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Don’t make me think cities!

Smart cities are big business, from big data, leading to big exclusion. Cities generate an increasing number of data, and yes we would need, and do, translate this data into shorter and readable pieces as we have limited cognitive capacity.

That is not the whole story. We are creating closed systems where such data is mostly read by machines and translated into direct actions in the city, under the illusive flag of efficiency (we are not efficient beings). The access of this data is usually not public and only reachable by a hand full of people. Thus, on top of the usual ongoing problems of democracies, which is the selective access to information, we now have what I call, the “automatization of democracy”, meaning, we are outsourcing decision making to the big data interpreters: machines.

I take my chance in saying that this is unavoidable; the increase of complexity is the main pattern of life, from bacteria, to us, to societies. If someone or something is to colonize Alpha Centauri one day, it will be because more complexity has been added into the existing pool of life, or being (if you are uncomfortable in labeling Artificial Intelligence as life).

Smart cities are closed systems, but even if we open them considerably, and allow the usage of data in whole new ways, I do believe the super being city will nonetheless incorporate us in an endosymbiotic process. We will become the mitochondria’s of our own bodies: we do not “listen” to them, but they keep us going. We will be surely happy, happier even, protected from external dangers, but by being unaware of our role in the big picture.

The ability to thrive is one of the many definitions of happiness, which in this case, will need to exclude “awareness” in its definition. So, we either upgrade us along with it or we are swallowed by, or simply replaced by another more complex form of being, in this case, CITIES!


Text written for a talk for the 14.10.2016 DocGraf '16 - "Ferramentas digitais avançadas para documentação e análise gráfica: Casos de investigação em Arquitectura e Urbanismo" at the Faculty of Architecture of Porto, Portugal. The slides can be found here

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