The smart city is an eternally unrealized utopia

What’s interesting about both early and current visions of urban sensing networks and the uses that can be made of the data they produced is how close and far they are from Constant’s concept of what such technologies would bring about. New Babylon’s technology images were a vision of a smart city that did not, like IBM’s, feature large-scale data extraction to increase revenue streams, from parking and shopping to healthcare and utility surveillance. New Babylon was unequivocally anti-capitalist; it was shaped by the belief that ubiquitous and conscious technologies would somehow deliver us from the grind of labor.

War and sensors

The apocalyptic news broadcast from Mariupol, Kharkiv, Izium, Kherson and Kiev since February 2022 seems a long way from IBM’s smart urbanism. After all, smart sensors and advanced machine learning algorithms are no match for the brute force of the unguided “dumb bombs” raining down on Ukrainian urban centers. But the horrifying images of these smoldering cities should also remind us that historically, these sensor networks and systems themselves emerged from the context of war.

Unbeknownst to Constant, the very ‘environmental’ technologies he envisioned to enable the new playful city actually emerged during the same period his vision was taking shape — from Cold War-fueled research at the U.S. Department of State. Defence. This work culminated during the Vietnam War, when the U.S. military, in an effort to shut down supply chains flowing north-south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, dropped some 20,000 battery-powered wireless acoustic sensors, exposing the General William Westmoreland’s vision of “near 24-hour real- or near-real-time surveillance of all kinds.” What the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would later call “network warfare” was the result of billions of dollars in funding from MIT and Carnegie Mellon, among other elite US universities, to support research into the development of distributed wireless sensor networks – the technologies now providing “greater lethality” for the military’s smartest tech.

Networks of smart sensors are no match for the brute force of unguided “dumb bombs” like those raining down on Ukrainian urban centers.


It is well known that technologies originally developed by DARPA, the storied agency responsible for “catalyzing the development of technologies that maintain and advance the capabilities and technical superiority of the United States military” (as one congressional report put it). ), have been successfully reused for civilian use. ARPANET eventually became the Internet, while technologies such as Siri, dynamic random access memory (DRAM), and the micro-hard drive have become features of everyday life. What is less well known is that DARPA-funded technologies have also made their way into the smart city: GPS, mesh networks for smart lighting systems and energy grids, and chemical, biological and radiological sensors, including genetically redesigned plants that can detect threats. This link between smart cities and military research is very active today. For example, a recent DARPA research program called CASCADE (Complex Adaptive System Composition and Design Environment) explicitly compares “manned and unmanned aircraft”, which “share data and resources in real time” thanks to connections via wireless networks, with the “critical infrastructure systems” of smart cities – “water, power, transport, communication and cyber.” Both, it notes, apply the mathematical techniques of complex dynamical systems. A DARPA tweet puts this link more provocatively: “What do smart cities and aerial warfare have in common? The need for complex, adaptive networks.”

Both visions – the sensor-studded battlefield and the instrumented, interconnected, intelligent city enabled by the technologies of distributed sensing and massive data mining – seem to lack a central ingredient: human bodies, which are always the first to be sacrificed, or on the battlefield or in the data extraction machines of smart technologies.

Rooms and environments equipped with sensor networks can now detect changes in the environment – light, temperature, humidity, sound or movement – moving over and through a room. In this sense, the networks resemble bodies in that they are aware of the changing environmental conditions around them – measuring, discriminating and reacting to these changes. But what about real people? Is there another role for us in the smart city besides serving as convenient repositories of data? In his 1980 book Practice of Everyday Life, Jesuit social historian Michel de Certeau suggested that resistance to the “heavenly eye” of power from above must be met by the strength of “ordinary practitioners of the city” who live “below below.” .

If we assume that data is more important than the people who created it, we narrow the scope and potential of what different human bodies can bring to the ‘smart city’ of the present and the future. But the real ‘smart’ city doesn’t just consist of commodity flows and information networks that generate revenue streams for companies like Cisco or Amazon. The cleverness comes from the diverse human bodies of different genders, cultures and classes whose rich, complex and even fragile identities ultimately make the city what it is.

Chris Salter is an artist and professor of immersive arts at the Zurich University of the Arts. His latest book, Sensing Machines: How Sensors Shape Our Everyday Life, has just been published by MIT Press.