Smart cities aren't always pretty - Monocolumn | Monocle


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17 June 2013

All cities are not born equal. Painful for some to acknowledge this but it’s true. The city you are reading this from may not be as successful as London, Monocle’s HQ. Or perhaps you live in one of those well-run Nordic nirvanas that trumps it hands down.

There are two reasons that I mention this. One is the new Monocle Quality of Life survey that names the top 25 cities to live in the world, but more of that in a moment. The second is a conclusion I came to after spending several days at the New Cities Summit in São Paulo.

The summit is billed as a platform for innovation and change and there are some great speakers, fascinating people and intriguing ideas. The focus of this conference is mostly technology’s role in mending our metropolises, whether that’s finding a place to park or delivering healthcare in favelas. Despite it taking place in Brazil, it sometimes felt like I was hanging out with Silicon Valley in the sun. These companies, app developers and miners of big data tend to see places as rather flat: they are either early adopters or Luddites.

Because it cannot be monetised very easily, a conversation about the value of green space is unlikely to make much progress (unless one of those trees could disguise a telecoms pole). Although if you cornered the architect Daniel Libeskind you would have a refreshing conversation about memory and remembrance. And get hold of Lady Barbara Judge and you could debate the role of a good mayor.

The tech city – or smart city – approach to urbanisation often looks at a city in China or Brazil and thinks that they all could be improved with a similar approach. But the fact is some of the “smartest” cities are also the least loveable places in the world. Have you ever been to Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, a sustainable clean-tech “cluster”? It’s OK for half an hour but to live or work there would not be good for the soul. It’s bleak.

I’d rather live in Paris where, I was told several times at the conference, residents spend something daft like half their lives (OK, I exaggerate) looking for a parking spot. Not good but who cares if you can get a seat outside a cute café and nosey around a nice neighbourhood once you have finally turned off the ignition?

Perhaps the problem is that the biggest potential clients for new tech are nations such as India where you have the likes of Bangalore growing at 900 residents a day. Ouch.

There’s a fear that stalks the summit’s floor that city’s are all growing at unsustainable rates, that the rush to the city needs to be acted on now, fast, before we all go to hell in a handcart. But the truth is that not all of the world’s cities are coping with the same issues. They all have their tricky issues but what’s a worry in Zürich’s city hall is not what has them nervous in São Paulo, let alone Ahmedabad.

It’s a challenge. How do you create a debate (and not just at the likes of this conference) that recognises that all cities are different, admits that some are beyond redemption and weaves together the significant contribution both technology and a good local store can make to our lives?

Well, we are doing our part with the new ranking of the top 25 cities to call home in the July/August issue of Monocle. It’s on newsstands this week – and don’t hold your breath dear residents of Masdar City.

Andrew Tuck is Monocle's editor.


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