The rise of the dumb city

Smart cars. Smart homes. Smart phones. Smart cities. Smart choice. Or is it? Can smart cities be too tech-savvy for their own good? If so, what is the alternative? Enter the dumb city.

By Liam Murphy

Global populations are booming, urban living is rising and any new-planned cities will always be championed as being ‘smart’ by their developers. But pumping a city full of tech isn’t always the way to go. Sometimes a low-tech approach is more applicable, even if it is increasingly referred to as a ‘dumb city’.  

dumb city
Lycée Schorge Secondary School, located in the third most populated city in Burkina Faso, Koudougou: the walls of each module are built out of locally sourced laterite stone. (Photo courtesy of Iwan Baan/Kéré Architecture)

There is, of course, no pattern to suggest a return to simpler, rural life; the world’s cities are growing exponentially. In 1950, 30% of the world’s population lived in cities, in 2021 it was 56%. With this rise in population comes issues, however: overcrowding, a lack of affordable housing, high crime, traffic congestion, poor access to amenities, protection from natural disasters and, of course, issues around climate change.

So how would a dumb city aid in any of this? 

What makes a dumb city?

The term ‘dumb city’, in essence, refers to using urban planning solutions from the past to solve issues arising in the cities of today, rather than looking for AI, machine learning or real-time data to solve a problem. 

‘Dumb city’ has previously been used disparagingly to describe cities that were not making use of new technology. However, in 2019, following an Op-Ed in the New York Times by Shoshanna Saxe, associate professor at the University of Toronto, the movement was repositioned. 

Speaking to City Monitor, Saxe says about the article, “I used the term ‘dumb’ (as in low tech) as the opposite to ‘smart’ (as in technological) given the dominant (and unhelpful) narrative that innovation inevitably means tech.”

Saxe decried the blanket application of smart tech within city infrastructure, noting issues surrounding privacy, the complexity of operations and the issue with tech constantly needing to be updated. She also questions the need to outsource to private tech companies to solve large-scale societal issues. 

Sidewalk Labs, for example, is a tech-heavy urban planning subsidiary that has since folded back into Google following a failed build in Canada. The project was a neighbourhood “mixing people-centred urban design with cutting-edge technology” on the Toronto waterfront, to be fulfilled by the aforementioned tech company and a government-founded agency called Waterfront Toronto. Google’s reason for the shutting down of the project in 2020 was the Covid-19 pandemic, but many point to issues with data, Big Tech and imbalanced private/public interest for its collapse.

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Saxe believes that effective solutions to problems like these may not always involve implementing technology but instead could mean using “durable approaches” and “the best of the old ideas”.

Similarly, in 2021, Karina Ricks, director of mobility and infrastructure for the City of Pittsburgh, spoke during a discussion at the SHIFTx conference titled “Smart Cities vs Dumb Cities”, saying “We get so wrapped up in the technology and in the data and in the connectivity that we really start to lose sight of the use cases. Who are we trying to solve for?” 

What are the benefits of a dumb city?

Architectural firm Obermeyer’s work has been putting some of the dumb city concepts into practice to combat flooding in Wuhan. The Chinese city is prone to extreme weather that can also cause havoc on public spaces and transport links. Much more than just alleviating the possibility of flooding in areas, Wuhan set an objective of implementing a stormwater management system and reusing 70% of that water.

The city achieved this by implementing what is known as ‘sponge city’ strategies – an area that experiences abundant rain and adverse weather and purposely engineers spaces to make use of this rainfall; what one may refer to as a ‘nature-based solution’. For example, Obermeyer designed Xinyuexie Park to include gardens and materials that absorb and store rainwater to use as well as to help reduce flooding damage to the park itself and surrounding areas.

By integrating the ‘sponge city’ concept, the design of the park space “preserves and improves the natural stormwater corridor”, according to Obermeyer. This ensures protection against flood damage in monsoon season and maintains the river at other times, so no disruption is caused to water supplies during the hotter periods. 

Stephan Jentsch, director at Obermeyer Planning & Consulting and general manager of Obermeyer China at the time of the Wuhan project, also draws attention to a similar project in Qingdao EcoPark that counteracts a situation in which polluted water runs through rainwater pipes: “Instead of this water running into the rivers, the system brings wastewater to the parks, running it through plantation systems that clean the water. This is quite a low-tech solution.”

Saxe puts the benefits succinctly, saying proven low-tech approaches are “trustworthy, much less likely to break and are much cheaper. People are realising we are wasting time and money chasing ideas that don’t work. We need to have a well-designed, well-built and well-maintained infrastructure system.”

Why is the dumb city gaining attention now?

With calls to tackle climate change becoming more urgent by the day, many cities are looking to highlight their green credentials with any urban policy projects. 

Take, for instance, the resurgence in the popularity of chinampas in Mexico City – a farming technique used by the Aztecs around the 14th century. Using layers of dirt, reeds and other floatable materials, narrow islands are built on top of a lake or a body of water that supplies said islands with a means of fertilising and feeding crops. 

Following the Covid-19 pandemic, residents of Mexico City looked towards local agriculture as wholesale markets were closed. Thankfully, 700 years after they were first designed, the chinampas could still provide the surrounding people with fresh produce.  

Speaking to the BBC on the ancient agricultural practice, Patricia Perez-Belmont, founder of Umbela Sustainable Transformations, said: “[Chinampas] are not just a productive and sustainable agroecosystem technique, but they are also representative of the Aztec culture and carry the legacy of indigenous people who taught us how to relate to nature, be part of it and live with it.” 

These ideas can often have a great effect in developing nations where technology isn’t so readily available. Take the work of architect Diébédo Francis Kéré, whose practice designed the Lycée Schorge Secondary School in Burkina Faso, a project that used a low-tech, traditional materials approach. As a recipient of the Pritzker Architecture prize, the 2022 Jury said: “Francis Kéré’s entire body of work shows us the power of materiality rooted in place. His buildings, for and with communities, are directly of those communities – in their making, their materials, their programmes and their unique characters.” 

In Burkina Faso, there is a need for structures to combat extreme weather conditions, poor lighting and limited resources. Burkina Institute of Technology – designed by Kéré in 2021 – is made using locally sourced clay that helps to cool the building in the warmer seasons. And when the rain comes – as the building is built on a floodplain – an irrigation system stores water underground for use in mango plantations nearby. 

Dumb in a smart way

So, is the answer to all of our cities’ problems to dial back the technology and search out the more atavistic options?

Obermeyer’s Jentsch believes it should be a combination of the two. “You’re going to have both high and low-tech solutions as we move into the future. There are certain aspects, like water management, that need low-tech solutions,” he says. “If you have thousands of litres of water being produced in a very short time, there is not much fancy high-tech stuff you can do to improve that situation.”

Saxe still feels that low-tech solutions hold the key to success and stability, albeit with a balance: “The first priority should be to have a solid, low-tech infrastructure. We can layer technology on top of that to add some additional benefits and to find some efficiencies. For instance, coordinated and programmed traffic lights can make streets run better, but smart traffic lights won’t save a badly designed transportation system.”

[Read more: Reshaping the DNA of residential communities post-pandemic]

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