Every few months, THE MEME Design hosts a panel discussion in its studio – the latest of which was titled
Implementing the Smart City. This discussion brought together a group of four panelists, each with their own
vision for the “Smart City,” and each with a plan to contribute to its implementation. As the discussion went
on, however, the very title of the gathering was shown to be flawed.
To start, what is a “Smart City”? To put it in the simplest sense possible, the consensus seems to be that it
involves the gathering of data and enabling some kind of reaction to that data. But to what purpose? To
minimize inefficiencies and therefore improve quality of life? To reduce our carbon footprint? To create art?
While none of our four panelists spoke of the Smart City as a thing in and of itself, they did speak of smart
city solutions to the specific challenges of urban life: they spoke of utilizing sensors to help elderly men
and women maintain independent lifestyles, of helping citizens connect with city employees as they worked to
identify and repair public spaces that needed attention, and of helping cities fit better within their natural
One of our panelists, Nicola Palmarini of IBM Accessibility and Research, aptly described this pattern:
“The Smart City is a consequence.” It is not a goal but an attempt to solve the problems that manifest in
concentrated, urban spaces. Nicola went on to explain, “We’ve been talking about smart cities in the last
seven, ten years because one of the mega-trends was people migrating to urban centers.” In that sense, the
Smart City is this generation’s attempt to address the challenges of densely-populated city life.
Which brings us back to that imprecise title of the event. To “implement” the Smart City is to assume that
the smart city is an end in itself, as a target (or at least the next destination in the journey of modern
civilization) that we are all surely but slowly marching towards. While that story makes for good marketing,
the reality is not so straightforward nor certain. Today, the components of what is termed the “smart city”
is being constantly negotiated and renegotiated. What drives these negotiations isn’t a single vision of the
ideal Smart City; instead, the Smart City (whatever it ends up being) will be built from the particular
problems and challenges faced by its inhabitants.
So, to follow Nicola’s line of thought, and to better understand how the the Smart City in itself isn’t a goal
but, rather, a consequence of real challenges, we’ll look into the example of Soofa. Jutta Friedrichs, Soofa’s
co-founder and another one of our panelists, pointed out that the Soofa bench “is one of the few manifestations
that you can touch and talk about” because “otherwise, [the Smart City] is a very abstract concept.”
Capturing the Smart City in a Smart Bench
Cities are spaces that are teeming with billboards and canvassers, garbage trucks and dumpsters, traffic cops,
panhandlers, traffic lights, buses, pigeons, taxis, bicycles, people, people, people, and more people.
With all this going on around us, the only way to remain productive is to filter it all out, to completely
ignore most of the things that we see . As such, there are places in the city that matter more to us than others:
where we live, where we work, where we kick back and relax… but the rest of them are just routes between destinations.
We rush through public spaces in order to get to the places that actually matter.
It is in this context that Jutta and her co-founders saw an opportunity to change how we use our public spaces;
they saw the potential to transform these ‘routes between destinations’ into destinations in and of themselves.
She declared that, by moving into cities, “we had given up our backyards. Now I think it’s time to explore the
city as our new backyard again.”
That’s where the Soofa bench comes into the picture. Each of Soofa’s smart urban benches collects environmental
data and provides power outlets to enable passersby to charge their phones. That’s their purported value, but
their real value – at least to the challenge at hand – is that they give passersby a reason to linger.
Soofa benches, since they have launched in Boston, have facilitated conversations between strangers looking for
a place to charge their devices; with the plugging-in of speakers, they have become entertainment systems and
engaged people in the way that only music does; and they have even been used as a source of power for scoreboards
at public basketball courts to turn a game between locals into a spectacle for an audience.
“Giving people the tools to really engage in a public,” Jutta said, “creates a different kind of community that
can be sustainable, that can take care of itself.” While interactions around the Soofa bench may not result in
lifelong friendships, they are a step towards getting people to identify with one another as a kind of community.
Given the tendency of city environments to breed an attitude of indifference or anonymity among its residents,
that’s a big step. The Soofa bench, then, is an attempt to solve a problem that already exists in the city.
Why are we still talking about “Smart Cities"?
If we are moving away from the the idea of the “Smart City” as an end in itself and talking about it as a means
towards a solution, why are we still talking about the “Smart City? What makes the “Smart City” so compelling?
The argument here is twofold. One: the technologies of today are flexible in a way that they haven’t been before.
Two, and this is crucial: that flexibility is nonetheless limited by a set of choices that we as a society have
made in the past and will make in the near future.
To the first point, Jutta’s description is eloquent: “Here you’ve got concrete blocks that don’t move, and here
you’ve got technology that just evolves so quickly. Maybe we can use tech to think about how to program the city
in a more dynamic way.” There is thus a quality inherent to the technologies of today that contrasts sharply with
the “concrete blocks” of yesteryear. If a solution to a challenge isn’t working, the effort needed to update code
is far less than the effort needed to knock down a physical structure and start again from scratch. On top of that,
a human doesn’t necessarily need to be present to change the code; we are at a point where our technology can take
in data, make a decision with little human input, and essentially tackle problems on its own.
Panelist Bradley Cantrell, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design,
follows this line of thought to its larger implication: “Technologies aren’t static. They’re constantly evolving.
It’s more important to react, in that sense, then try to come up with the ideal solution.” In other words, instead
of planning everything and launching the Smart City all at once, individual components can be tested and connected
with one another at the moment when that connection makes the most sense. When new challenges arise or new technologies
come into the picture, the flexible nature of technologies allow us – or it – to reassess and change course as necessary.
But that flexibility only goes so far – and that brings me to my second point: there is a countervailing force to be
taken into consideration. While technology is far easier to update and change than concrete blocks, so much goes into
each decision to connect one thing with another, that as more and more “things” become connected, that flexibility
diminishes. In other words, decisions behind how “things” are connected, who connects them, how that connection is
accessed, why certain “things” are connected and others are not… all of these choices build off of one another, creating
a version of the “Smart City” with very distinct characteristics that will be difficult to un-make.
In using smart city solutions to address today’s urban challenges, we are thus simultaneously making what sociologist
Paul Starr calls “architectural choices”  that will impact our ability to tackle tomorrow’s problems – and therein lies
the reason for the hubbub behind both the Smart City and the Internet of Things. “Architectural choices,” after all,
“are often politics by other means.”  What is at stake is an entire approach to how we will solve urban challenges in
the future. Today, we spend our time developing apps that promise to do just that. The debate for tomorrow is over what
the “apps” of the smart city will look like.
As such, to say that the “Smart City” isn’t a goal in and of itself is not to diminish its value but, rather, to
recognize that, with each choice we make, with each smart solution that we test, we are building the groundwork from
which future innovations will extend. While the sky may be the limit, it’s important to consider which sky. In this way,
each city is constructing the character it will have as it becomes progressively more aware.
How Values are Reflected in Technology
The choices we make with regards to the “Smart City” are not simply questions about form. Embedded in each smart city
innovation is a series of decisions that reflect our values as a society.
After all, discussions around what platform to use, where data should be stored, or who has access to that data aren’t
simply conversations about logistics. They are, instead, debates over issues of privacy, transparency, security, and
– as we go deeper – over values like fairness and equity.
Panelist Nicola Palmarini spoke about how these debates over otherwise abstract topics materialized, for him and his
team at IBM, when he worked on creating technological solutions for Italian seniors living alone in Bolzano. The
seniors who participated in the project enjoyed the sense of security that new technology afforded them; they could
live independently knowing that, if something were to go wrong, someone would check in on them. However, while they
valued that sense of independence, they wouldn’t adopt any technology that they felt intruded into their private lives.
Nicola explained what that meant for him and his team: “We were trying to hide all the technology we could… [so that
we could] preserve a little of [their] privacy.”
The solution that they finally designed did both: it gave the seniors a sense of security and independence while
preserving their privacy. “Instead of cameras,” Nicola explained, “we were able to [use carbon dioxide sensors to]
detect if someone was alive or not.” Such discussions guide designers away from the most direct solutions (i.e., cameras)
and towards other creative solutions that better align with people’s values.
Beyond the Human Experience
But whose values? Or, as Panelist Bradley Cantrell might say, what’s?
Bradley raised a question that shakes the foundations of so-called “human-centered” design: how central should the
human experience be to the design and running of smart cities? “Everyone is talking about people as the center of
[the Smart City]. In some sense, a lot of the work we’re doing decenters humanity from the equation. Humanity’s just
one actor in a whole set of other things.”
For instance, if cities get to a point where they can manage themselves, shouldn’t a city’s relationship with the
surrounding environment also come into play? And what is more efficient for the human denizens of a city may not be
what is best for the surrounding habitat. There is, in essence, a negotiation of values – not just human values and how
people fit into cities, but also the city’s values, and how the city fits on the planet.
That said, Bradley doesn’t see these negotiations as a wedge that will drive us apart. “There’s an idea that all of
these technologies can bring us closer to other species and other habitats…. It’s about letting those boundaries be
a little closer.”
But Bradley will have to compete with a myriad of other visions. Even without taking into account how a city
can act to benefit a river or a neighboring forest, there are already disagreements among human actors over their
values as a society.
Take, for example, debates over access: Is equitable access to smart city solutions so highly valued that it
should be treated as a public good and therefore managed and distributed by the government (like utilities,
the mailing service, and transportation systems sometimes are)? Or is the entrepreneurial spirit the driving
force here, and innovations should therefore be protected and sold as such (ala patents and copyrights)?
As these debates and others like them rage on in panel discussions, blogs, and other forms of media, it is also
playing itself out in the marketplace. After all, some smart city products succeed whereas others falter.
Panelist Kris Carter (Co-Chair, Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics at the City of Boston), for instance,
spoke of his capacity as a government official to partner with different startups in order to create innovative
smart city solutions. “We are constantly pushing, whenever we work with a company or partner, to make that data
open,” he explained. “That’s sorta fundamental to who we are.” Given this value for public access to data, Kris
concluded with an example of what happened once when a potential startup partner offered the city a valuable service
– but in return, they would be asked to make their data unavailable to the public: “We had to walk away from the
This conflict is ongoing and never clear-cut. Kris used another example to discuss the intricacies of such
decisions: “You have to weigh – what’s more important? Redesigning the streets for pedestrians or [a real estate
company] seeing the public data and jacking up the rates because of it? Sometimes you gotta trade off to get your
Bradley Cantrell, however, exhibited some optimism when he pointed out the potential of Smart City technology to
help us work through these conflicts of values: “With values, I think they evolve. They meet a set of necessities
we have as a society. And so this idea that technology is… flexible enough to take on a range of values is the key.”
“It’s just about change."
If our architectural choices are dependent on our values as a society, then we shift once more away from the
technology and the capabilities of the “Smart City” and back to those (human and non-human actors) who must
engage with cities – to their problems and their values. By focusing on the experiences of urban actors, and
by thinking about the Smart City not as an end in itself but a means of solving problems, we arrive at an entry
point through which we can improve upon the experience of urban life: piece by piece.
Through this piecemeal method of urban innovation, the technology eventually gains a life of its own that is
far larger than the sum of our problems. When enough objects are connected, and a city becomes “smarter,” all
those little decisions we’ve made that reflect our values will manifest in the larger “personality” of the city.
In the meantime, Bradley sums everything up nicely: “Rather than thinking that everything can be thought out
beforehand, many of these technologies gives us a way to act, to monitor, to confirm. These small apps allow
us to iterate. It’s not about large-scale change. It’s just about change.”
 See Simmel, Georg. 1903. “The Metropolis and Mental Life” In The Blackwell City Reader, edited by Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.
 See Starr, Paul. 2004. The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications. New York: Basic Books.
 Ibid, Page 6