Technology TED Conferences

Can a city be too technological? Saskia Sassen at TED2013

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Saskia Sassen thinks deeply about the world’s cities, and she’s on the TED stage to share some of her provocative theories about how we should think about urbanizing technology, that pervasive force that has impacted so much of the way in which we live and work.

She starts by pointing out an amazing fact: there are firms that will lease you a city. And those cities are highly technologized. She’s worried about that. But Sassen isn’t here to get under the skin of engineers. The author of books such as Cities in a World Economy and The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, Sassen is a technophile. Her point is more subtle: that while technologies become obsolete, our cities endure for centuries. As such, how can contemporary policy makers balance the lure of the new with the extended pressures of the long-lasting. In other words, are the “intelligent” buildings we celebrate today really as smart as we think they are?  A bold idea to announce to a room full of geeks.

Dialogues with cities

Today’s cities are complex systems that interact with the biosphere, and she asks a startling question: “Can technology hack the city, or can cities hack technology?” For the first the answer is clearly yes. There are many examples of high-tech cities. But the other way around? To illustrate it, Sassen shows an oil rig that has been transformed into a mini city. A remarkable case of a city colonizing old technology.

But it goes further: Does the city talk back? Yes, she thinks it does.

There’s a great example in New York City. Consider Riverside Park on Upper West Side in the 1980s, when NYC was formally broke. The city had incredibly high rates of murder. That area beside Riverside Park was run down and dangerous. No one wanted to go in there. Then newcomers, young people with ambition and education, wanted those beautiful spaces with the beautiful view. They bought apartments there. They didn’t arrange together to buy, but it was a self-evident great place to be. Then, because it was dangerous, they would buy a dog, a big dog, tall enough you can look in its eyes. If you have a big dog you have to walk it, every day. So all those people all went to walk their dogs. Out of that walking, the park became safer, so other people began to come. “A mix of people’s practices connected to urban space produces a public good: the park is now safe.”

The danger

But the high-tech city threatens the evolution of cities. She thinks we need to leave cities incomplete, not planned as tightly as we would like, because of something which we are all very familiar with: obsolescence. We all know technology’s rate of obsolescence is increasing rapidly, but cities can endure for centuries. And it’s their messiness and evolution that are remarkable. “The city, messy, anarchic, and has been a place where those without power get to execute a project. They get to make history.” Urban spaces, she says, have enabled many people, such as immigrants, LGBT people to make their own spaces. “Is it a surprise that many of our minorities tend to live in our cities?”

But technology is threatening that ability. She shows map of government and private surveillance agencies in the US, where over 10,000 buildings are doing full time surveillance to capture 5 to 7 terrorists. This deurbanizes — and dehumanizes — any situation.

Her question is, “What are the spaces where we can create a bit of distance between that and us?” Cities are her answer — but not perfect technological spaces, such as those cities with advanced surveillance systems. “The logic of the engineer and the logic of the citizen are quite different.” We need, she says, room to hack the technology. She has an image of a kind of “open-source urbanism.” It is important, argues Sassen, to keep our cities complex and incomplete.

“One of the things I have found, in global cities you have a kind of production of something that I call urban knowledge capital.” What’s there is much more than the sum of its parts. She is not sure that quality will remain if cities are too technologized. But keeping it is essential, “otherwise we will have  a lot of dead, obsolete cities.”