervaded by a technology that makes them more and more similar to each other?

«I believe that designing the evolution of a city is a utopia that often does not deal with people. Who sometimes, if well directed, can do great things. Think of the difference between two similar cities: Turin and Detroit. They were both satellites of two giants of the auto industry that abandoned them. But while Detroit has not managed to reinvent itself and still feeds on its anger, Turin is using digital technologies to take great initiatives related to sharing, to find itself experimenting. Not because the people of Turin are smarter, but because they have something that the Americans do not have. And that is the parochialism. An almost innate aversion to all that is global».

Are you against globalization?

«The Internet should have been the place of freedom and experimentation. But it soon appeared obvious that the really big money was not in citizens’ services but in the creation of logistical services for large companies, in the rental of servers and in the making of artificial intelligence. And, lately, on people’s surveillance. All this leads to a uniformity that is not good for people. After decades of information superhighway we have now entered the opposite phase: with the localist reaction becoming mainstream».

Often localism is charged with social rage. Are we in danger?

«Regionalism is currently angry, no doubt. But I think it’s just a phase. The problems it raises are the correct ones because allowing the creation of a world without variety is inconceivable. Those who think in regionalist but proactive terms, instead, allow the proliferation of small experimental groups, able to develop solutions designed for that precise place. The key is to start from the premises and work to improve it without isolating oneself. On the contrary, opening up to the world. Italy, which Italians often consider to be a tail light, is optimally positioned in this. Cities like Milan or Turin are technologically advanced, producing excellent engineers. Not only that: they have good international connections and the urban and cultural fabric suitable for thinking about concrete and positive alternatives to the smart city as it is understood globally».

Why do you dislike the word smart?

«Because it’s pedantic. It implies that those who do not fall within their umbrella are stupid. But the concept of smart changes over time. Do you think that the engineers of Nokia were ignorant? Yet the company has virtually disappeared. Betting our future by investing everything on the solutions offered by a handful of companies is ridiculous. Even they could become obsolete in a few years’ time and we would find ourselves with a rundown digital infrastructure. Today’s equivalent of abandoned railways».

What was the biggest mistake that we made, when digital technologies started to rise?

«The Internet should have been a common good. People would have to rebel against the appropriation of digital space and defend it. Global institutions – like the UN – should have created universal behavioral codes and security protocols. Instead, everything happened in the Clinton era, where it was thought that the market, by itself, would be able to regulate itself. But it did not work and it was predictable: it is difficult for gains to go in parallel with the public good. And now we have a much more complex task than it would have been if things had gone differently».

1 Comment

  1. Sergio Correa de J. Medina says

    An enlightening and timely interview. I find the arguments more than reasonable and quite consonant with my views. We should design intelligent cities instead of smart ones. It is not just a semantic difference. It means an entirely different frame of mind.

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