Urban design for complexity 

Throughout history, cities have faced many problems: War and violence, disease, disasters, housing, utilities, traffic, crime, inequality, poverty, and greed. Moreover, the pace of population growth in cities is frightening. Every day, urban population increases by almost 150,000 – mostly poor – people, due to migration or births. Between to date and 2050, the world’s urban population is projected to rise from 3.6 billion to 6.3 billion residents.

The litany of problems affects all cities in the world, but not in the same degree. To cope with these problems, each city must make a diagnose of its own challenges and define solutions. 

City-life is complex and most afore-mentioned problems are related and often at odds, think about struggling poverty and reversing global heating. Therefore, these problems cannot be solved in separated silos. This is the reason reason that I reject reductionist approaches like ‘smart city’, ‘sharing city’, ‘circular city’ and the like. 

Instead, framing the challenges that cities face must start from the complexity of the city as such and the interrelations of people causing these problems. In this respect, I found the concept of a doughnut economy particularly helpful. It is elaborated by the British economist Kate Raworth in a report entitled A Safe and Just Space for Humanity. The report takes the simultaneous application of social and environmental sustainability as the point of department for humane behavior.

In essence, Raworth says that people have a great deal of freedom in the choice of activities in their city, if they stay within two types of boundaries:

The first limit is set by ecosystems; which make life on earth possible. However, we can also frustrate their operation, which has a direct impact on our living conditions. 

Something similar applies to society. Here you can also distinguish several aspects and each of them has a level that people should not fall below, the second limit. If this does happen, it will jeopardize the survival of society.

If you look at a donut, you will see a small circle in the center and a large circle on the outside. The small circle represents the social foundation, the lower limit of the quality of society. The large circle refers to the ecological ceiling. Between the two circles lies the space within which people can act as they please. Kate Raworth calls this space a safe and just space for humanity.

On the way to a city for humanity , what we need to do is, first of all, to define human actions that comply with or are threatening the ecological ceiling and social foundation of our own city. What follows is the formulation of targets to correct and subsequently enforce all actual violations of ecological and social boundaries. This applies to the city itself and the global effects of its activities.

As an exercise, I created a table of principles for 10 clusters of activities to address the challenges that many cities in developed countries share, combined with one target for each principle. You may want to download this table here.

I recommend this procedure to any city that intends to develop an integral vision starting from the complexity of city life and the interdependency of its activities. Amsterdam went through this process, together with Kate Raworth. The Amsterdam city donut is worth exploring closely.

This post based on by the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free (90 pages)

Content:

Hardcore: Technology-centered approaches

1. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

2. Scare off the monster behind the curtain: Big Tech’s monopoly

Towards a humancentric approach

3. A smart city, this is how you do it

4. Digital social innovation: For the social good

Misunderstanding the use of data

5. Digital twins

6. Artificial intelligence

Embedding digitization in urban policy

7. The steps to urban governance

8. Guidelines for a responsible digitization policy

9. A closer look at the digitization agenda of Amsterdam

10. Forging beneficial cooperation with technology companies

Applications

11. Government: How digital tools help residents regaining power?

12. Mobility: Will MaaS reduce the use of cars?

13. Energy: Smart grids – where social and digital innovation meet

14. Healthcare: Opportunities and risks of digitization

Wrapping up: Better cities and technology

15. Two 100 city missions: India and Europe

Epilogue: Beyond the Smart City

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The metaverse and other toys of the giga-rich

It is often said that technology is developing at a rapid speed, and ‘we’ must keep up with the vanguard. The suggestion is that this development is autonomous, which is not true. Instead, Big Tech is the force behind it. About 50 tears ago, governmental bodies, like Darpa (US), the Fraunhofer Institute (Germany) and TNO (the Netherlands) were forerunners in technological development, which resulted in a certain degree of democratic control and relevance for society.

Big Tech has earned an incredible lot of money and pays only a limited amount of taxes. Therefore, its resources are unlimited.  The same applied to its founders and ceo’s fortunes, only think of multibillionaires as Jeff Bezos and Egon Musk. Because of the wealth of Big Tech and its leaders, these companies can spend – they call it investing – as much as they want. At the same time, governmental resources seem to decrease while its responsibilities become bigger. 

Now that innovation is in the hands of wealthy and narcistic men like Egon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Marc Zuckerman, nobody must be surprised if its development is not inspired by any social goals but by the desire to have their own toys. The metaverse is the new one.  In a world were combatting poverty and diseases, providing clean water and sanitation, and becoming carbon-neutral ought to be prioritized, they invest billions in the creation of a virtual world, the metaverse. A welcomed toy for the leisure class. 

The metaverse is the ultimate form of augmented reality, the digitally supplemented substitute for reality. Metaverse was first described by Neil Stephenson in his dystopian book Snow Crash in 1992. As the power of computers grew, the idea of ​​the metaverse gained new impetus and recently Marc Zuckerberg announced that his new company Meta Platforms will gradually turn Facebook into a fully digital world. This immerses the users in the most diverse experiences, which they partly evoke themselves, such as communicating with other avatars, attending a concert, going to the disco, and getting acquainted with strangers and of course going to shops, because it remains a medium to make money.

Already now companies are buying advertorial space and the rich issue famous architects to design the interior and exterior of the digital mansions their avators will live in.

It remains to be seen whether a younger generation, less consumer-addicted and more concerned about nature, is waiting for a such a completely artificial world.

This post based on by the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free (90 pages)

Content:

Hardcore: Technology-centered approaches

1. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

2. Scare off the monster behind the curtain: Big Tech’s monopoly

Towards a humancentric approach

3. A smart city, this is how you do it

4. Digital social innovation: For the social good

Misunderstanding the use of data

5. Digital twins

6. Artificial intelligence

Embedding digitization in urban policy

7. The steps to urban governance

8. Guidelines for a responsible digitization policy

9. A closer look at the digitization agenda of Amsterdam

10. Forging beneficial cooperation with technology companies

Applications

11. Government: How digital tools help residents regaining power?

12. Mobility: Will MaaS reduce the use of cars?

13. Energy: Smart grids – where social and digital innovation meet

14. Healthcare: Opportunities and risks of digitization

Wrapping up: Better cities and technology

15. Two 100 city missions: India and Europe

Epilogue: Beyond the Smart City

If ‘smart’ is the solution, what exactly is the problem?

Most adepts of the smart city-idea suggest a tight link between technology and the wellbeing of the citizens, symbolizing a new kind of technology-led urban utopia. They promise the solution to many urban problems, including crime, traffic congestion, inefficient services and economic stagnation, or a healthy life for all. 

Siemens makes the strongest and most explicit statement of the philosophical underpinnings of the smart-city: Several decades from now cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption and provide optimum service…The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems[1].

It is unmistakably that business leaders, having in mind a multi-billion smart city technologies market overstate the benefits of technology, despite many examples that prove otherwise. Therefore, according to The Economist it is not surprising that a ‘techlash’ is underway: The monopolistic dominance of behemoths like Google, Amazon and Facebook and their treatment of sensitive data, the lack of transparency and accountability of algorithm-based decision making, the aversion of the gig economy are major drivers.  

Neglecting the human component is by far the worst mistake any aspiring smart city can make. If these future smart cities aim for efficiency, they just cannot be planned without the community. Robert Holland wrote: The real smart city has to begin to think with its collective social and political brain, rather than through its technological tools….. It is made up of myriads of initiatives where technology is used to empower community networks, to monitor equal access to urban infrastructures or scale up new forms of sustainable living

A human-centric turn of the smart city narrative starts from the problems that citizens and their representatives experience. Then possible solutions are discussed and finally these solutions are specified, the role of technology included. 

This post is based on the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free (90 pages)

Content:

Hardcore: Technology-centered approaches

1. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

2. Scare off the monster behind the curtain: Big Tech’s monopoly

Towards a humancentric approach

3. A smart city, this is how you do it

4. Digital social innovation: For the social good

Misunderstanding the use of data

5. Digital twins

6. Artificial intelligence

Embedding digitization in urban policy

7. The steps to urban governance

8. Guidelines for a responsible digitization policy

9. A closer look at the digitization agenda of Amsterdam

10. Forging beneficial cooperation with technology companies

Applications

11. Government: How digital tools help residents regaining power?

12. Mobility: Will MaaS reduce the use of cars?

13. Energy: Smart grids – where social and digital innovation meet

14. Healthcare: Opportunities and risks of digitization

Wrapping up: Better cities and technology

15. Two 100 city missions: India and Europe

Epilogue: Beyond the Smart City


[1] Cited in: Adam Greenfeld: Against the smart city. A pamphlet