The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 2 (Summer 2017)

Saving the Soul of the Smart City

Joshua J. Yates

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2017

(Volume 19 | Issue 2)

In 1958, the year Americans became besotted by the tailfin, an editor at Fortune published a multi-authored work of cultural contrarianism titled The Exploding Metropolis.1 William H. Whyte’s team of writers included four other Fortune editors, among them Jane Jacobs. Their subject was the emerging suburban and auto-centric format of postwar metropolitan life, first pictured in General Motors’ Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and largely realized by the late fifties. Swimming against the dominant urban-planning wisdom of the time, Whyte and his coauthors argued that the accelerating suburbanization of American life represented a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the city, and that its chief architects and promoters were driven by a profoundly anti-urban spirit. Most of the renovation and new construction was, Whyte wrote, “being designed by people who don’t like cities. They do not merely dislike the noise and dirt and the congestion. They dislike the city’s variety and concentration, its tensions, its hustle and bustle. The new development projects will be physically in the city, but in spirit they deny it.”2 Looking hard at the transformations then underway, the critics offered dire warnings about what these changes would mean for people and cities over the long run—warnings that have since proven keenly prescient.

We, too, stand on the cusp of a revolutionary new urban form: “the smart city.” That form emerges from a new wave of intensive urbanization and the proliferating uses of information technology to “optimize” the city’s functioning. It takes shape not uniformly or seamlessly but in fits and starts—in a handful of places all at once, incrementally in others. As was the case with the commuter suburb before it, a potent combination of institutional interests, technological innovations, and cultural appetites fuels the smart city’s rise. But this fact only raises the stakes, demanding that we look as hard at the coming of the smart city as Whyte, Jacobs, and their colleagues looked at the suburban efflorescence.

Shanghai: Circa 2030

I first encountered the city of tomorrow in Shanghai—at the 2010 World Expo, where I chanced upon Cisco’s Smart + Connected Life pavilion. The central attraction was a giant LED screen featuring a video of Shanghai in the year 2030.3 In this imagined near future, smart technology is integrated into the everyday existence of the city’s residents. The video centers on a special occasion in the life of one Shanghai family—the celebration of a golden wedding anniversary. As the story unfolds, we gradually meet members of the family in their various stages of life—the grandparents preparing for their big day by videoconferencing with loved ones, a pregnant daughter-in-law who uses a smart watch to send real-time vital signs of her baby-in-utero to her doctor, who in turn dispatches an ambulance to bring her to the hospital for an unexpected early delivery, and so on.

Meanwhile, a typhoon is barreling down upon the city and threatening to disrupt the anniversary celebration and inflict severe damage. But not to fear: All of the smart technologies embedded in the buildings, transportation systems, critical infrastructure, and communications networks are in sync and under the watchful, all-seeing eyes of a city command center and its expert administrators. As the drama intensifies, we see how technologies, all presumably created by Cisco, are seamlessly optimizing ordinary events, even in extreme weather. This was Cisco’s smart city version of the Shanghai Expo’s motto: “Better City—Better Life.” Much as GM’s Futurama did in 1939, the Cisco pavilion prefigures a future that lies just around the corner and, in many ways, has already arrived.

The City of Tomorrow Is Here Today

Having already traveled some way down the road to the smart city, we are in a position to make out some of its initial tendencies, even while only dimly descrying its possible trajectories. What we see defies easy judgment. Looking at its potential, we find much to recommend about the smart city. Far from being anti-urban, for example, it is a vision that doubles down on the idea of the city, returning the center of gravity to the urban cores and reversing the development patterns of the past half-century. In doing so, the smart city promises to create built environments that are more human-centric, equitable, and environmentally resilient. To the extent that this vision is realized, there will indeed be much to celebrate about a smarter urban future.

But the smart city as it is actually coming into being raises a darker question: What would we be willing to trade for a cleaner, safer, more efficient, more sustainable, and even more pleasurable urban existence? For cities across the world, this is the overwhelming challenge of daily governance. Closer to home, we confront this question in our worries over the loss of autonomy and privacy amid the technological web of surveillance and interconnectedness we are spinning for ourselves. We confront it in the ways such smart technologies are already optimizing the quality of life for some while only intensifying inequality for others. At the deepest cultural level, we confront the question of autonomy versus convenience in the ways such technologies generate new forms of social control that are accepted because they appear to be backed by the authority of science and have been proven effective at improving our aggregate well-being. Taking a hard look at the smart city requires that we ask not only where it might fail to live up to the promises of its boosters, but also where it is successful and how it might nonetheless still fail us as citizens and as human beings.

The Optimizing Metropolis

We can begin taking a hard look at the smart city paradigm by examining its organizing concept: optimization. This term is ubiquitous in discussions about smart cities, and it provides a key to understanding the cultural reasoning behind this new urban form and what that reasoning might be committing us to, morally and civically, over the long run.

By definition, optimization simply means the act of making the most of a process, situation, or resource. It is maximizing potential in light of given circumstances. Facing situations of fiscal austerity, as many of them are, cities are drawn to optimization in their quest to economize. This much is easy to understand. But it is optimization in a more triumphant, maximizing register that underwrites the unquestioning optimism of boosters of the smart city and its potential. For instance, here is how Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley “accelerator” that created Airbnb, recently announced that it was getting into the smart city business: “We want to study building new, better cities. The world is full of people who aren’t realizing their potential in large part because their cities don’t provide the opportunities and living conditions necessary for success. A high leverage way to improve our world is to unleash this massive potential by making better cities.”4

Having already disrupted entire industries in other fields, Y Combinator believes it can do the same for cities. To lead the way, it raises a set of “high-level” orienting questions:

  • What should a city optimize for?
  • How should we measure the effectiveness of a city (what are its KPIs [key performance indicators])?
  • What values should (or should not) be embedded in a city’s culture?
  • How can cities help more of their residents be happy and reach their potential?

With many more years of experience working in real cities, IBM is confident that it knows the answers to Y Combinator’s high-level questions. In “How Smart Is Your City?,” issued by Big Blue’s Institute of Business Value, the advice is simple and straightforward:

  • Develop your city’s long-term strategy and short-term goals.
  • Prioritise and invest in a few select systems that will have the greatest impact.
  • Integrate across systems to improve citizen experiences and efficiencies.
  • Optimize your services and operations.
  • Discover new opportunities for growth and optimization.5

IBM, in short, has the platform to help you optimize it all.

Optimization is not simply a for-profit enterprise aimed at a city’s strategic functions. It is also meant to boost human welfare. In 2016, a smart city collaborative made up of the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), in partnership with the Barcelona Agency for Urban Ecology and the Barcelona City Council, committed to redevelop 503 city blocks using human health and well-being as the primary design driver. “Over the next three years,” the collaborative claims, “ISGlobal will provide scientific evidence and expertise in epidemiology, health impact assessment modeling, and impact assessment indicators to optimize the initial 46 Superblocks as models for population health, ultimately impacting more than 23,000 city residents”6 (italics added). From Y Combinator’s vision of disrupting the “city” itself to the Barcelona collaborative’s efforts to improve human health and welfare, optimization is the smart city’s first goal.

The rhetoric of optimization expresses the priorities of those who stand to benefit most from the world they describe, and that group stretches beyond Silicon Valley and the business technology world where it originated. It also reflects the aspirations of the highly educated professional and managerial stratum of society alternately referred to as “knowledge workers” (Peter Drucker), “symbolic analysts” (Robert Reich), and the “creative class” (Richard Florida). Florida maintains that this so-called new class makes up nearly a third of the work force in the United States—and considerably more than that in certain US communities.7 Of course, this means that two-thirds of the workforce (as well as all those who have dropped out of it) are presumably outside the discourse of optimization, though they may still be subject to its demands.

The new class comprises the academics, public relations consultants, venture investors, artisans, designers, architects, planners, data analysts, artists, and others who today are both catalysts and leading indicators of urban revitalization all over the country. They are the purveyors and customers of the new urban chic that is transforming the look and feel of cities. Wherever they congregate, bike lanes, coffee shops, brew pubs, farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets, makers’ spaces, and tech hubs are sure to arise. The members of the new class are also both the creators and denizens of digital urbanism, early adopters of the most popular technologies, and the people at whom the most popular city-focused apps are aimed, from Yelp to Foursquare to Uber to Kickstarter.

This professional-managerial stratum is as conspicuous for its energetic entrepreneurial outlook as it is for its socially expressive consumption patterns. In virtually every American city, an effervescence of social innovation and collaboration is reconfiguring how cities work. Traditional nonprofits and government agencies are starting to be run like businesses, while business startups are beginning to take on missions once reserved for nonprofits and government agencies. All of this entrepreneurial energy is channeled through a host of digital applications and Web-based platforms that are revolutionizing everything from how we eat, move, create, recreate, socialize, and volunteer to how we mobilize, share, search, and congregate in cities.

For the most part, the members of the professional-managerial stratum are both the subjects and the agents of optimization. As subjects, they are already feeling the multifarious incremental effects of optimization in their daily and personal lives. These people already interact with goods and services in ways that almost always include or depend on a digital dimension in the realm of what is now commonly called the Internet of Things. The ever-multiplying applications on offer provide an expanding range of “on-demand” amenities, more highly personalized services, and more “peer-to-peer” interactions. Whatever else these offerings might signify, they are all intended to boost quality of life through the optimization of lifestyle choices, experience, and convenience.

Live, Work, Measure

The ways our smartphones change our interactions with one another and our environment is a much-covered subject. Less familiar is the first generation of smart homes, which are interesting microcosms of—even precursors to—the smart city. According to one industry report, “By 2022, a family home in an affluent, mature market will contain more than 500 smart devices,” all interacting with one another and with vendors and services outside the home.8 Think of the refrigerators that already come with sensors that can determine when the milk is running low and then automatically order a delivery from Amazon. In the near future, human-machine interactions will be transformed from the voice-activated, mostly passive interactions we now have with (for instance) Amazon’s Echo to more machine-initiated interactions.

Cities, too, are now counseled to optimize themselves in order to hold their own in what Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup, calls the “all-out global war on good jobs.” Pointing to places like San Francisco and Silicon Valley as the model, Clifton contends that not just any job will do. “The jobs war is won by knowledge jobs.… Good jobs are created by entrepreneurs working with innovators creating a winning business model.”9 In its “Smarter Cities for Smarter Growth” study, IBM warns cities that to compete in the twenty-first century, they

will need to better apply advanced information technology, analytics and systems thinking to develop a more citizen-centric approach to services. By doing so, they can better attract, create, enable and retain their citizens’ skills, knowledge and creativity.10

In short, cities must attract and retain Richard Florida’s highly skilled, often highly educated creatives. Cities from Green Bay to Rochester have followed Florida’s advice in redesigning their smart growth strategies around the “three T’s” of urban success: technology, talent, and tolerance. Addressing talent and tolerance, cities spend millions developing cultural amenities, from the arts to recreation to entertainment. Simultaneously, they spend even more upgrading to the latest technological apparatus that will support innovation and spur economic growth. In a world where one city has to be smarter than the next to stay competitive, both Florida and IBM are there to help cities, in the words of the subtitle of the IBM study, “optimize their systems for the talent-based economy.”

Finally, even where this class of urbanites does not explicitly employ the term, the spirit of optimization animates their expert discourse and professional practice. Never far from the concern with innovation and creativity is the language of measurement, return-on-investment scores, rankings, performance indicators, and social impact metrics. The drive to quantification and assessment is pervasive. Nothing is spared its calculating powers, including things once thought unmeasurable such as happiness or quality of life. Never before have so many people been so committed, or equipped, to track and measure as many facets of their lives and communities. The force and focus of optimization here is on our agency in making improvements in the social world—making a better life. In this register, optimization is how the charisma of creativity and innovation become instrumentalized through calculation for maximum impact.

Lifestyles increasingly enabled by smart tech, the pressures cities are under to attract and keep highly skilled creatives, and the drive toward quantification that animates expert discourse and professional practice—all of these show how the logic and rhetoric of optimization are already widely at work in this economically and culturally powerful class of urban elites. Moreover, because of their disproportionate cultural power, the ways they are imagining, and thus building, the smart city is affecting us all.

To be sure, the smart city is still an emergent urban form. It is open to many possible futures and trajectories. But the logic of optimization already exerts a powerful force on the smart city’s likely futures. It also has implications for things more humanly basic and immediate—in particular, how we feel, how we know, and how we behave.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

A University of Vermont research team created a software program in 2009 to measure the hour-by-hour, day-by-day, month-by-month fluctuations of “happiness” among Twitter users. The team was able to assign a happiness score to 4.6 billion tweets by measuring the frequency of use of more than 10,000 words signifying emotion or a positive or negative experience.11

Viewed historically, this rather astonishing technological feat shows how far we have come in our ambition to measure features of human life that for so long seemed beyond calculation. It also signals the latest step in the evolution of our thinking about human well-being itself. From the introduction of social indicators in the 1960s and quality of life measures in the 1970s through the explosion of interest in happiness metrics during the past decade, it appears that we are finally in a position to move beyond gross domestic product and crude econometrics to measure what matters most, what many believe we should have been measuring all along.

We see analogues of this quest for a fuller, richer, more holistic picture of human well-being at work in nearly every economic sector and field of knowledge. The watchwords may be different, but they tell the same tale. “Sustainability” and “resilience” are terms of choice in energy and environmental circles, while “wellness” and the “social determinants of health” are common in the realm of medicine. In the arts, the discourse of “creative placemaking” and “livability” is popular, and in business, the idea of social impact and multiple bottom lines has a growing following. Taken together, these terms give expression to a culturally comprehensive drive toward a more human-centered understanding of well-being, and nowhere is that collective drive being given focus with greater fervor than in cities.

There is a complicated intellectual and social history behind this collective effervescence around well-being and happiness, from Jeremy Bentham’s hedonic utilitarianism to what today is called the New Science of Happiness. Since antiquity, we have asked what human flourishing is, and, especially since the Enlightenment, how it can be measured. This latter question was Bentham’s obsession, and although he failed to find a way to quantify happiness, utilitarianism has largely won the day in terms of how we think and talk about human well-being today.

To return to the University of Vermont researchers: They have arguably developed the first modern-day “hedonometer.” Such a device was first conceptualized by Francis Edgeworth in 1881 as a psychophysical instrument that would count the numbers of “hedons,” or units of subjective enjoyment, generated by an individual’s experience. What is crucial here for the present discussion of the smart city is how this technology maps the terrain of happiness. Coding ten million tweets for words associated with positive feelings (love, hope, wonderful), on the one hand, and words associated with negative feelings (hell, no, damn, sucks), and looking at their relative frequencies in 373 urban areas, researchers discovered that Napa, California, was the happiest city in America, while Beaumont, Texas, was the unhappiest.

There are all sorts of reasons to be cynical about whether this research is really getting at happiness, but one should be mindful that it represents only a peek into the advancing world of hedonic analytics. National and city governments from Britain to Bhutan to Dubai now routinely collect data, mainly through surveys, on their citizens’ feelings of happiness, life satisfaction, anxiety, and the meaningfulness of life. Since 2008, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index has surveyed 1,000 people every day on their well-being and happiness. The research and methodology underlying the Well-Being Index are based, according to its website, on the World Health Organization’s definition of health as “not only the absence of infirmity and disease, but also a state of physical, mental, and social well-being.”12

But as the hedonometer example illustrates, we are also rapidly advancing beyond the survey into a post-statistical world of Big Data and physiological monitoring that circumvents self-reports of our happiness altogether.13 This is all being made possible by cutting-edge technologies, including sentiment analysis such as that featured in the Twitter-based hedonometer, or mood-tracking algorithms derived from analysis of the faces of people in crowds (which has already been done in Britain by means of surveillance cameras in public places), or biomedical technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging that can scan physio-chemical biomarkers associated with different subjective states of well-being.

As our digital, physical, and psychological worlds continue to converge, we can see how the growing interest in fuller pictures of human well-being is being fueled by both the new technological forms of measurement and by the insights such technologies are helping to generate out of the new science of happiness. Together, they are forming a powerful force for reimagining and redesigning our cities, and for optimizing the means of making us happier in the smart city.

One Big Math Problem

Ground was broken in New York City in 2012 for Hudson Yards, a $20 billion, twenty-eight-acre, mixed-use development on the west side of Manhattan. According to its website, “Hudson Yards is a triumph of culture, commerce and cuisine; a technological marvel that pairs style with sustainability; a convergence of parks and public space.” But what makes Hudson Yards noteworthy is its proclaimed status as the nation’s first “quantified community.”14 While there are other examples of “smart from the ground up” around the world—Songdo, South Korea, for example—Hudson Yards offers the first opportunity to design and build what its developers claim will be the “most connected, measured, and technologically advanced digital district in the nation.”15

The excitement surrounding the construction of Hudson Yards demonstrates our ubiquitous demand for measurement and data. In 2012, the authors of an article in the Harvard Business Review declared that “data scientist” was the “sexiest job of the twenty-first century,”16 and today we see a proliferation not only of data scientists in virtually every sector but also of chief technology officers across the corporate world. From the soup kitchen to the concert hall, all our inherited institutions must now establish their social value through numbers.

No one has done more to bring cities into the era of Big Data than former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is famous for articulating the core sentiment of this data-driven era: “I have a rule of thumb: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”17 Not surprisingly, Hudson Yards is a Bloomberg-era development plan, what one writer has described as “the capstone” of the former mayor’s outcome-based urban and economic development strategy.18

But Bloomberg is not alone in his obsession with bringing data and measurement into the study and management of cities. Once again, long-standing intellectual aspirations are finding renewed vigor in the new science of cities. Quantitative urbanism, as it has come to be known, is focused on discovering the deep, universal laws of urban life and reducing what once seemed irreducible—the buzzing chaos of cities—to mathematical formulas by which to better manage its key functions.

The intellectual vanguard of this movement emerged at the Santa Fe Institute, where, mathematicians and theoretical physicists began turning their attention to cities in the early 2000s. Their initial work has since help launched a fast-growing field that challenges the more conventional intuitive and often aesthetic methodologies of urban planners and urban studies experts. The goal is to create what physicist Luís Bettencourt, one of this movement’s leading lights, describes as “a new unified model of urbanization.”19

This is no dismal science. On the contrary, it is a remarkably optimistic one, motivated by a genuine desire to overcome “wicked problems,” avoid systemic blind spots, and better understand and manage complexity through a more mathematical and evidence-based program of urban science. Such a science will deliver a new era of policy insight and effectiveness and of more accountable and responsive governance. Open data, 311 call services, citizen smartphone applications: These are all believed to be but a small taste of what is to come. “We have within sight,” Bettencourt proclaims, “age-old human aspirations, such as to eliminate extreme poverty, to end most injustice, to gain access to good health for all. All of this will have to happen in cities and it can now happen very quickly.” How? While he is careful to qualify it, his answer is that bigger data and a more scientific approach to cities will be the game-changing element.20

This brings us back to the promise of Hudson Yards and what it represents as a prototype of the smart city. This smart community will be a platform for unprecedented data generation and measurement. Embedded smart tech will continuously collect and relay streams of informatics through arrays of sensors measuring everything from operational efficiency to productivity to quality of life. Every time residents use the public transportation system, walk through public space, operate a waste disposal unit, or activate any of the scores of apps on their smartphones, data will be collected from the objects surrounding them, while those objects will in turn be continuously communicating with one another. There to ensure that none of this data is lost will be New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP). Today, CUSP is home to a broad network of top universities and corporations that includes Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Toronto, IBM, Microsoft, Xerox, Cisco, Siemens, Arup, IDEO, and Lockheed Martin. It is the epicenter of what media theorist Shannon Mattern refers to as “the academy-industry-government complex” forming around cities.21

Yet, as machine learning and the Internet of Things come online over the next few decades, we can also expect that much that goes on in this quantified community will be watched by intelligent machines rather than by human experts in observation towers. The built environment itself will not just capture our individual data signatures passively. It will respond to and even anticipate our activities. “The city is becoming not just a collection of places and bodies,” writes urban historian Leo Hollis, “but a living and connected network in which buildings, signs, users, and vehicles communicate with each other in real time.”22 All of this will generate massive quantities of data for real (and digital) data scientists to mine, scrape, and cache for both public and commercial purposes.

This “living network” is also a platform for a growing array of personalized data and self-measurement. To take just one area, our health, it is reported that 69 percent of Americans already “track their diet or exercise, while a third track their blood pressure, sleep patterns, and headaches.” This health monitoring can now be done automatically through smartphones, but its use and incorporation into these devices has been encouraged explicitly by a “Quantified Self” movement that promotes wearable devices to track everything from steps per hour to caloric intake per meal to the number of daily meaningful social interactions. Far from vanity, this is, according to its promoters, “self-knowledge through numbers.”23 Self-knowledge through personalized data, however, does not refer only to personal knowledge privately accrued and retained. To make all of this self-knowledge possible, the platform must be ubiquitous. Almost by definition, optimizing what and how we know is one of the central premises of the smart city.

Better Living through Nudging

In the summer of 2010, British prime minister David Cameron established something quite novel in his cabinet office. Bringing together a small band of academic psychologists and economists, he created a behavioral insights team that has since come to be known as the “Nudge Unit” (taking its nickname from the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein). Having overcome a great deal of initial skepticism, the unit has been wildly successful. On topics ranging from pensions to army recruitment to foster care, its advice has become highly sought after not just in Britain but by governments and organizations around the world. Today, governments from Germany to Singapore to the United States are establishing their own “nudge units.”

The core idea behind the “nudge” is that people do not always act in their own best interest, and consequently need help choosing better options for themselves. Whether failing to save for retirement, succumbing to impulse buying at the supermarket, or filing taxes late, people all too commonly make poor decisions (often by making no decision at all). In a society like that of the United States, which prizes choice above all else, this can come as a very inconvenient truth. The “nudgers” point out that poor decision-making by individuals also leads to all kinds of deleterious consequences for society. The compounding of poor decisions about one’s personal health or spending habits, for example, can add up to enormous impacts on health care or on the collective risk of financial bubbles, both of which can end up costing taxpayers exorbitant amounts of money.

Rhetorically, at least, the attraction of the nudge seems to be that it approaches policymaking like a scientist rather than a bureaucrat or even a businessperson. It uses policy as a literal testing ground for the best way to present decisions to the public, thereby trying to nudge citizens toward leading better lives while saving taxpayers’ money. “If the nudge unit has discovered anything,” explains David Halpern, the British unit’s CEO, “it’s that an understanding of human behavior is vital for almost all public policy.”24

It is perhaps not surprising that this kind of scientific approach to changing how people act is finding fertile ground in cities. Indeed, it seems a perfect complement to the rise of quantitative urbanism already discussed. So it is no coincidence that the British Nudge Unit has teamed up with Bloomberg Philanthropies to tackle endemic urban problems such as crime and homelessness in US cities. As we have seen, the “city as platform” offers unparalleled access to data and information that can be used not only to understand the challenges better but also to test better solutions.

As this suggests, the city is also becoming a vast, all-encompassing laboratory, the likes of which were once confined to totalizing institutions like prisons, army barracks, and mental hospitals. Cities, of course, have long been used as sites for studying the various facets of social life, but never with tools enabling such complete surveillance and such extensive control of the human environment. Prototypes of the smart city such as Hudson Yards have already generated exuberant optimism about what we will be able to learn, predict, and, increasingly, control. As the sociologist William Davies points out, the last hundred years have seen periodic surges of confidence in our ability “to acquire hard objective knowledge regarding individual decision-making, and then to design public policy (or business practices) accordingly.”25 But what might ultimately set the present surge of optimism apart from even that which attended the rise of “scientific management” in the 1920s or of new statistical approaches to management in the 1960s is the unprecedented compass it has set for itself: behavior modification not within a single organization, or even within an entire institution, but within and across a whole city. Never before has there been such an enthusiastic embrace of mass surveillance on such a broad or penetrating scale, nor such overweening confidence in the solutions we will be able to design because of it.

The convergence between Big Data and the nudge is spreading well beyond the wonky world of urban policy, with an emphasis on design that is no coincidence. During the past decade, design has quickly become one of the master disciplines of the knowledge economy. Indeed, while the “manager” was once a defining character type of twentieth-century modernity, the “designer” is as good a candidate as any for the defining type of the twenty-first. This is not to talk of design traditionally understood, as a principally aesthetic craft limited to the form and function of physical objects or the built environment. I am referring to a set of competencies that blends the affective, aesthetic, physical, and technical dimensions of things with the objective of finding creative solutions to human-centered problems. Design has thus become a transdisciplinary practice and form of thinking that can be equally applied to complex technical systems, organizational processes, or human communities. It is through design that we build the human interfaces that connect us to the vast digital and physical systems that constitute the smart city.

The Deeper Power of Design

At a surface level, design allows us to humanize the processes of optimization. The deeper power of design, however, lies in its capacity to connect with and give expression to our most basic motivations, and thus channel or redirect them to some end. In this way, it can do what data by itself cannot. But this makes design especially vulnerable to abuse, as the history of consumer marketing has made abundantly clear. The temptation in the age of Big Data and the nudge is for design to become another method of optimization rather than individual and collective reflection. Ostensibly, design can help cities provide citizens with tools helpful for making better choices for better lives. But leaving aside what constitutes “better” here, what if we take behavioral science seriously and begin to question whether people have the rationality to use these tools to make better decisions? What if it is more expedient—in terms of taxpayer savings or some collectively defined good—to make those decisions for them through design?

We do not have far to look to see how this is already occurring. Right now, many of us are subject to this kind of logic from our insurance providers. Premiums rise or fall depending on a number of factors connected to people’s lifestyle choices and living environments. The actuarial choice architecture is simple: If you are overweight or if you smoke, you incur higher costs. But this logic appears to be shifting from a causal to a more interventionist mode. If you work in a large organization or institution, chances are you are already being nudged in areas related to your health and well-being—presumably for your own good, but most certainly for the good of the institution’s productivity levels and bottom line. Employees are routinely incentivized to make better decisions by enrolling in wellness classes, joining a gym, or counting their steps per day—activities that are now all tracked and assessed by human resources departments and employers’ insurance providers.

As the smart city comes online, we can expect this logic to become more compelling, and possibly more encompassing, as the urban environment becomes a living laboratory for both researching and designing the most effective nudges for bringing about desired behavioral outcomes.

Beyond Smart

In a time of surging populism, in part a backlash against technocratic elites, it may seem odd to focus so much concern on optimization. It will no doubt strike some as missing the real challenge and drama of the present “post-truth” moment. As one friend recently exclaimed, “Please, please, bring back the technocrats!” Fair enough, though we might consider whether the populism of the present moment isn’t better understood as an episodic reaction to a deeper and more durable trend. As Shannon Mattern points out, it was instructive that while “everyone was watching the drama at Trump Tower, the world’s largest searching-mapping-driving-advertising-information-organizing company [Google’s parent company, Alphabet] was throwing its resources behind a ‘fourth revolution’ in urban infrastructure.”26 This suggests the future Google is betting on.

If we take that image of the future seriously, we may be inclined to see an Orwellian dystopia on the rise in the optimizing logics of Big Data and the nudge. This would be a mistake. While there are real worries about government abuse of the new surveillance technologies, the more likely scenario, at least in the cities of the advanced industrial world, is a Huxleyan future in which citizens willingly trade away certain aspects of their freedom and autonomy for increases in material and subjective well-being—for a world engineered to enhance comfort, convenience, safety, even innovation and sustainability. This is precisely the world the optimizing metropolis promises to deliver. And short of massive political, economic, or environmental disruption, we have no reason to believe that the emerging smart city will not be moderately, if unevenly, successful. Where it is successful, it will be as transformative as the mid-twentieth-century regime of suburbanization and the automobile-based commute, potentially more so, since most people now live in urban environments and are thus subject to the forms of life these settings make possible.

Ever since Plato, we have understood that there is some reciprocal relationship between the nature of our cities (politically and physically) and those forms of life connected to our own self-images and identities. We might then ask ourselves not only what kind of people will be able to flourish in the smart city but what kinds of people we will need to become in order to flourish there. Moreover, what is the nature of flourishing that is on offer? It is hard to believe we could be satisfied with the likely answers. To borrow the words of political philosopher Wendy Brown, the optimization of well-being pushed by today’s purveyors of the smart city represents “a steroidally charged form of Weberian instrumental rationality wrapped in Aristotelian ethics and Kantian legal rectitude.”27 It sells us the happy vitalism of the Romantics built upon the moral vision of Bentham, Comte, and Skinner.

The consequences this will have for civic life also raise hard questions. As more and more parts of our lives are made more convenient, comfortable, and enjoyable, what possible inducement could there be to do the difficult and often agonistic work of democratic deliberation? Might not the logic of the smart city simply reinforce the already existing geographic and virtual sorting and isolating that pervade our society as we opt for physical and digital environments that affirm our moral and political perspectives and lifestyle preferences? Moreover, will not our “intelligent” info-sphere be programmed and designed to continually anticipate and respond positively to those predilections, perhaps gently nudging us toward even more optimal states of mind and bodily well-being while minimizing hassle, inefficiency, and criticism? Likewise, will it not be part of optimization to make the user experience the primary goal, which by design means foregrounding consumer preference while backgrounding the structures of power and the distribution of the risk involved?

Given just how socially and economically stratified American society is at present, it does not seem too alarmist to raise such questions. At the very least, it seems reasonable to ask whether the kinds of civic skills and commitments we are likely to develop under the conditions of optimization will be adequate to an advancing future in which, by all counts, our society will be less demographically white, as or more politically fragmented, as or more geographically segregated, more economically unequal, and less socially trusting. Will we favored denizens of the smarter cities and metros be able or inclined to work across the deep differences of socioeconomic status and worldview that will continue to divide one neighborhood from another and threaten to intensify the social distances between urban centers and their suburban and rural satellites? It seems doubtful.

Toward Wisdom

Narrowing the horizon of living to one overriding register of value, a regime of optimization stamps out the broad, diverse array of conditions that make human life vital. It turns out that some of the things most necessary for human thriving cannot be optimized, and are greatly harmed to the extent that we try. Conviviality, family, friendship, serendipity, play, dependency, trust, calling, and yes, even happiness: These are just a few of the things that make life meaningful and which wither in the soil of optimization. Some of these qualities, as Jane Jacobs reminds us, are able to grow and blossom organically only from the self-organizing everyday forms of human contact that generate spontaneously from vibrant public places and street life. “The ballet of the good city sidewalk,” Jacobs famously wrote, “never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”28 Such emergence, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, can come only “against the overwhelming odds of statistical laws and their probability, which for all practical, everyday purposes amounts to certainty; the new therefore always appears in the guise of a miracle.”29

Some, Jacobs and Arendt would agree, can come only through the civic friction that physical proximity and cultural particularity generate, and which can lead to genuine dialogue with our neighbors. But some, the philosopher Charles Taylor would remind us, come ultimately through the cultivation of the skills and virtues that power our commitments to working for the good of one another, even possibly at the expense of our own convenience and comforts. If the smart city is to contribute to a thriving human ecology oriented toward truth, justice, and goodness as well as prosperity, beauty, and sustainability, we stand in urgent need of a deep ethical and political turn that will help us cultivate the unoptimizable things for the purposes of making the city not just smart, but wise.


  1. William H. Whyte Jr., ed., The Exploding Metropolis (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993). First published 1958.
  2. Ibid., 7.
  3. Spinifex Group, “Cisco Pavilion: Shanghai World Expo 2010” (video), accessed April 18, 2017,
  4. Adora Cheung, “New Cities,” Y Combinator blog, June 27, 2016,
  5. Quoted in Leo Holis, Cities Are Good for You: The Genius of the Metropolis (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 255.
  6. “ISGlobal and BCNecologia Launch a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action to Optimize the New ‘Superblock’ Model under Health Criteria,” IS Global/Barcelona Institute for Global Health, September 20, 2016,
  7. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011), vii.
  8. Nick Jones, “The Future Smart Home: 500 Smart Objects Will Enable New Business Opportunities,” Gartner, Inc., July 9, 2014,
  9. Jim Clifton, The Coming Jobs War (New York, NY: Gallup Press, 2011), 66.
  10. “Smarter Cities for Smarter Growth: How Cities Can Optimize Their Systems for the Talent-Based Economy,” IBM Institute for Business Value, July 2010,
  11. “Average Happiness for Twitter,” University of Vermont Computational Story Lab, accessed April 18, 2017,
  12. Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, accessed April 18, 2017,
  13. William Davies, “How Statistics Lost Their Power—and Why We Should Fear What Comes Next,” The Guardian, January 19, 2017,
  14. “A New Neighborhood for the Next Generation” (video), accessed April 18, 2017,
  15. “NYU CUSP, Related Companies, and Oxford Properties Group Team Up to Create ‘First Quantified Community’ in the United States at Hudson Yards” (press release), New York University, Center for Urban Science + Progress, April 14, 2014,
  16. Thomas H. Davenport and D.J. Patil, “Date Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the Twenty-First Century,” Harvard Business Review, October 2012, 70–76,
  17. Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford, The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2014), v.
  18. Shannon Mattern, “Instrumental City: The View from Hudson Yards, circa 2019,” Places, April 2016,
  19. Luís M.A. Bettencourt, “The Kind of Problem a City Is” (working paper), Santa Fe Institute, March 8, 2013, 3,
  20. Ibid., 11–12.
  21. Mattern, “Instrumental City.”
  22. Holis, Cities Are Good for You, 251.
  23. Bruce Feiler, “The United States of Metrics,” New York Times, May 16, 2014,
  24. Tamsin Rutter, “The Rise of the Nudge—the Unit Helping Politicians to Fathom Human Behaviour,” The Guardian, July 23, 2015,
  25. William Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being (London, England: Verso, 2015), 235.
  26. Mattern, “Instrumental City.”
  27. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York, NY: Zone Books, 2015), 140.
  28. Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York, NY: Modern Library, 2011), 65–66. First published 1961.
  29. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 177–178.

Joshua J. Yates is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia. He is the Director of the Thriving Cities Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 19.2 (Summer 2017). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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