Let us make a brief detour on the concept of “smartness” from the perspective of antifragility, all the more befitting since the concept has of late become rather fashionable in the debates on urban planning and design.
As one can gather from the ending of the previous quote from Taleb, there is one important difference between antifragility and smartness: something can be antifragile without being smart, without intentionality, also “by chance”.
Indeed, can an object or a system devoid of intentionality and incapable of design be called smart or intelligent at all? In a sense, the evolution constitutes an example of a behaviour that “works”. But, should we call a thing that works smart, rather than, say, fit? Should the effect of a thing that works be called smart adaptation, rather than simply the survival of the fittest? For intelligence and smartness always require design and the intentionality that comes with it (Blecic and Cecchini 2008), so that we are authorised to talk of smart urban planning and design, but not of smart city.
We do not want to stand on ceremony too much: maybe we can only by extension admit to call smart objects and systems capable of reactions and responses which work, that is to say, those reactions and responses which allow objects and systems to continue to exist, to serve their function (be it designed or not), to grow and to reproduce, and so on; but other words are better, such as—antifragile.
Let us make a few friendly critical remarks on the concept of smart cities. It is not easy to understand what smart city exactly means: from the original meaning linked to a city with a heavy use of new technologies, the boundaries of what the concept should encompass have been progressively expanded. Daily, new things, technologies and practices get dubbed “smart”, so is there hope ever to arrive at a certain stability of category?
But one should also ask: isn’t this preoccupation with clear-cut definitions and delimitations, after all, a sterile academic exercise? Should we care? No it isn’t and yes we should, and the reason for that has to do, as it were, with putting a certain genie back in the bottle.
But, of genies and bottles latter, let us first see what has been and is being said of the concept of smart city. For instance, for the Smart Cities Council, “a smart city is one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions”.Footnote 3 As the Council itself candidly admits on its website, here we’re more or less as with pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
Then there is the definition by Caragliu et al. (2009):
“A city can be defined as ‘smart’ when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory action and engagement.”
There is a lot not to like in this definition. It appears extremely wide, its voracity swallowing almost everything, its vagueness deriving from references to other voracious concepts, like social capital, sustainability, participation, quality of life, wisdom, community, which, like parsley, are good to season almost every dish.
Let us now bring up a few passages from a Rem Koolhas talk in 2014 (Koolhas 2014):
The smart city movement today is a very crowded field, and therefore its protagonists are identifying a multiplicity of disasters which they can avert. The effects of climate change, an ageing population and infrastructure, water and energy provision are all presented as problems for which smart cities have an answer. Apocalyptic scenarios are managed and mitigated by sensor-based solutions. Smart cities rhetoric relies on slogans—‘fix leaky pipes, save millions’. Everything saves millions, no matter how negligible the problem, simply because of the scale of the system that will be monitored. The commercial motivation corrupts the very entity it is supposed to serve… To save the city, we may have to destroy it…
When we look at the visual language through which the smart city is represented, it is typically with simplistic, child-like rounded edges and bright colours. The citizens the smart city claims to serve are treated like infants. We are fed cute icons of urban life, integrated with harmless devices, cohering into pleasant diagrams in which citizens and business are surrounded by more and more circles of service that create bubbles of control. Why do smart cities offer only improvement? Where is the possibility of transgression? And rather than discarding urban intelligence accumulated over centuries, we must explore how to what is today considered “smart” with previous eras of knowledge.
Here the nature of smart city as ideology proper arises. It comes as a no surprise that the global contagion has been underpinned by the very agents of global capitalism, with, among others, IBM, Siemens and Cisco as prime promoters, as it is well documented by Adam Greenfield in his 2013 book Against the smart city (Greenfield 2013). This is something that shouldn’t be forgotten. As Greenfield lucidly puts it:
The enterprises enumerated here are to a surprisingly great degree responsible for producing both the technical systems on which the smart city is founded and the rhetoric that binds them together in a conceptual whole. While this may not be a particularly remarkable circumstance by the standards prevailing in industry, the deep involvement of large-scale commercial actors in the germination ideas about the design and equipment of cities does make it somewhat unusual in the history of urbanism. It’s as if the foundational works on twentieth-century urbanist thought had been collectively authored by United States Steel, General Motors, the Otis Elevator Company and Bell Telephone rather than Le Corbusier or Jane Jacobs.
On the level of effectiveness, smart city, at least in some variants of its ideological use, may be seen as the regression to a naïve techno-positivism, and a distraction from thinking. Adam Greenfield’s critique could be enough, but one thing has to be added more in general. It is telling that smart city, even as an academic endeavour, is often framed as providing “solutions” (often for optimisation and efficiency). This focus on “solutions” sounds much in the spirit of what we, at least in Europe, are being told academia should more and more become about, within the vast reforms of the university on the continental scale: instead of critical thinking—instead of an effort to provide not only answers, but also the right questions—we are progressively asked to be “useful” and to provide technical “solutions” to the messes of our neoliberal present and of our political and social predicament. So, for example, if there are violent unrests in the banlieues, we are called to train psychologists and sociologists to devise tools to calm people down, and urbanists to design neighbourhoods that would dissuade and impede outbursts of rebellion. Examples like this abound.
All these are reasons we do not like the expression “smart cities”, or better—and this is our real point here—we do not like how the term has been appropriated. But we also think the solution isn’t to abandon it. Rather, the point is to think more carefully about “smartness”, to see its potentials, to re-appropriate it and put it into a wider debate on cities and how they could be planned, managed and governed. In a short formula: the point is to liberate the concept of smart city from its ideological horizon of meaning.
For that, we should care to better define and delimit the concept of “smartness”. For that, let us again return to the question of definitions, to see if we can make some progress there.
One can stumble upon another more dynamic definition, from none other than the U.K. Government (2013), which sounds promising to us:
“The concept is not static, there is no absolute definition of a smart city, no end point, but rather a process, or series of steps, by which cities become more ‘liveable’ and resilient and, hence, able to respond quicker to new challenges”.
Here we have elements that recognize the important fact that cities as complex systems—as systems of systems (social, economical, geographical, ecological,…)—have always had the capability to adapt and to improve, due to external and internal stressors, due to the variety and plurality of needs and desires of their inhabitants, users, social and economic subjects, using available technologies and information.
In this sense, not only does it appear to us inappropriate to call “smart” a city, especially is we talk about the smartness of things and not people (Ratti 2013), but it also appears to us insufficient to promote the mere “resilience” of cities. A complex system such as city cannot only limit itself to absorb or ward off blows: it ought to do more than just adapt, it needs to evolve, transform: redundancies, duplications, plasticity, exaptations, are all elements of an evolution which has enabled the city to survive and thrive for ten thousands years, and to evermore become the “ecological niche” of the human species.
Let us clear the air. We claimed that it is inappropriate, and may even be dangerous, to define smart a city. It seems to us better not to abuse of this expression. If we really need to talk about smartness, we should better talk about smart land (Bonomi and Masiero 2014) or about smart citizens (Ratti 2013; Hemment and Townsend 2013). Nonetheless—with many caveats we have expressed—even this fashionable expression may be of some usefulness.
But to us, a better and a more appropriate objective to set for a city and for its evolution is that of antifragility, we prefer the expression “antifragile city”.
On this, one last clarification is due. Antifragility is not always and necessarily good in itself. There are fragile objects and systems which owe their beauty and raison d’être to their fragility; sometimes the fragility is pursued, just as the ephemeral and the perishing may be fascinating. Then there are robust things and systems which better be so, also for the reasons of economy and simplicity. Then there are resilient systems which function satisfactorily: strictly speaking, urban resilience is an essential mode of response to the catastrophic events and to the effects of climate change (Pickett et al. 2004; Musco and Zanchini 2014). All in all, there are many objects and subsystems within the city which are fragile, robust, resilient, and antifragile, all necessary for its survival and functioning.