Utopia or the smart city of the future
- posted April 5, 2020
What do Atlantis, Babylon, Hamburg and Santander have in common? Many people’s age-old desire and wish for a different world, symbolised by mythical countries and cities as “legendary alternative worlds”. Regardless of “whether they go back to ancient legends (…) or are a modern invention, they have created streams of faith” according to Umberto Eco in his Book of Legendary Lands.  This refers to the legendary places of the past with all their splendour and greatness, their myths and utopias. But what about today?
In our digital world, new and simultaneously “intelligent” cities such as Hamburg or Santander are preparing to write the next chapter in the history of human desire.
Welcome to the 21st century, welcome to the smart cities with their supposed splendour and greatness. The promise and the dreams on which they are based are future solutions for the coming mega-cities, the comprehensive networking and digitization of humans and machines. That sounds like hope for urban living space in today’s and tomorrow’s intelligent city. Or is it just another utopia?
“What will be remembered about the twenty-first century more than anything else, except perhaps the effects of a changing climate, is the great, and final, shift of human populations out of rural, agricultural life and into cities.” That is how Doug Saunders describes things in the introduction to “Arrival City” – he is referring to the “one 21st-century development which will be remembered most clearly (…)”.  Saunders’ conclusion picks up the following figure from the “Edition Le Monde diplomatique” in its 2014 edition entitled “Moloch, Kiez & Boulevard”: “According to UN forecasts, three quarters of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050” , also because, in the opinion of many experts, the future lies in cities; cities all over the globe, on all continents – from Moscow and Bombay to Tokyo and São Paulo. Expressed in figures, that means: In 2050, 9.6 billion people will be living on the Earth, 6.4 billion of them in cities.
An area of conflict: mega-cities and digitization
The growth of mega-cities causes significant areas of conflict in terms of political, public and social questions. What answers can those responsible provide for future co-habitation in the ever more cramped space in mega-cities whilst at the same time life forms are fully digitalised and equally individualised. For some time, smart cities together with their concepts and solutions have promised a solution.
Currently, smart city appears to be more of a fashionable term than a thought-through strategy which is lacking the necessary selectivity in many places. Essentially, that requires a clear definition and specification of the issue of the smart city including a common approach for politics, science and industry. Essentially, that requires a clear definition and specification of the issue of the smart city including a common approach for politics, science and industry.
The digital control
Mastering data and digitalisation is one thing. The uncurbed data collecting of some large concerns and also on the part of the state or increasingly frequent hacker attacks are quite another. These require clear rules and more education about the new digital world with its many promises. The social psychologist Prof. Harald Welzer speaks of these promises in an interview on “Big data and the wretched promise of salvation”. He asks: “What is this promise?” He also provides the answer: “It only relates on its own part to the existing system. It merely promises that you will function better within the system (…). The framework is always already set and it is just a question of arranging everything more ‘innovatively’, a little better – by controlling oneself and everyone else.” For him, that means that Silicon Valley has a “fairly tired promise of salvation” to offer.
And the Goethe-Institut writes the follow-ing in an article for “Who will build tomorrow’s cities?”: Almost all smart city projects do not involve citizens’ interests. “Smart city is a centralistic top-down project led by large concerns which forces the hand of municipalities (…)”. And Welzer puts a name to companies such as Google or Amazon.
What remains to hold on to? Will those responsible succeed in filling the many generalisations with life? Can upcoming challenges for urban life be better controlled, mastered and depicted transparently? This latter in particular appears to be needed urgent ly in the course of uncurbed data use and the associated data protection and information security concerns. For how we want to live should not be left solely to the large concerns’ data collectors and analysts. There is more at stake, namely the general welfare of all citizens. And they have concerns, wishes and expectations of a world – also aside from total digitalisation. If the countless advocates of the digitalised and networked city do not succeed in identifying clear courses of action, the smart city will remain a utopia. Perhaps something which many people desire. For, as Welzer pronounces, “Someone who gets into an autonomous vehicle and who lets his house control the tempera-ture itself and his smartphone order the sausages even before he is hungry does not want just relief but relentless domination.”
Utopia oder die smarte Stadt der Zukunft
Willkommen im 21. Jahrhundert, willkommen in den Smart Cities mit ihrem vermeintlich neuen Glanz und ihrer Größe. Das Versprechen und die Träume dahinter: Zukunftslösungen für die kommenden Megastädte, eine umfassende Vernetzung und Digitalisierung von Mensch und Maschine.
 Eco, Umberto: Die Geschichte der legendären Länder und Städte. München 2015.
 Saunders, Doug: Arrival City. München 2011, S. 7.
 d’Aprile, Dorothee: Die Stunde der Städte. In: Moloch, Kiez & Boulevard. Le Monde diplomatique, 2014, Nr. 14, S. 3.