For Resilience, Return to the Human City

Asit K. Biswas and Kris Hartley

UBM’s FUTURE CITIES | December 10, 2013

The link between technology and urban development is almost indisputable, particularly since technology cost, capacity, and coverage are all measurable. However, planning strategies focusing on technology alone miss the point.

Technology is a means, not an end. It does not make great cities any more than microwaves make great cooks or smartphones make great workers. Moreover, the pursuit of competitiveness and economic growth through technology, while often necessary, frequently comes at the exclusion of policies addressing culture, liveability, and human interaction -all of which are critical to resiliency.

Advances in technology can help solve messy urban problems, of course. Information systems tracking transport patterns have revolutionized traffic management. Warning and detection technologies monitor risks and feed into increasingly complex crisis management systems. Information and communication technologies enhance local and global connectivity, democratize information access, and serve as platforms for innovation and creativity.

However, planners focusing on resilient technology systems and smart city initiatives risk putting the cart before the horse. No technology can be leveraged without an educated, engaged public. The most complex and least understood technology on Earth is the human being, and too often this element is ignored in urban planning. Resiliency has as much a human dimension as a technological one, and this has been proven in the many urban disasters in recent years. From New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to Christchurch after the 2011 earthquake, technological systems only served as a platform for human efforts to attend to the disadvantaged, organize resources, and reshape communities.

The pursuit of technology as urban panacea is not new. Brasilia was built from scratch according to a rigid master plan emphasizing building and transport technologies. This resulted in a decontextualized bubble of mid-century futurism that is uniformly but tragically modern in its lack of soul. Brasilia’s difficult but not unsolvable flaw is that it was overplanned. No room was left for endogenous growth.

Nevertheless, similar projects are still popular among planners. Masdar City in Abu Dhabi embodies the technological fetishism that has characterized similar projects since the mid-20th century. Focusing on environmental sustainability, the design includes many creative strategies to harness natural energy and minimize carbon output, including a citywide base nine meters high that funnels wind for cooling. However, Masdar’s urban innovations seem to focus only on the technical. Lost in the hype is any significant mention of social structures, economic mobility, or cultural development.

These new planned cities look good in a glossy investor prospectus, but how many will actually work out as planned? Already, Masdar’s completion date is delayed. Will social and economic forces in 2025 look like they do today? Will cities recognize the importance of human interactions and scale? Will they serve all populations or only the rich and the elite? Cities in numerous countries are pockmarked with small gated communities for the affluent. We are not far from seeing the first entirely gated city. Then the dominance of technology over humanity found in the movies will be a full reality.

The scale of capacity expansion needed in major cities is historically unprecedented, and quick urban solutions often defeat sustainable ones. Culture, aesthetics, and liveability are mere luxuries when the power is out eight hours a day, toilets fail to flush, and it takes two or more hours and heroic patience to travel from home to employment or market.

Technology has much to contribute to solving the basic problems of emerging global megacities. But planning is multi-dimensional, and technology is only one element. Life is still lived locally — in the villages and communities within the gali, hutong, soi, and lorong. Perhaps the next wave of urban futurism will recognize this wisdom.

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and co-founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico (cowritten with Kris Hartley, a researcher at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy).