How Smart Should a City Be?

by Vivien Park

Imagine a city that can anticipate your needs and desires, and provide you with information you'll need to know based on what it knows about you. Such is the vision of many in the field of urban and ubiquitous computing, and it is a discourse that is becoming more popular and powerful.

User experience designer and writer Adam Greenfield challenges this vision of techno-utopia. Instead of cities that are smart, he prefers ones that make us smarter. Greenfield believes that people will always be much better at making sense of the world than artificial intelligence. He proposes a network of open public "objects" (data collected from, and generated in, public space) that can be understood and used by the public.

Of course, this model is not without its challenges. Government policies surrounding privacy, corporate interests in ownership of data, and standardization of a presentation layer are just a few that come to mind. Tackling these challenges may seem like a daunting task, but hopefully these kinds of conversations will continue and attract the attention of people with the right amount of influence to make things happen.

Adam Greenfield is the founder of the urban systems design practice Urbanscale. He is also a former head of design direction at Nokia and has taught at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Credits: Video from Blinkenlichten TV.


  1. Very interesting work, thank you for the introduction. I wonder how this network of open public objects is taking shape. Looking forward to exploring the Urbanscale site.

  2. This is an important idea. The fantasy of the sentient/smart city is that above the city's physical geography will float a digital plane that is unconstrained; jumping to this plane will reveal all of the information pulsing through the physical geography that would otherwise be hidden by its boundaries and opaque walls. It seems however that digital space is not smooth and can have borders and boundaries as well, which allow some through and exclude others. Thus fighting for public informational space in the city is just as important as fighting for physical public space, since the shape of the informational geography will affect the development of the physical.

  3. From the perspective of a skeptic I often feel the dream of the 'smart city' equates tot the idea of Big Brother and the controls of the police state, the more smart it becomes the more controlled we are - indoctrinated by our media and our tools (smart phones) we buy and live as some "other' global media conglomerate determines and never forgetting the nightmares of incipient intelligence a la "Minority Report" and other science fiction classics.... I thus welcome a more balanced and user friendly vision of technology in cities and the participation they might afford us