The late British architect, academic and critic Cedric Price was once quoted as saying "technology is the answer, but what was the question?"
That he asked this was somewhat surprising, because Price did not immediately assume that architecture/building was the answer to any given problem. For example, he convinced government officials in the UK to demolish one of his buildings rather than heritage list it because he believed that the space might be put to better use in the future.
On a more humorous note, it is rumoured that when he was once approached by a man with the problem that his wife wanted a house that they could not afford, Price suggested he consider divorce.
His provocations serve to remind us that answers should not be predetermined but rather found by achieving the desired outcome. His comment about technology appears increasingly important in today’s world of ‘big data’ and ‘smart cities,’ both of which are arguably the latest attempt to bring more order and control to our cities. Previous incarnations include religion in medieval times and the modernist era.
There is a common belief that order and control deliver efficiency, so more order and control deliver more efficiency. But who does efficiency actually serve? Who benefits from it?
Of course, efficiency in itself is not bad, but it can be if it is prioritised above the psychological and physiological needs of people. The idea, or indeed objective, of the city as a machine for growth has a long history, from Baron Haussmann’s mission to bring order to Paris in the mid-19th century with massive demolition and reconstruction, to the urban planning ideas of the modernist architect Le Corbusier in the early 20th century, to Robert Moses who sought to bring order to New York City by demolishing huge swathes of the city’s neighbourhoods and communities to build motorways.
However, the social, environmental and economic consequences of the pursuit of efficiency have also had significant detrimental impacts on cities as a human habitat. Although these impacts have been well-documented, the prioritization of efficiency remains at the heart of what the modern-day urban planning system actually delivers, which can differ greatly from the philosophies and efforts of many practitioners.
For me, the glaring hole in all of this is the lack of consideration of people or the general low opinion we have of people. Take, for example, the evolution of driverless cars, the “solution” to traffic congestion and road fatalities. For many, there is an unnerving belief in the efficacy of driverless cars.
What will be the reality and what was the question in the first place? Was there a question? Whatever the question was, the problem is clearly people. We are the weakness in the system – the oil in the ointment. Whatever happens with the evolution of driverless cars, there are some very real examples of our (possibly) misplaced faith in ‘smart cities.’ Take for example Masdar, the purpose-built smart city in the Middle East, which according to a recent article has not lived up to expectations.
There are many examples around the world of our failure to prioritise people over efficiency in cities. The slum Dharvi in Mumbai, where around one million people live in an area of one square kilometre is a clear instance of this. At face value, Dharvi looks like hell on earth, a place where people live in squalid conditions but scrap beneath the surface and much more nuisanced picture emerges. In Dharvi, there are barely any formal rules or regulations but they still manage to have full employment, entrepreneurship, craft, complete recycling (they also recycle for the city), and a strong community. The city government doesn’t see this. They only see the face value of a slum, so they plan to demolish it and move the inhabitants into bleak high-rises spread out across the city – all in the name of efficiency.
There are also some inspirational stories of what happens when you trust people, when you understand people and you prioritise their needs. Take for example the story of Bogota, Columbia. The commonly told story of the change that took place in Bogota is that of Enrique Peñalosa, who was the Mayor of the city between 1998 and 2001. Peñalosa oversaw the physical transformation of the city. His achievements are fully deserving of recognition and should not be underestimated. However, Peñalosa could never have achieved this without the work undertaken by his predecessor, Antanas Mockus.
Mockus’ own story is almost as improbable as the transformation of Bogota itself. Prior to taking office in 1995, Mockus was the rector of the Colombian National University. At the time of tenure at the University, Bogota was one of the most socially disadvantaged cities in South America, including having the privilege of being labelled the most violent place on earth. Mockus had resigned from his position at the University after an ill-considered attempt to quell unrest among a radicalised student body by dropping his trousers and mooning them. It was his idea of displaying a sign of peace but the symbolism was lost in translation and resignation quickly followed.
However, in an emotional personal statement to the public on live TV, Mockus explained the motives of his actions and his disappointment at the outcome. His sincerity was well-received by a public who then demanded he run for Mayor, and he was successfully elected to office in 1995. His tenure is an extraordinary story of change, delivered in a period of unimaginable social unrest, political corruption and lack of funding. Mockus set about tackling these problems using interventions based on the work of Brazilian playwright Augusto Boal and his fellow countryman, educator and theorist Paulo Freire, with the aim of re-establishing a culture of citizenship.
Arguably the most well-known among the many initiatives he delivered during his time as Mayor was his use of mime artists to humorously mock the inconsiderate and dangerous driving behaviour that was killing thousands of people in the city every year. While the city’s corrupt traffic police could be easily bribed for even the most horrendous of violations, Mockus understood that although Bogotans would happily pay a fine, they were less enamoured by the embarrassment of social disapproval. The outcome of this novel approach resulted in a 50 per cent reduction in the number of people killed and seriously injured on Bogota’s streets.
His numerous other innovative initiatives included women-only nights to curb domestic violence, appointing taxi drivers as protectors of pedestrian crossing facilities, going on TV to show people how to take shorter showers in an effort to conserve water, and convincing thousands of citizens to voluntarily pay more taxes. His methods transformed the mindset of Bogota’s citizens and denizens, who were now primed for the regeneration of the city.
The finances to deliver the physical transformation of Bogotá finally arrived from the World Bank, which had seen the social change in the city and now had the confidence that the money would be spent wisely. This happened too late for Mockus, whose three-year tenure as Mayor was coming to an end, but all was not lost.
Peñalosa, who had lost out to Mockus in the Mayoral elections of 1995, ran again in 1998, albeit this time with the cooperation of Mockus. The former adversaries had come to an agreement that in return for the votes of Mockus’ followers, Peñalosa would continue the transformational and egalitarian policies of his now-friend. Peñalosa’s campaign was successful, and armed with the war chest from the World Bank, he set about delivering the physical transformation of the city.
The story of Bogota, particularly under Mockus, offers many lessons for the future of cities around the world. It also serves to remind us what is possible when you prioritise people in this process above efficiency. This would all be self-evident if we stopped once in a while to ask what is the question we are trying to solve.
Whatever the questions we have to address, there is no doubt that technology will be part of the overall answer. However, we might be better served if the technology follows us rather than having us follow the technology.