Awards Finalists

Smart Cities

Big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia
Anthony M. Townsend

Smart Cities is a thorough and fascinating exploration of the interrelationships between cities and technology, particularly the transformative impacts of digital technologies. This is a big book, addressing big ideas. Its author knows his subject intimately, writing directly from first-hand experience, supporting the sweep of his argument with reference to personal experiences and professional relationships.

Smart Cities is written for an audience interested in the intersections between urban design, city planning, telecommunications and computing. Townsend’s book is the product of more than a decade of research and consulting activity. Its temporal sweep takes us from 19th century engineering industrialisation and urban expansion, through to contemporary challenges to the city raised by the possibilities of emergent hacks and the mining of so-called Big Data. In all these cases, Townsend is an advocate and ambassador for the opportunities that technological progress makes possible, but he is not a blind zealot. Far from it, his eyes are wide open to the risks and challenges that allow technological power, as with all other forms of power, to exacerbate disadvantages within and beyond the city.

The range of his enquiry is both impressive and somewhat daunting to the reader. Many of the sources quoted will be familiar to built environment academics and professionals with an interest in the city (Cerda, Geddes, Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs are all cited) but the sweep of the text brings in far wider issues. These include the power relationships in society between the affluent and the marginalised, between the individual and the state and between the individual and the body corporate. Townsend’s horizons are global, and the reader is transported between downtown Manhattan, the favelas of Rio and the markets of Moldova to name but three.

The journey is fascinating, if dizzying, requiring high levels of concentration. This is not a book to skim through, but to read carefully, not least when the particularities of wireless technologies and protocols for communication are discussed in some detail. This is not to say that the work requires a level of prior computational knowledge, and Townsend writes well and clearly. The book would be more accessible if the reader could navigate more easily using subheadings and illustrations (it has neither), or with a structure that was chronological rather than thematic, but is worth the effort for those who want to immerse themselves in one of the most profound subjects that affects us all.

URBAN DESIGN 133 Winter 2015 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 133 Winter 2015

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Smart Cities Publication Urban Design Group
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed By
Jonathan Kendall