A City is not a Computer

A City is not a Computer
A wall in Bairro Alto, Lisbon, covered with circuit boards painted white

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A city is not a computer
A wall in Bairro Alto, Lisbon, covered with circuit boards painted white

This seems an obvious truth, but we need to say it loud and clear. Urban intelligence is more than information processing.

“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 2 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? […]


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