The way we live now?

tablet-cityProfessor Michael Keith, Urban Transformations Portfolio Co-ordinator

Cities are changing what it means to be human. How do we make sense of this new world? A Brazilian migrant in the UK, working on a Spanish passport, can simultaneously Skype home to South America, use an app to measure distance jogged and calories burnt moving across inner London, while keeping open a camera with real time streamed film of their young child in a suburban nursery on the same hand held device. We can all already become cyborgs as we combine our everyday life with monitors, screens, and new technologies worn on the wrist or sheltered in our pocket.

In the new city, that which is historically distant might be spatially proximate. Urban life gets under the skin, the combinations of atmosphere and disposition that generate mental disorders, the markers of other times and places in our DNA, reveal geographies and histories that become legible traces in the body. That which is geographically proximate might be culturally so remote that it defies comprehension. The passing glance across the bus might fire recognition in the eyes of others or distance strangers across the social chasms of the segregated metropolis.

Some things in the new city accelerate – data flows, images, virtual networks – but other forms of mobility – both literal and social – may slow down. Our sense of present pasts and our horizons of future possibility create a variegated cultural patterning of the temporalities of urban life.

Alongside these combinations of metropolitan humanity and new technology the call for new powers for cities to shape their own economic destiny drives constitutional change, particularly on the political agenda of the UK. A rebalancing of the British economy depends in large part on a renaissance in metropolitan economies, a response to the national housing crisis demands solutions that might look very different from local perspectives in Leeds or Cambridge. But the nation state is not disappearing any time soon. So the constitutional change agenda is in many ways less about the autonomy of cities across the world than about the fiscal and political relational positioning of cities and nation states, the multi scale governance challenge of recognizing consumer choice and citizen rights whilst promoting the national interest in major infrastructure investments, airport and rail networks.

It is estimated that the UK alone will spend over £400 billion on infrastructure in the next 20 years. Most of this will be focused on the built environment of our cities, their transport connectivity and their physical fabric. Much of this new infrastructure will be ‘smart’. It has the potential to develop a capacity for semi autonomous communication across the physical environment. Mike Batty has recently pointed out the propensity for this study of urban informatics to generate three related but separate developments of:

  1. The ‘smart city; the idea that cities can become more efficient, hence smarter, through the use of computers and computation across wide spatial and temporal domains – integrating operations disseminating the information associated with these activities to users through a variety of computable devices from regular PCs to smart phones.
  2. Currently referred to as ‘big data’ these systems through their embedding into the built environment and their routine use by populations through hand-held devices ranging from cards to phones, are delivering large quantities of data about the way cities function. Data streamed and archived in real time – a new spatio-temporal record of all that goes on in the functions that are being automated.
  3. A science of cities that provides theorisation and advanced technical spatial analysis

Streams of data, technological changes and seductive visualisations of smart systems can suggest a technocratic answer to the problems of the city. But five decades ago the prime minister Harold Wilson invoked the vision of a Britain that was confronted by a scientific revolution and suggested that the country was ‘going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution’ (1963, 4). Wilson’s rhetoric momentarily dissolved the differences between the right and the left of his party through a displaced focus on the technological logics of change. It was meritocratic and optimistic. He aimed to “replace the cloth cap [with] the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British labour”

Wilson’s lines are cautionary as much for their afterlife as for their ambition. They caution us to think carefully about how new technologies are socialized and how they act on and change urban life. The city witnesses and is marked by path dependent generations of technological evolution and technocratic experiment. It assumes its own agency and becomes both a site of investigation and a voice in a debate. The traces that are left by animate and inanimate objects make possible what the architectural historian Eyal Weizman might describe as a forensic urbanism, the fabric of the city produces testimony and evidence, it generates both publics and competing modes of expertise that interpret its form. 20th century British cities demonstrated their ability both to choke their own success and to address long term ecological challenges of clean air, water and sewage (or at times export the industries that were the source of pollution). London might be the city of the Westway highway that cut Los Angeles style through Notting Hill but is also the city that spawned a global conservation movement. The long history of Britain’s cities will record whether 21st century London’s current affluence and Liverpool’s sustained decline are moments of hubris or permanent trends. But through powerful scholarship the UK now has the opportunity to learn how other metropoles across the globe manage organizational trade offs between markets, hierarchies and networks in different ways. The new challenges of post transition China and India’s vernacular modernities disrupt old taxonomies of the urban global south and north. We need to see the urban commons through the lens of Africa’s informalities, social democratic Scandinavia and Latin American experimentation if we are to understand the alternative scenarios that Britain’s urban system might explore.

These forms of novel sociality challenge us to think about the emergent city, the city that is yet to come. This demands a different kind of scholarship from the conventional architecture of 20th century social science, a scholarship that does more than generate historical data and extrapolate from trend. The contemporary city offers the social sciences the opportunity to reinvent themselves, the threat that they become irrelevant if they do not. In describing and analyzing the combinations of human life, material forms and technological changes the city is a site of exciting new investigation. Through its combinatory forms of inclusion and exclusion, exploitation and invention, the horizon of the future shape shifts, the history of the present evolves and the social sciences share an imperative to describe and analyse these new worlds and to make visible the trade offs that shape the choices of policy makers and the ethical dilemmas that shape a public philosophy for the new metropolis.

We need to ask different sorts of research questions.  What are the practical demands of shaping cities in the future? How does the city reconfigure the calculus of utility optimized revealed preference and influence peoples’ behaviour? How should we sequence the moral DNA of the new city?

It is an exciting and potentially fruitful time for a new scholarship of the city to engage with the future of urban living that draws on insights equally and synthetically from the social sciences, the humanities and natural sciences to address the simultaneously ethical, aesthetic and scientific challenges of the contemporary urban moment.