Book Review

Smart About Cities

Visualising the Challenge for 21st Century Urbanism
Maarten Hajer and Ton Dassen

This is a manual with graphic representations of ten data sets relevant to ‘smart urbanism’: demography, air, water, food, biota, mobility, cargo, building materials, waste and energy. Published in the Netherlands, also in English the book rests on Dutch data but put into a global context. An essay by Maarten Hajer discussing seven considerations for a new urban planning and design to be smart about cities completes the book.

Hajer refutes the customary dichotomy between a priori values, such as ‘big problems require integrated solutions’ and bottom up criticisms along the line of ‘small is beautiful’. He proposes to look at ‘smart cities as a form of discourse’ instead. Five hurdles of ‘smart city discourse’ have to be overcome to avoid building cities in the ‘default mode’: a managerial view of the city focusing on applying ICT tools based on big data, efficiency, systems approach, etc.; the use of discourse in the cross-over between business, government and knowledge institutes dominated by ICT business but resisted in academic debate; organisational structure based on public-private partnerships with business in charge of public service delivery; a primarily technological approach to innovation moving quickly from problem to solution while omitting local conditions; and lack of historical awareness including effects of protests and deliberation between citizens and decision makers. He discusses key historic eras relevant to urban change: industrialisation and the sanitary reform movements; mass produced cars and centralised fossil fuel based energy systems extending the functionalist city into ever growing suburbs; and the current era having to cope with the unintended environmental consequences of man-made disruption between nature and society.

Hajer proposes an agenda to cope with climate change. He illustrates seven pre-conditions with concrete examples to consider when contributing to globally networked urbanism: decoupling as strategic orientation; coming up with a persuasive story line about the urban future; the use of urban metabolisms as framework for strategic decision making; focusing on the default in infrastructure; designing the smart city outside the box; and engaging in new open collaborative politics. Only by decoupling wealth from resource use would it be possible to stay in a ‘safe operating space’ within planetary boundaries which would have to be socially just. He distinguishes between ‘need to have’ and ‘nice to have’ as the story line to achieve a liveable urban future embedded in ecological sustainability and regional bio-economics. He attributes weight to understanding the urban metabolism as a means for urban designers to become normative in envisioning futures that reflect the need for a sustainable, productive and inclusive urban world.

URBAN DESIGN 139 Summer 2016 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 139 Summer 2016

Want to read more like this? If you're not already an Urban Design Group member, why don't you consider joining?

Smart About Cities Publication Urban Design Group
nai010 publishers/PHL publishers
€ 24.95
Reviewed By
Judith Ryser, researcher, journalist, writer and urban affairs consultant to Fundacion Metropoli, Madrid