A smart city is an eternally unrealizable utopia

What is interesting about both early and current ideas about urban sensing networks and the use of their data is how close they are to and yet far from Constant’s vision of where such technologies will lead. The tech visions of New Babylon were the vision of a smart city No noted, like IBM, for large-scale data mining to increase revenue streams in everything from parking and shopping to healthcare and utility monitoring. The new Babylon was unambiguously anti-capitalist; it was shaped by the belief that pervasive and conscious technology would someday somehow free us from hard labor.

War and sensors

The apocalyptic news broadcast from Mariupol, Kharkiv, Izyum, Kherson and Kyiv since February 2022 seems a far cry from IBM’s smart urbanism. After all, smart sensors and sophisticated machine learning algorithms can’t match the brute force of the unguided “dumb bombs” that have rained down on Ukrainian urban centers. But the horrifying images of these smoldering cities should also remind us that, historically, these sensory networks and systems themselves arose in the context of war.

What Constant didn’t know was that the very “environmental” technologies he envisioned for creating a playful new city were actually appearing at the same time his vision was being formed—from US Department of Defense research fueled by the Cold War. This work reached its apogee during the Vietnam War when, in an attempt to stop supply chains flowing north-south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the US Army dropped some 20,000 battery-powered wireless acoustic sensors, promoting General William Westmoreland’s idea of ​​”almost 24/7 real-time or near-real-time surveillance of all types.” In fact, what the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would later call “network-centric warfare” was the result of multi-billion dollar funding from MIT and Carnegie Mellon, among other elite U.S. universities, to support research into the development of distributed wireless networks. . sensor networks are the very technologies that today provide “greater lethality” for the smartest military technologies.

Smart sensor networks are no match for the brute force of unguided “stupid bombs” such as those that are raining down on Ukrainian urban centers.


It is well known that technologies originally developed by DARPA, the legendary agency responsible for “catalyzing the development of technologies that support and enhance the capabilities and technical superiority of the US military” (as the Congressional report says), have been successfully repurposed for civilian use. The ARPANET eventually became the Internet, and technologies such as Siri, Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM), and the microhard drive have already entered everyday life. What is less known is that DARPA-funded technologies have also made their way into the smart city: GPS, mesh networks for smart lighting and power systems, and chemical, biological, and radiological sensors, including genetically modified plants that can detect threats. This connection between smart cities and military research is very active today. For example, a recent DARPA research program called CASCADE (The composition of a complex adaptive system and the design environment) explicitly compares “manned and unmanned aerial vehicles” that “exchange data and resources in real time” via wireless network connections to “critical infrastructure systems” of smart cities – “water, electricity, transportation, communications and cyberspace”. Both, he notes, apply the mathematical methods of complex dynamic systems. In a DARPA tweet, the link sounds more provocative: “What do smart cities and air wars have in common? The need for complex, adaptive networks.”

Both of these visions—a battlefield studded with sensors, an instrumented, interconnected, smart city powered by distributed sensing and massive data mining technologies—seem to lack a central ingredient: human bodies, which are always the first things to be sacrificed. , whether on the battlefield or in intelligent technology data extraction mechanisms.

Spaces and environments equipped with sensor networks can now sense environmental changes—light, temperature, humidity, sound, or motion—as they move through and through space. In this sense, networks are somewhat akin to bodies in that they are aware of the changing environmental conditions around them—measure, discriminate, and respond to those changes. But what about real people? Do we have another role in a smart city other than a convenient data warehouse? In his 1980 book Practice of daily lifeJesuit sociologist Michel de Certo suggested that resistance to the “heavenly eye” of power from above must be met by the strength of “the ordinary practitioners of the city” living “below”.

When we assume that data is more important than the people who create it, we reduce the scope and potential of what diverse human bodies can bring to the smart city of the present and future. But a true smart city is not only made up of commodity flows and information networks that generate revenue streams for companies like Cisco or Amazon. Wits come from diverse human bodies of different genders, cultures and classes, whose rich, complex and even fragile identities ultimately make the city what it is.

Chris Salter is an artist and professor of immersive art at the Zurich University of the Arts. His latest book Sensory Machines: How Sensors Shape Our Daily Lifejust published by MIT Press.

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