There is no app for that

The city is a complex system of networks that facilitates the exchange of information, similar to how the Internet works. Both replicate the “invisible” design features of alluvial fans, trees, respiratory and circulatory apparatus, lightning and volcanoes, among other entities. This configuration is reiterative in nature, and implies main trunks that branch off at ever smaller scales until the flow is fully distributed.

The coincidences in terms of design are captured in Edward Bejan’s Constructal Law, which looks at all elements of nature as flow-facilitating systems that tend to constantly rethink to maximize their efficiency, and despite their differences, respond to a very similar design matrix.

According to Bejan, the city is a systems system whose computer architecture tends to seek the most efficient way of transmitting information. Since the days of Çatal Hüyük and Mohenjo Daro, the architecture of the system has been essentially the same. The city has retained its basic design because it fulfills the mission of facilitating the flow of information. The morphology of the system has been perfected over millennia and is, theoretically, the most efficient one.

One could argue like Bejan that a city is a complex system with identical elementary characteristics as a tree, the Internet or the circulatory system. And yet it is not. A city is a redundant, resilient, hyperconnected network of unique places and individuals. Some of whom are involved in a perennial search for ways to disrupt the ultimate system: geometry. But in reality, the Smart City is just a tech tool that navigates through logistics or bureaucracy to facilitate the most efficient flows of people, goods or ideas within a set physical form. It is interrelated with the spatial dimension of the city, and enhances the experience, but has not and will not change the geometry.

Artificial Intelligence may soon be able to recommend new optimal ways of designing a city for efficiency, but the pace at which the physical realm can effectively change is not fast enough. At least not faster than we can tear down and replace streets and buildings. But the real question is Do we want efficiency to be the guiding principle of citymaking? Is an efficient city a creative one?

The intelligence of the city lies in collective ingenuity derived from individual ideas. It is by the sum of millions of decisions that the dynamics of the city adapt to political, economic, social or environmental conditions. The city requires spaces with the capacity to facilitate flows, to assume and to hack systems and to incorporate the technological dimension into the urban space. That is achieved through the philosophy of Placemaking.

Undoubtedly, we are still building public spaces in the digital age. From the Forum to the Basilica to the Cathedral square to the Parisian coffee houses to the Mall, and the current practice of giving back the city to the people, the essence of Place has been the same. Through history and in cultures as diverse as Western, Andean and Polynesian, Place has been a constant and Placemaking the underlying thread, with very similar planning processes and many reiterating building blocs.

There is no sense in changing the geometry of Place to accomodate the Smart City. Technology will find exciting new ways of enhancing the urban experience but the actual experience will happen in the realm of Placemaking. The typology of spaces, incidentally, needs not be invented. They have existed for millennia and share at least four fundamental principles: centripetal attraction, friendly body language, an accomodationg enclosure and space for contemplation. And there is no app for that.

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