Cities: ideas and insights on the cities we live in

photo by Eileen Barroso/Columbia University

Saskia Sassen is a professor of Sociology whose research and writing ‘focuses on globalization, immigration, global cities and the new technologies and changes within the liberal state that result from current translational conditions.’

She gave a lecture last year at the Lift conference in France on ‘The Future of Smart Cities’. She has a deep interest in cities and the potential of technology to allow people to interact with and influence aspects of their city in meaningful ways. Listening to her lectures and reading her writings has been part of my dive into the world of Sociology/Social Theory (which I now think everyone should try)

Saskia has a casual free form style of speaking that is akin to a stream of consciousness. In her enthusiasm for the potential of new technology she throws out some buzzwords that at first made me skeptical. In the end, however, I found her use of buzzwords to be far from hype. Her observations revealed a deep understanding of both the negative implications and the positive potential of new technologies for cities. Watching her lecture online I found myself rooting for her like a sports fan as word by word she revealed that she could catch your attention with these words and inform you rather than mislead you.

So to make sense of some of the potential ‘buzz’, and share some of her insights, I have pulled a handful of terms from Saskia’s lecture. I will attempt to decipher what I think she is really getting at, or at least what her words have come to mean for me.

‘Urbanizing Technology

“A city is not just material, but also people, systems, information, etc. Its capable of talking back.” – saskia sassen

This phrase is undeniably abstract, but meant to make you think. How is technology ‘urban’? What does it mean for technology to be urbanized? It forces you to think about what a city really is, along with what technology is. We can think of city as a composition of buildings, roadways, parks and plazas.  City as a society of diverse people. City as a conglomerate of systems conveying electricity, water, fuel, sewage, telecom lines, goods, etc. City as information being passed between its residents and the rest of the world.

In the dictionary, technology is defined as “the application of knowledge for practical purposes, esp. in industry.” However I think the general public probably thinks of technology more as the application of ‘computing devices’ for practical and perhaps not so practical purposes. Take some amalgam of these two definitions, and I think we’re close to its intended meaning here.

To urbanize technology is to use technology in a manner that integrates it with the functions of the urban city. In this case technology is thought of as something that is inherently urban; an integral element of the city. Urbanizing technology could involve networked information systems that allow city residents to self-organize, share ideas and have a voice that influences city policies, or physical components that are integrated into the built city, or multimedia content that could activate urban spaces through our experience and interaction with them.

‘Interactive Technologies

“In an urban setting, Interactive technologies deliver/give their interactive capacity through ecologies that are more than the technical capacity itself.” – saskia sassen

Ecology deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. So of course, in an urban setting the physical surroundings are the city spaces defined by buildings, landscapes, etc and the organisms are people. When interactive technologies are integrated into an urban setting, the people that interact with something that has been augmented by interactive technologies and the space that accommodates their interaction are what bring a place to life. Rather than an exploration of technology for technology’s sake, the power of interactive technologies is their capacity to engage people and and transform space both in function and experience. An integration that is greater than the sum of its parts.