Why We Should Design Smart Cities for Getting Lost

The internet has reached our cities. A smart city is optimised for efficiency, productivity and comfort.

The smart city uses intelligent transport systems. It is administered by integrated urban command centres, which analyse the omnipresent raw material of the digital era: big data. As citizens go about their everyday lives, they leave data traces everywhere, even in the sewers.

Many technology companies and city governments celebrate the new enfant terrible of smart city research: the urban scientist who finally imposes a rigorous scientific (that is, positivistic) mindset on city governance. However, Jeremy Kun confirms that:

Commentators such as Cat Matson, Charles Landry and Paul Mason advocate a people-centred approach to city design. In our own work, we warn that ignoring decades of research by architects, geographers, urban planners, designers and sociologists could lead to a dystopian future where humans lose agency if we mindlessly pursue convenience and efficiency.

Big data requires analysis by algorithms, and they in turn create filter bubbles. Corporations such as Facebook and Google deploy sophisticated algorithms to help us navigate the otherwise bloated social mediascape. The content displayed on Facebook’s news feed is selected based on a user’s profile, location, interests, online habits – what they post, share, recommend and “like”.

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The popularity of social media stems from its power to create personalised spaces, walled gardens, which are tailored to individual preferences and favour content relevant to each user. Proprietary algorithms determine what is deemed relevant.

Without ethics, it is these algorithms that determine the make-up of the Facebook news feed, Google’s top search results and the recommendations on whom to follow on Twitter and what to buy on Amazon. They are optimised to prioritise content that generates more business.

As more and more social media platforms embrace urban environments as their playground, this algorithmic culture has important implications for cities.

People come together in cities not just for the infrastructure and convenience they provide, but for offering choice. Cities are fundamentally about possibilities, opportunities and diversity.

It’s a timely question for smart cities governed by big data and algorithmic analysis. How can a smart city become a serendipity engine? Can we design smart cities for getting lost?

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Here are some examples of why that may not be such a bad idea.

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