More Praise for Dumb Cities

Rows of dumb boxes in Munich

Smart cities are not a panacea, and the New York Times is on it.

Dr. Shoshana Saxe is known to TreeHugger readers for her work on the carbon footprint of big transit projects. Now she is known to riders of the New York Times for writing about another subject dear to this TreeHugger's heart, titled in the print edition What We Really Need Are Good ‘Dumb’ Cities.

Dr. Saxe is responding to the Sidewalk Labs proposal for Toronto, and wondering if the dumb old solutions aren't better. She notes that no matter how smart the city is, there will still have to be good management. "If smart data identifies a road that needs paving, it still needs people to show up with asphalt and a steamroller."

But my favorite paragraph says what we have been saying all along in our talk of dumb houses, dumb boxes and dumb cities:

For many urban challenges, effective analog — “dumb” — solutions already exist. Congestion can be tackled with autonomous cars, true; it can also be tackled with better railways, bus rapid transit and bike lanes. Houses can be covered in sensors to control an automated heating and cooling system; they can also be built with operable windows and high-quality insulation.

For an engineering professor, she comes to a surprising conclusion:

Rather than chasing the newest shiny smart-city technology, we should redirect some of that energy toward building excellent dumb cities — cities planned and built with best-in-class, durable approaches to infrastructure and the public realm. For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas.

Amanda O'Rourke of 8 80 cities has made a similar point in her article, Smart Cities are making us dumber.

Embracing evidence-based, data-driven decision-making and using technology to capture that data is a laudable goal. My problem with the idea is that it’s often presented as a panacea. There is an underlying assumption that technology is the key to unlocking the smart solutions our cities most desperately need. To believe this is to completely miss the plot.

Or as I have written,

Forgive me for calling it a Dumb City, because it really isn’t. It is based on smart choices about technologies and designs that are proven and tested. And we are not stuck in the 19th century here; I believe that the e-bike, a product of new battery tech and efficient motors, is going to have a lot more impact on our cities than the fancy, high tech unproven autonomous car. Or that the smart phone and GPS are making transit better all the time.

And as always, the last 140 characters go to Taras Grescoe:


Taras Grescoe/Screen capture