Recently, a tech industry blogger (who shall remain nameless), tweeted a picture of an achingly cool tech café in Shoreditch (home of London’s “Silicon Roundabout” – our attempt at a Silicon Valley). It looked so bloody exclusive that I rather churlishly tweeted that I couldn’t see any toddlers in there as you couldn’t squeeze a baby buggy between the “design classic” chairs and iPad docking stations. He, quite rightly, ignored this random outburst, but the exclusivity of the tech-hipster scene has been bothering me ever since.
And today I stumbled across a brilliant article in the New York Times which clearly articulated my pain. It analysed the effect of the so-called technorati on the city of San Francisco, charting the impact of the Google and Facebook millionaires who are being blamed for driving up housing prices and threatening the city’s bohemian identity. I quote…
“Resentment simmers, at the fleets of Google buses that ferry workers to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View and back; the code jockeys who crowd elite coffeehouses, heads buried in their laptops; and the sleek black Uber cars that whisk hipsters from bar to bar…For critics, such sights are symbols of a city in danger of losing its diversity — one that artists, families and middle-class workers can no longer afford. On the day of Twitter’s public offering this month, 150 demonstrators protested outside the company with signs reading “People not profit” and “We’re the public, what are you offering?”
Even the Mission District, once a working-class Hispanic neighborhood, is now a destination for the tech elite. Evan Williams of Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook have bought homes there. Suddenly the coolest part of town doesn’t feel quite so hip. The real loss to the city is its diversity – and ultimately it is a city’s diversity that makes it cool. Watch out London or one day we too could “wake up to an extremely unbearable ocean of sameness”.
The rise of techno-city
But my concerns with tech-driven urbanism is not limited to the rise of the Shoreditch hipster and their fancypants cafes (that would be ridiculous). I am concerned by the much bigger issue of the banality that a tech revolution could force upon the way we experience life in modern cities. As tech-driven “eco” and “smart” cities across the world are being developed to accommodate our rapidly growing population, the architects of such smart cities are routinely failing to design for real human experiences – preferring to design for the “cool” or “exclusive” hipster wannabe (which is of course far worse than an actual hipster).
According to author Leo Johnson, a global trend to upgrade urban areas to become smart cities is already underway. In a recent New Statesman article he pointed to a range of new and emerging cities, such as:
- Migaa, near Nairobi, Kenya, a new “premier gated city” built on 700 acres of a coffee plantation, with a private hospital, conference centre, helipad and biometric ID system;
- the Kakungulu eco-city in Uganda, with its the questionable eco credentials of two malls, a 50,000-seater stadium and a golf course with seeds for the greens flown in from Florida;
- Masdar City in the UAE, Norman Foster’s eco-oasis in the desert, with 40,000 new inhabitants; and
- Songdo, South Korea, described by Cisco as a “model for future cities”, with smart water, smart garbage (pneumatically sucked out of sight), smart parking with cars guided to empty lots, centralised blood pressure monitoring consoles.
- Don’t get me started on China..
While Johnson is amazed at the rapid pace of this development, he sees inherent problems with newly-created smart cities. He says:
“You haven’t solved the underlying problem with a new city: you have just moved it on down the road. These new “smart” cities aren’t going to look like the architect’s model. They are going to have a lot of people camping in and around them, looking for jobs.”… the smart city risks being an import city, closed to local skills and goods, with a reduced capacity to develop or integrate local expertise… As a result, there’s the danger that it will become something close to an iPad city, a mesh of topdown, closed systems, both vulnerable and interdependent, with a deskilled local labour force that’s unable to repair or maintain it.”
That is a posh way of saying that there won’t be any real people living in the smart cities of the near future. Like San Francisco, the real people living real lives will be on the margins. Which sounds like a pretty dumb city to me. The only way out of this is to actively foster diversity – design for it, and break through the barriers of exclusivity. Perhaps I will bring my kids into that hipster cafe and won’t worry about the mess or chaos that ensues. This will of course be in the interest of building a pool of research data on the benefits of a diverse city. Because a functioning city – or should I say my kinda town – is a mixed up one.