Our latest piece on the Smart City looks at the way cities need to react when faced with the complexity of their urban organisation. How much room for manoeuvre do they have vis-à-vis this vast networked landscape?

Noeud dans la ville

We have so far looked at the ‘Smart City’ approach as a way of making cities run faster and more smoothly, secondly as a way of managing the ever-stronger attraction exerted by cities, and thirdly brought you an overview of governance mechanisms and the relation between citizens and their elected officials – a reflection of the Olympic motto ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’ (Swifter, Higher, Stronger) in an imaginary replay of the contests between cities in the ancient Greek world perhaps? But we are now far from ancient Olympia…

To get back to the basic technological concept of the ‘Smart City’, it has always been thought of as a sort of IT super-stratum, a sort of huge operating system for the city, the last link in the evolutionary chain of urban development which has seen the environment change shape through gradual morphing of city centre squares, major thoroughfares, ramparts, water supply channels, power networks, sewerage systems, public transportation networks, fast lanes, telephone networks, and so on. Basically, the Smart City concept could be viewed as an approach that enables people to understand and manage the complexity of these multiple aspects of the city. And what better word than ‘complexity’ – whose etymological Latin roots mean ‘weaving together with’ – to illustrate the phenomenon of the city, this criss-crossing of flows of human beings, vehicles, matter, fluids and information? But why is it important to understand the complexity of the social organisational phenomenon known as a city?

Complexity : fear of collapse ?

In his book entitled ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’, the American anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter writes about the dangers that threaten any society when it reaches a high degree of complexity. Examining the reasons for the collapse of previous civilisations he points to the fact that the growth of a civilisation requires that different parts of the population are led to specialise in order to deal with issues and needs that emerge at a particular stage of its development, such as setting up an administrative body to organise the maintenance of the irrigation channels in the Sumerian civilisation in Mesopotamia. The need for growth dictates that some of the active population withdraw from hands-on agricultural production, receive an ‘energy subsidy’ in the form of food and sustenance, and thus act as a drain on overall output per hectare.

Thus it is that every growing society comes up against the law of diminishing returns, and shifts progressively away from the most basic needs of its population to manage increasingly complex issues through new administrative bodies, new control systems, etc., up to the moment in its history when it suffers from a major catastrophe, invasion or epidemic. At such moments, complexity rebounds on the civilisation and, unable to reassert itself, it suddenly regresses to a less complex state which sometimes destroys the cohesion of the society and causes it to collapse and disappear.

Smart city : an extra layer of complexity ?

At first sight, the Smart City, as an avatar of high technological sophistication, basically seems to be just the next stage in urban complexity. However, in contrast with previous stages in history, the work performed by Smart City automated systems does not take resources away from the city to a significant extent – requiring only sufficient power to run the extra layer – and therefore tends to push the limits on expansion even further away.

Meanwhile the Smart City enables enormous advances on the crisis management front. Having a city’s sensors and its entire communication network ‘always on’ means that any power cut/problem can be detected and remedied far more quickly. For example the speed with which New York City bounced back after hurricane Sandy’s visit was boosted through the use of Twitter, which helped to speed up the restitution of key services in Manhattan in areas that were under water and plunged into darkness (see photo). Another example is the Caribe Wave exercise, a programme for testing tsunami alerts in the Caribbean, where populations would have to be evacuated. In this context, the OpenStreetMap collaborative project has helped to crystallise evacuation procedures with a lot of accuracy during these disaster exercises, whose aim is to speed up, if only by a few seconds, the process of moving people out of dangerous areas. In this type of situation lives can be saved if the time from the sounding an alert to getting people to safety can be shortened. The system used was made up of many mobile sensors but if specialised infrastructure had been available it could have done the same job.

But what happens if a communication network is destroyed? This is when you need to call on Hangar Two at the Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, California. As part of Google’s Loon project, the company is building prototypes of broadband cellular networks whose antennae move around, transported by helium balloons. The system, which is designed to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas which are poorly served, is also likely to completely transform the Internet access market. No-one doubts that this is a viable technology which could be deployed at need, for example in an urban disaster scenario.

However, although this extra complexity could probably be extracted and maintained at a comfortable distance, all this potentially gained resilience still suffers from one huge weakness across the board in all its connected systems, from the smallest to the largest: IT security. Centuries after cities were defended with ramparts complemented by heavy gates, the question of who exactly holds the keys to the city is still headline news.