“What should a city optimize for?” Even in the age of peak Silicon Valley, that’s a hard question to take seriously. (Hecklers on Twitter had a few ideas, like “fish tacos” and “pez dispensers.”) Look past the sarcasm, though, and you’ll find an ideology on the rise. The question was posed last summer by Y Combinator — the formidable tech accelerator that has hatched a thousand startups, from AirBnB and Dropbox to robotic greenhouses and wine-by-the-glass delivery — as the entrepreneurs announced a new research agenda: building cities from scratch. Wired’s verdict: “Not Actually Crazy.”
Which is not to say wise. For every reasonable question Y Combinator asked — “How can cities help more of their residents be happy and reach their potential?” — there was a preposterous one: “How should we measure the effectiveness of a city (what are its KPIs)?” That’s Key Performance Indicators, for those not steeped in business intelligence jargon. There was hardly any mention of the urban designers, planners, and scholars who have been asking the big questions for centuries: How do cities function, and how can they function better?
Of course, it’s possible that no city will be harmed in the making of this research. Half a year later, the public output of the New Cities project consists of two blog posts, one announcing the program and the other reporting the first hire. Still, the rhetoric deserves close attention, because, frankly, in this new political age, all rhetoric demands scrutiny. At the highest levels of government, we see evidence and quantitative data manipulated or manufactured to justify reckless orders, disrupting not only “politics as usual,” but also fundamental democratic principles. Much of the work in urban tech has the potential to play right into this new mode of governance.
Tech companies have come out forcefully against the Muslim travel ban, but where will they stand on subtler questions of social “optimization”? Autonomous vehicles and pervasive cameras and sensors are just the sort of disruptive technologies that an infrastructure-championing president might deem “tremendous.” Donald Trump’s chief strategist (who, years ago, ran the Biosphere experiment into the ground) is also on the board of a data mining and analytics firm that seeks government contracts. Will the president start tweeting about how crime-ridden (and racialized) “inner cities” would be a whole lot better if they were run like computers?
It’s a politically complicated environment, to say the least. Into the ring steps the first hire at New Cities: Ben Huh, founder of the meme-and-cat-pic empire Cheezburger. “There’s no shortage of space to build new cities,” he effervesced, in a post explaining his decision to join the Y Combinator project. “Technology can seed fertile starting conditions across nations and geographies.” His goal for the six-month research position: to “create an open, repeatable system for rapid cityforming that maximize[s] human potential.” No pressure.
Meanwhile, Alphabet (née Google) is moving forward with plans to build its own optimized cities. Its urban-tech division, Sidewalk Labs, has already installed public WiFi kiosks on New York City streets: infrastructural nodes (known as “Links”) that may someday exchange data with autonomous vehicles, public transit, and other urban systems.
The company is also partnering with the U.S. Department of Transportation on efforts like the “Smart City Challenge,” which awarded a $50 million grant to Columbus, Ohio. Last June, on the same day Y Combinator announced its New Cities project, The Guardian published details of Alphabet’s “Flow,” the cloud software behind the mobility experiments in Columbus. Within months, partnerships were underway in 16 other cities.
Urban transportation is the first target for disruption, but it won’t end there. Dan Doctoroff, the Michael Bloomberg associate who founded Sidewalk Labs, wonders, “What would a city look like if you started from scratch in the internet era — if you built a city ‘from the internet up?’” In November, the company took another step in that direction, launching four new “labs” that will work on housing affordability, health care and social services, municipal processes, and community collaboration. The company plans to run pilot projects in select urban districts, then scale up. Announcing the expansion, Doctoroff recalled past “revolutions” in urban technologies:
Looking at history, one can make the argument that the greatest periods of economic growth and productivity have occurred when we have integrated innovation into the physical environment, especially in cities. The steam engine, electricity grid, and automobile all fundamentally transformed urban life, but we haven’t really seen much change in our cities since before World War II.
If you compare pictures of cities from 1870 to 1940, it’s like night and day. If you make the same comparison from 1940 to today, hardly anything has changed. Thus it’s not surprising that, despite the rise of computers and the internet, growth has slowed and productivity increases are so low. … So our mission is to accelerate the process of urban innovation.
While Doctoroff has been telling some version of this story since Sidewalk Labs launched in 2015, the timing of the new expansion, three weeks after the U.S. presidential election, alters the context. As everyone was watching the drama at Trump Tower, the world’s largest searching-mapping-driving-advertising-information-organizing company was throwing its resources behind a “fourth revolution” in urban infrastructure.
Dreams of an Informatic Urbanism
Of course, major companies like Alphabet have already dramatically reshaped the cities where they are headquartered, 8 but they have not yet had the luxury of building on a blank slate. The idea of the “new city” certainly isn’t new, and the model now emerging in the United States has precedents in Asian and Middle Eastern countries, where Cisco, Siemens, and IBM have partnered with real-estate developers and governments to build “smart cities” tabula rasa.
We don’t know how these urban experiments will fare. Since they are in a constant state of development, always “versioning” toward an optimized model ever on the horizon, they are not easily evaluated or critiqued. 9 If you believe the marketing hype, though, we’re on the cusp of an urban future in which embedded sensors, ubiquitous cameras and beacons, networked smartphones, and the operating systems that link them all together, will produce unprecedented efficiency, connectivity, and social harmony. We’re transforming the idealized topology of the open web and Internet of Things into urban form.
Programmer and tech writer Paul McFedries explains this thinking:
The city is a computer, the streetscape is the interface, you are the cursor, and your smartphone is the input device. This is the user-based, bottom-up version of the city-as-computer idea, but there’s also a top-down version, which is systems-based. It looks at urban systems such as transit, garbage, and water and wonders whether the city could be more efficient and better organized if these systems were ‘smart.’
While projects like Sidewalk Labs and Y Combinator’s New Cities were conceived in an age of big data and cloud computing, they are rooted in earlier reveries. Ever since the internet was little more than a few linked nodes, urbanists, technologists, and sci-fi writers have envisioned cybercities and e-topias built “from the ‘net up.’” 11 Modernist designers and futurists saw morphological parallels between urban forms and circuit boards. Just as new modes of telecommunication have always reshaped physical terrains and political economies, new computational methods have informed urban planning, modeling, and administration.
Modernity is good at renewing metaphors, from the city as machine, to the city as organism or ecology, to the city as cyborgian merger of the technological and the organic. 13 Our current paradigm, the city as computer, appeals because it frames the messiness of urban life as programmable and subject to rational order. Anthropologist Hannah Knox explains, “As technical solutions to social problems, information and communications technologies encapsulate the promise of order over disarray … as a path to an emancipatory politics of modernity.” 14 And there are echoes of the pre-modern, too. The computational city draws power from an urban imaginary that goes back millennia, to the city as an apparatus for record-keeping and information management.
We’ve long conceived of our cities as knowledge repositories and data processors, and they’ve always functioned as such. Lewis Mumford observed that when the wandering rulers of the European Middle Ages settled in capital cities, they installed a “regiment of clerks and permanent officials” and established all manner of paperwork and policies (deeds, tax records, passports, fines, regulations), which necessitated a new urban apparatus, the office building, to house its bureaus and bureaucracy. The classic example is the Uffizi (Offices) in Florence, designed by Giorgio Vasari in the mid-16th century, which provided an architectural template copied in cities around the world. “The repetitions and regimentations of the bureaucratic system” — the work of data processing, formatting, and storage — left a “deep mark,” as Mumford put it, on the early modern city.