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Reinventing "smart cities" through culture

Tremendous breakthroughs in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have sent optimism skyrocketing regarding the ability of technology to utterly transform synchronous cities. In an unprecedented crescendo of optimism, analysts have predicted that the “information age” will empower people to reinvent their cities and establish the long anticipated post-industrial economy. Thus, many cities around the world are showing a quasi-religious devotion to technological advancement, so as to achieve sustainable economic development, address environmental concerns and enhance the quality of life.

Smart cities are primarily focusing on technological aspects. Fibre-optic wires and wireless networks are used to connect homes, individuals, public and private institutions. Today, urban planners use the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve public services, make cities safer, achieve energy efficiency, and improve the monitoring of governmental processes. Undoubtedly, these new technology breakthroughs are delivering many of the promised outcomes. But the question that has come to the fore in public debate is whether they have actually lived up to expectations in terms of changing the life of citizens.

Unfortunately, the hyperbolic enthusiasm of the early days of the technological revolution has been nowadays tempered. In many cases, an over-optimistic urban planning has generated empty spaces and ghost cities. Indicatively, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city has attracted $400 million in private investment but not enough citizens to cover its labour needs. In spite of the ambitious plans and the technologically super-smart premises, the city has failed to attract citizens. The basic problem is the element of culture, which has been completely overlooked. The inadequate vision of urban sustainability, which persistently emphasizes economic and environmental indicators, while failing to understand a place’s cultural nuances, produces cities that are neither smart nor sustainable.

Urban plans should emerge from an amalgamation of technology and culture. In Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, one of the tribunes asks the crowd: ‘What is the city but the people’. Indeed, improving the quality of life is not only a question of technology; it is a question of connecting and inspiring people; it is a question of offering jobs and the opportunity to dream; a question of alleviating differences and adopting inclusive stances. And, beyond doubt, it is a question of empowering people and instigating political awareness and civic participation.

The path to this goes through the initiation of urban projects that embody standards of development that are culturally adaptable. Contextualized urban projects emerge from the understanding of the history, the societal principles, and the artistic aesthetics of a place. It is no wonder that historical cities like Rome are so appealing to us, with their adherence to aesthetic axioms that celebrate the principles of society. Joseph Campbell once said that, if you want to see what a society believes in, you should look at what the biggest buildings on the horizon are dedicated. In historical cities, these buildings were mainly dedicated to religion; in the most modern ones, the biggest buildings are dedicated to multinational commodities. This is just a reminder of how vague the notion of smartness can be.

How creative a city is, is the “Lydian stone”, an important metric for “smartness”. Establishing art and cultural districts—with venues, galleries, public performances, cafes, and shops—is a wonderful way to invest in human and social capital. Empowering communities strengthens civil society and closes the gap between the electors and the elected. A city prepared to satisfy needs for self-fulfilment and participation is a city that attracts and retains a creative force and devoted citizens. In fact, this symphony between a city and its citizens paves the way for a well-skilled and prepared community to meet the challenges of the future.

Cultural institutions and artists animate communities and ignite change. It is no wonder that many think-tanks point out that the era of the “Creative Class” has arrived. According to the Nomura research institute, the elements are in place for the “Creative Age” to flourish; a period during which nations prosper because they respect and tolerate individual freedom of expression and recognize that innovation—and not mass, low-value good production—is the driving force for the new economy. Therefore, art and creativity become critical to exploit the linkages between culture and commerce.

Over the next decade, it is estimated that some US$250 billion will be invested in the creation of new cultural districts around the world. Reinventing a city that values creativity and innovation is like discovering some basic ingredients of development. For a synchronous 21st century city, no other path than that of knowledge and culture can guarantee a smooth transition to economic sustainability and socio-political viability.

Elpiniki Karakosta: Master in Arts and Culture Management