Without Smart Citizens there will be no Smart Cities, says Max Schwitalla in his succinct take on cities of the future. The founder of “Studio Schwitalla”, which operates at the intersection of architecture, urban mobility and urban design, calls for greater citizen participation, a focus on local communities and for radical new traffic concepts.
“Smart City” is a buzzword. It usually means a tech group is keen to carve out a position in the urban space. But smart cities embrace much more than technology. What will make the difference to the city of the future is the “smart citizen”. The concepts being so hotly debated right now will only work if they are crafted around human needs. Their starting point has to be the idea of individuals as responsible citizens. Top-down planning alone is not enough. People should also have their say, and this grass-roots input is vital. For instance, we recently considered a
design for a refugees’ hostel using clay for the building facade. That would be low-tech, but sustainable – and the residents could have helped build it.
Smart citizens are also involved in decision-making. One city showing how citizen participation works in practice is Barcelona. Via an online platform (
Decidim), residents can propose new ideas and rules, which are taken up by the city hall. 70 percent of the items on the city’s agenda originate from Barcelona’s citizens. Greater participation, and more rights for people to have their say in what the Smart City should be like, will of course slow the decision-making processes. But we have to accept this. Having all the planning decisions taken centrally might make a city highly efficient – but it won’t necessarily be a better place to live. The measure of “smartness” has to be its benefit to people. And the focus should be on local communities, not the entire city. Berlin is a great example: the city is organized around multiple centers and offers space for different social groups. Network-type structures like this are what cities should be aiming for – rather than the Big Design from the drawing board. “The technologies for the cities of the future exist.”
Many of the Smart City ideas now being debated have been doing the rounds for decades. But now the technologies are in place to make them a reality. Take urban planning, for example. Planners were already talking about a better blend of uses – living and working side-by-side – back in the 1980s. Now, even small-scale industrial production can be integrated into residential areas, because new technologies have made it quieter and cleaner. Agriculture – in the shape of
urban farming – and energy production (with solar and wind power plants) can also return to urban spaces. One advantage of the broader mix is that distances are shorter: people can simply walk or e-scooter to work. We have just been involved in a neighborhood development project that included the development of a multipurpose “base zone”. The ceiling height on the ground floor was chosen to enable it to accommodate both a maisonette apartment and commercial use.
Private transport as we know it will have no place in the city of the future. People today sit in their cars, enclosed by a couple of tons of steel, and have no idea where others are heading. This mobility model is hopelessly outdated, and its economics are terrible. A first logical step towards a Smart City would be to introduce a toll for private cars, with the revenue used to subsidize public transport or even make it free of charge.
Thanks to new technologies, agriculture and energy production can return to the urban environment (Image: iStock/Boogich)
People will continue to use individual mobility units, but these will be combined into swarms by a central point of control. We have developed a vision for Audi: the
Flywheel. This electric-powered single-seater can be linked with others to form longer units that use subway tunnels. At the start of the journey, the algorithm connects passengers with the same destination or interests (people who are heading to the same concert, for instance). Near the destination, the Flywheels disconnect from the train to take passengers to their particular destination. A key side benefit of the project is that it permits more social interaction than a normal trip by car. When Flywheels are linked into a train, passengers can engage with each other during their journey. This creates completely new urban mobility scenarios: how about combining mobility services with dating apps to create a sort of “Tinder on the go”? The Smart City will have a completely different traffic and transport infrastructure
The Smart City of the future will offer a whole range of transport options, and we’ll simply pick the right one for the situation, depending on the weather, or what we are transporting. The idea of using one and the same vehicle to travel both to work and to our 1,000-kilometer-distant holiday destination will be obsolete. Yet despite the variety, tomorrow’s means of transport will have numerous features in common. Definitely smaller than present-day cars, they will be CO2-neutral and quiet. They will be shared rather than owned and will drive themselves, meaning no one has to do the parking. A whole vista of concepts is possible. One company we are working with, for instance, manufactures electric go-karts.
The Smart City will have a completely different traffic and transport infrastructure. So far, cities have been planned for cars, not people. This principle will be turned on its head. In the future, there will hopefully no longer be cars driving in the open air. Urban space with direct daylight will be populated by children playing, or elderly people taking a stroll. Traffic will be moved underground. Building all the tunnels will be expensive, but this will be the best long-term solution. Granted, we could also be making smarter use of the infrastructure that is already in place. In Berlin, for example, subway trains run every five minutes – leaving the expensively-built tunnel empty for the four and a half minutes in between. Why can’t we use this time window to fly parcel-delivery drones?
The city will be blanketed by a layer of sensors and algorithms.
As our means of transport change, new architectural and urban planning opportunities will emerge that are undreamed of today. We recently designed
a residential quarter for people with e-bikes. All the floors are connected by large ramps, enabling residents to bike at a speed of 20 km/h from street level to the top floor. The cycle paths are canted around the bends, so riders don’t even have to brake.
The Smart City, of course, has a strong digital component. The city will be blanketed by a layer of sensors and algorithms. To make this happen, cities will need experiments like
Google’s in Toronto. Much criticism has been levelled at this project, but it is still right and important to try things out. Projects like this should, in essence, be carried out as public-private partnerships, with the city administration taking a lead role. The city manages the data of its citizens, and forwards it in an anonymized form to the private-sector companies and service providers. We should show more courage here, and also cooperate with local start-ups, not just with the big-name players. What is important for the city of the future?
Mixture of top-down and bottom-up planning
Focus on the Smart Citizen
Citizen participation via online platforms
Functional mix in local neighborhoods, therefore short distances
Micro-mobility, controlled by central intelligence
Moving of traffic underground
Adapting architecture to new mobility concepts (such as housing optimized for e-bikes)
Image Sidebar: Valeria Petkova
Lead image: iStock/Orbon Alija