Short Review - A City is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences

19 January, 2024

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Author: Shannon Mattern

These days, it’s become fashionable (if not inevitable) to make everything smart: our phones, our household appliances, our watches, our cars, and, especially, our cities.

With the latter, that means putting sensors everywhere, collecting data as we go about our business, and pushing information (whether useful or not) to us based on that data.

This begs the question, does embedding all that technology in a city make it smart? In A City is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences, Shannon Mattern argues, and in my opinion quite convincingly, that it doesn’t.

A goal of making cities smart is to provide better engagement with and services to citizens. Mattern points out that smart cities often aim to merge the ideologies of technocratic managerialism and public service, to reprogram citizens as ‘consumers’ and ‘users’. That, instead of encouraging citizens to be active participants in their cities’ wider life and governance. There’s no interaction — the city is the giver and the people on the streets are the receivers. A model like that doesn’t promote a healthy democracy at the local level. Which may be what those who push and who adopt the idea of smart cities want.

Then there’s the data that smart systems collect. We don’t know what and how much is being gathered. We don’t know how it’s being used and by whom. There’s so much data being collected that it overwhelms the municipal workers who deal with it. They can’t process it all, so they focus on low-hanging fruit while ignoring deeper and more pressing problems. It looks like they’re getting things done, but they’re not tackling what’s really important. That definitely wasn’t what those who run cities were promised when they were sold smart systems as a balm for their urban woes.

A City Is Not a Computer is a short, dense, well-researched, and well-argued polemic against embracing smart cities because technologists believe we should. The book makes us think about the purpose of a smart city, who really benefits from making a city smart, and makes us question whether we need to or even should do that.

This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, as part of this article and appears here via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Scott Nesbitt