If the tech community is genuinely interested in advocating "smart cities," technologists need to become more thoughtful and more involved in discussions with city planners and regulators.
The tech community and tech publications like ours like to tout the magic of technology. We like to boast of how advanced technologies improve our lives and society at large.
Autonomous vehicles are supposed to reduce road fatalities, e-scooters are solving micromobility issues, smart cities equipped with surveillance cameras — powered by face recognition and face analysis technology — are crime busters. Fitness bands keep us trim, smart speakers give our kids instant access to entertainment or effortless access to multiplication tables, without requiring them to memorize two times two. Alakazam!
I get the good intensions here — technologies doing what they’re designed to do, to our benefit. But as we step back, we sense more marketing spin than solutions to real-world problems.
Talk about making streets safer and reducing traffic congestions in the city, for example, and the answer isn’t necessarily robotic cars. An older (analog) solution, often successful, more often disdained, is well-managed mass transportation.
E-bikes and e-scooters are the latest “environmental” solutions for mobility. On the surface, maybe so. But the real impact remains questionable. For example, in Paris, every morning and every evening, gas-guzzling vans drive all over the city to pick up stray e-scooters (which are called "'trottinette" in French) and e-bicycles scattered all over the city and take them away for charging, by plugging them into a nuclear-generated electric grid.
Environmental, or just mental?
Nexus of technologies and city planning
Last month I was in Madrid to attend a “Quality of Life” conference led by Monocle, a lifestyle magazine. While the conference was designed for a well-heeled clientele mostly in marketing, a couple of speakers — Jan Gehl and Sir David Chipperfield — struck a chord with me. Their talks got me thinking about the nexus of technology and urban planning.
Gehl is an architect and urban design consultant based in Copenhagen. Since 1960, he has been studying “the form and use of public spaces.” During his talk, Gehl said, “If you don’t want more cars coming into a city, we need to make streets narrower, not wider.”
Consider Copenhagen. Gehl described how the city was transformed from a car-dominated to walker-friendly city over 40 years, by successfully creating the Strøget, car-free zone, one of the longest pedestrian shopping areas in Europe.
What distinguishes Gehl from other urbanists is his laser focus and the depth of understanding on how city planning and architecture influence public life. He likes to talk about an encounter as a young architect with a psychologist (whom he later married) that changed the course of his career. “We had many discussions about why the human side of architecture was not more carefully looked after by the architects, landscape architects, and planners... My wife and I set out to study the borderland between sociology, psychology, architecture, and planning.”
In short, building an award-winning building shouldn’t be an architect’s goal. For Gehl, more critical is how the new architecture enhances the quality of urban life.
Similarly, Sir David Chipperfield, an English architect at the same conference, stressed, “As an architect, I find myself spending more time to work with city planners and regulators.” Chipperfield, who once told New York Times, “I'm not so interested in convincing the architectural community that I'm a genius,” made it clear that his focus is on how buildings fit the future of the city.
As an architect, he explained that “when we are building in a city, we have a responsibility in a way to join in and to understand why buildings are as they are in that city.”
I don’t think I’m off the mark suggesting that engineers, too, should take a more careful look at the human side of technology. Advances are important. But how the technologies are going to be used by humans eventually becomes even more important than the technological achievement.
For example, if the tech community is genuinely interested in advocating “smart cities,” it’s high time for technologists to become far more active, thoughtful and involved in discussions with city planners and regulators. They must be able to make the case for their ideas and explain how they will affect the city’s future.
It seems as though the world has swallowed the Silicon Valley ethos of “learning by trying” or “moving fast and breaking things.” After all, this is how babies learn to walk and monkeys figure out how to crack nuts.
But, as deliciously “disruptive” as this concept sounds, the tech community shouldn’t see their work is done when the latest invention leaves the lab. Monkeys, after all, have died from bad nuts. Leaving society to figure out what happens after a feat of engineering (how best to use and regulate the technology) is irresponsible. What the world needs more than ever is thinkers on the human side of technology.