Cities were a natural consequence of the agricultural era. Living in larger groups enabled us to capitalise on food surpluses. Emergent cultures gave rise to centres of excellence in respect of the arts and learning. Often built along trading routes, they became economic hubs.
Increasing populations densities led to:
Decreased air quality.
Increased noise pollution.
Ideal conditions for infectious diseases to spread.
Business before pleasure
With the arrival of the industrial era, cities were architected around the needs of the factory (owner). Transportation developed to delivery raw materials to the factories and finished goods to the market. Factories needed people to operate, and so housing policy evolved with this in mind.
The mind-numbing nature of industrial work necessitated the creation of worker diversions (aka entertainment). Thus making cities an industrial hamster wheel were people where less citizen and more worker-consumers.
Equality is not for everyone
In fairness to the industrial era, many of us enjoyed upward social mobility (in some respects the trend towards downward social mobility is an end of era marker). But not everyone enjoyed this upward trajectory and so we saw an increase in economic inequality and social disparity. Anti-social behaviour, criminality and eventually organised crime works its way into the societal fabric. Thus city life has some degree of edginess with danger sometimes part of the mix.
We are watching you
The emergence of the notion of smart cities was met with great anticipation. But really a smart city is simply a more automated traditional city with totalitarian-grade surveillance. The socioeconomically isolated are now more manageable, so the more prosperous can go about their lives and deliver more prosperity to the ‘factory’ owners. The prosperous worker bees are perhaps unaware that they have traded freedom for security. They do not realise that they are not immune to the technology onslaught and are perilously close to joining the ranks of the underclass.
Tech is not the answer
Perhaps we should focus less on digitalisation and more on intelligence. Intelligence embraces the value that technology can deliver, the artificial kind, but it also recognises the (natural) intelligence of the citizens. Cities increasingly leech cognitive bandwidth from the urbanites. This manifests itself in narcissism and incivility. Whilst tension is good for stimulating creativity, chronic tension is a creativity dampener.
Office designers for the likes of Apple and Google recognise that these brands are in the cognition management business and so need to create the conditions to maximise the cognitive bandwidth of their staff that is available to do innovative work. They see their people as cognitive athletes and their offices as cognitive gyms.
It could be argued that modern society places too much emphasis on IQ and not enough on PQ (Physical Intelligence) and EQ (Emotional Intelligence). Though the consequence of low emotional intelligence is becoming increasingly apparent in many cities, and organisations, today. In any case, physical and emotional wellness are precursors for cognitive performance. That is why these organisations encourage movement and social engagement through innovative office design.
We need to think about building cities that encourage us to stretch ourselves physically, emotionally and cognitively. Think:
Open public spaces that encourage connection and not assault.
Housing where everyone has access to sunlight and amenities.
Affordable housing to ensure families and communities can grow old together, rather than treating housing as a means for overseas oligarchs to distribute their wealth.
Localised activities such as exercise classes, dances, quiz nights to encourage connection and neurological stimulation.
Healthcare that is built around the citizen, rather than the private equity firms.
Regions to be cheerful
Remote working and a decreasing global population will have an impact on urbanisation. Though it is likely that we will see the emergence of more megacities before the decline becomes apparent. Remote working will likely lead to an uptick in rural headcount. Thus facilities normally associated with a city need to be distributed across the nation.
Maybe it is time to think less about smart cities and more about intelligent regions?