The notion of smart city has begun to overwhelm our cities thanks to the ubiquity of digital technologies. From the government’s perspective, the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is crucial in order to gather sufficient data, which would, in return, create efficient infrastructures and a comfortable urban environment.
The Use of ICT in smart cities: The Most Visible Urban Change
Apart from the pervasive use of ICT in traffic control, lighting control or energy saving, another benefit – maybe unexpected – of smart cities is its effectiveness in forecasting police allocation through the analysis of previous crime data in Santa Cruz, California.
Some experimental studies were also generated in order to improve energy saving. A recent project from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), called “Trash Track”, reveals how garbage flows through a city’s waste-management system, from trash cans on streets to the garbage disposal plants . By presenting to people how their daily garbage travels thousands miles to be disposed, the system intends to promote behavioral changes, such as discretion on excessive packaging and reduction of wastes. Inspiring as it seems, one can be astonished by the amount of data that needs to be processed as well as the amount of energy required when every piece of trash has a series of information tagged on it.
¨The Second Order of Visibility¨
In his article “Profit Uber Alles”, Adam Greenfield categorized smart cities into what he calls three orders of visibility . The first order is, according to him, “populated by exotica like adaptive sunshades, fully automated supply and removal chains, and personal rapid transit systems”. Instances described above such as police allocation forecasts or city waste management systems can be easily part of this category. Highly visible and perceptible, they often serve as the symbol of a bright urban future and are thus frequently labeled in the smart city agendas.
The second order of visibility is the underlying “Big data” analytics, namely the data centers and servers through which huge amount of data are processed. Data centers, as a new building type, emerged in the twenty-first century and can be distinguished both regarding their site and context: they are built in the middle of the countryside in order to manage the immaterial connections between humans everywhere in the world. Big data centers are the mutant hybrid of the material and immaterial world.
In his article “Farm/ Cloud”, Mason White, Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, believes that data centers have introduced “supermodernity” into “non-places”, i.e. ambiguous spaces that tend to be crossed over or consumed rather than owned and occupied . However, in most islands, data centers are very specific about their locations and site conditions.
When Google picked its thirty-acre site in The Dalles, Oregon, it was the inexpensive electricity and proximity to fiber-optic cable that justified the $600 million investment in this site. The specific consideration of energy and infrastructure renders data centers to be almost like machines for memory.
A hundred miles away in Oregon, stands the similarly monstrous 300,000 square feet Facebook data center, where all Facebook profiles and messages are kept. They consume gigantic amounts of energy for operating, cooling and backing up power. With 30 megawatts of electricity on tap, this facility never sleeps.
This new type of architecture, or rather, machine building, forced us to look back at our countryside with a different and fresh viewpoint. One can just imagine the impact of the construction of a huge data center in a remote area of barely a few thousand residents. The impact is subversive. With urbanization pushed to the extreme, the emerging possibilities of ruralization seem intriguing. The countryside has huge potential in our exploration of a new world and should thus be examined carefully whenever a fancy notion comes up. It is important that we know what it means to the world when we click on buttons and tap on screens.
Invisible Impacts on Urban Environment: “The third order of visibility”
According to Adam Greenfield’s category, the third order of visibility on which a smart city is built is the “artifacts and services woven into the fabric of urban experience that fade beneath the threshold of our ordinary perception”, such as the smartphone. For instance, Greenfield talked about how Uber, through the convenience of smartphones, spatializes a business-centric generic city together with VIP lounges, luxury hotels, and high-end restaurants. Rem Koolhaas first coined this term in his article of the same name . He projected an unidentified, liberated, sedated generic city, where public realm is evacuated to leave only the necessary infrastructure for unadulterated speed. Mark Wigley also talked about the idea of ville verte, which, as a refinement of tower types, brings up a romantic imagination of how ambient is created through the combination of ideal lifestyle and efficiency of space using.
The popularization of digital devices is even striking in India, where “34% in slums have no toilet, but 63% own mobile phone”. Based on the pervasive use of digital devices, Carlo Ratti proposed an open city where everybody can use the same vernacular to participate in the designing of an urban environment. This open source design process is taken as a democratized improvisation of the city. In these rhapsodies of future city, our desires are maximized and materialized in the overwhelming digitalization process.
Under this irresistible smart city trend, we are confronted with the quantification and digitalization of every aspect of our lives. Before either embracing or rejecting it, we should probably at least examine the deep influences smart cities may impose under the cover of social justice, comforts and efficiency. Our urban environment may have fallen into the grip of the ICTs, and we may have given ourselves up to smart intruders. But with long-term territorial consideration and knowledgeable scrutiny, we are at least able to free our cities from illusions and protect ourselves from immediate comforts.
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