Modeling and the urban imaginary

Discussions on future cities and urban governance are replete with the notion of ‘smart’, which is currently biased towards an optimistic view of technological innovations. Indeed, technologies such as simulations and models are important ways to imagine and reimagine the future of cities. However, quantitative methods need to be augmented with qualitative methods in order to give voice to the citizens of future cities and truly equip cities with the means to prepare for an uncertain future.

Data-driven cities and urban managerialism
In recent years, the adjective ‘smart’ has seduced many politicians, administrators, and citizens. After all – who doesn’t want to be smart? The notion of the smart city promises major improvements related to the capability to innovate, as well as an enhanced quality of life, sustainability and democratization through civic engagement. On the basis of this promise, urban environments are rapidly becoming more and more intertwined with information and communication technologies. Data, collected by means of sensors, cameras and mobile devices, is seen as a crucial source of knowledge that can be used to tackle all kinds of problems in the city. Cities are becoming increasingly ‘data-driven’ due to the promise of smartness and the dissemination of technologies of data acquisition and processing,

As a result, a new wave of managerialism in urban governance has risen, in which social aspects of livable cities are subordinated to technological progress. Such approaches have established technological ‘solutionism’ – a set of convictions that argues urban challenges can be solved by plugging technologies into the city. Critiques of this solutionism point to the risks of seeing technology as an undisputed and neutral good. For example, large amounts of data not only lead to increased control of private parties of public spaces, but can also lead to diminished participation and involvement of civil society in formal decision-making processes.

More fundamentally, technological solutionism leads to the idea that all aspects of a city can be treated as purely technical problems. This thinking about the city assumes that complex issues can be compartmentalized and divided into compact solvable puzzles, which can then be tackled with quantitative methods that draw upon growing torrents of data and computing power. The problem is that the knowledge generated by data and algorithms is considered more important than other forms of knowledge production, such as the local and highly situated interactions that residents of a particular neighborhood in a city have with each other. This creates an ahistorical and homogeneous picture of the city, in which power differences, social inequality and the marginalization of social groups are not taken into consideration.

Urban cosmopolitics
Surpassing technological solutionism requires an approach to urban governance that is more ‘cosmopolitan’. In her work, the Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers mobilizes ‘cosmopolitics’ in order to stress the value of a politics that explores provisionally what does and does not belong to a shared world or’ cosmos’. This is done without stating in advance what exactly this shared world means. There is no ultimate cosmos or general idea that can serve as a standard beforehand.

In the context of urban governance, cosmopolitical approaches offer room for the lived experiences of citizens and stakeholders, and are able to give voice to a multitude of perspectives. In this view, data-driven and positivistic views of the city cannot automatically take precedence as a universal and objective good. Stengers’ cosmopolitics can be seen as an attempt to introduce a ‘hesitation’ that aims to rid the objectivity that is attributed to (for example) data-driven governance of its self-evident nature. As a result, other forms of knowledge acquire more viability and there is room for the continual reconstitution of a cosmos. Thus, the design of future (smart) cities can be constantly reconsidered.

Cosmopolitical imaginaries
A cosmopolitan reorientation on the (smart) city requires imaginations of the smart city that focus on the unknown. This imagination of the unknown is not entrusted to the stylized, impeccably visualized smart cities of the future. Instead, they should make way for the strange and the uncertain, so that thinking about smart cities is forced into a hesitation that interrupts the idea of a universal, normative future.

Imagining the future of the city is often done on the basis of simulations and models, which provide cities with the ability to model a variety of more and less plausible scenarios, and devise policies to prepare for an uncertain future. One such way to imagine urban futures is based on quantitative modeling of phenomena, which can be represented in a variety of forms, e.g. 3D Virtual Reality environments (see figure 1).


Figure 1: 3D model of The Hague (source: SIM-CI.com website).

In VR, users acquire an immersive experience of the city and can be presented with a variety of scenarios that can entail disruptions of critical infrastructures. Additionally, disruptions of one critical infrastructure may end up disrupting other critical infrastructures, leading to what is known as ‘cascading effects’.

Despite promising developments in this field, it remains to be seen whether cascading effects can be modelled sufficiently accurately. What is more, modeling disruptions of critical infrastructures are bound to be uncertain to some extent, exacerbating uncertainties further down the chain of a particular attempt to model cascading effects. Uncertainties are also problematic due to the unavailability or lack of quality of data sets about critical infrastructures.

A further complication of quantitative attempts to understand cascading effects is that those working with models of urban futures may not be interested or willing to model cities on a purely quantitative basis. A recent book written by Ekim Tan, Play the City, discusses the possibility of using gaming as a way to tease out the perspectives of stakeholders and devise policies for urban governance accordingly. Tan draws primarily on physical models of urban areas, by means of which games designed by her agency are played (see figure 2).


Figure 2: A serious urban game in progress (source: Ekim Tan’s ‘Play the City’).

Becoming cosmopolitical
Gaming methods can become reliable tools for negotiation among stakeholders. Games augment the shortcomings of quantitative techniques by presenting urban futures in a manner that teases out lived experiences of citizens and stakeholders, without taking an immediate knee-jerk recourse to technocratic points of view as the final arbiter of urban futures. A hybrid method of qualitative negotiations and quantitative models is important in making cities ‘smarter’ in such a manner that managerialism can be avoided.

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