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The vision of a technologist’s city: where people, spaces and information collide

“When,” asks Greg Lindsey in his Fast Company article, “did Silicon Valley become so obsessed with building cities?” His article describes the work of a company called Living PlanIT:

Living PlanIT (pronounced “planet”) is the brainchild of Steve Lewis and Malcolm Hutchinson, a pair of IT veterans who met when Lewis was still a top executive on the .NET team at Microsoft. Their ambition is twofold: to build a prototype smart, green city in Portugal that can be rolled out worldwide, and to drag the construction industry into the 21st century.

This is undeniably interesting to me. My first co-op gig as an undergraduate in Communication was at a company making software intended for construction project management. It was straight-up digitization: the metaphors, analogies and systems of the paper systems construction companies were used to, duplicated straight-up into bits instead of wood fibres. It makes a lot of sense — there’s a lot of comfort in a familiar system that can make the bits less scary. But it felt like a model on borrowed time.

Given my current interests, however, this part of the article deeply disturbed me:

PlanIT Valley is the first city conceived by technologists, for technologists, in which the architecture and urban planning are all but beside the point. (“Architects are missing a big trick not thinking they need to be more engaged with the business and technology communities,” Eccles says. “The world is passing them by.”)

Statements like that really irritate me, even as I sometimes find myself saying things not entirely dissimilar. It just strikes me as entirely dismissive of the fact that people go into urban design and architecture exactly because they aren’t software programmers. I will say that the myopia is a little annoying at times, but there’s also small and growing and, dare I say, progressive swath of the profession engaging with broader technology and design concepts.

The kinds of things that get labelled ‘innovative’ in planning I’ve heard so far (which is fairly focused on the Western world following its legal systems and conventions, etc.)? Zoning. Density bonusing. Collaborative resource management. These are institutions intended for people, their rights, and which have grown out of many iterations of trial and error in the lived urban experience of a city, that either persisted because they worked for a large enough number of people to succeed within a democracy, or because their proponents had access to the political power to keep their preferences in place.

People. That seems to be what’s missing from the hand-waving about Living PlanIT. I realize I may be reading with some institution-tinted glasses on. But I’m sensitive to whether or not this is being driven by the kind of technologically-deterministic thinking that casts people and their messy systems as inelegant solutions for technology to fix outright or root around. It was probably this statement that raised my hackles as well:

[…] the city’s residents will experiment on themselves. “They don’t want a campus, they want a city,” Lewis says. “They need to send their kids to school; they need to be entertained. You end up with [PlanIT Valley,] a brilliant R&D platform – you live in it, you improve it, you market it. If [a customer] says, ‘I want a medical clinic,’ we already have one. We backed into building PlanIT Valley based on customers’ demands.” It’s purely a prototype for the instant cities Living PlanIT hopes to sell in China and India – which need new ones by the hundreds, built faster and green and smarter than any city that’s come before.

My optimistic reading of this is that the Urban Operating System mentioned in the article is an attempt to design, from the ground up, a baseline of technological services for managing a city with the best computer practices in mind, such as modularization, etc., and to have this be a little plug-and-play (how many bets Living PlanIT’s long-term plan is to get into the hosting or customization business? Your city’s own Amazon S3 cluster), and to have these tools support the work of city service providers and planners. They are building a box of tools that coming generations of civil servants can deploy for the management part of their jobs, and to make that part as seamless and integrated as possible.

My concern, of course, is whether these tools are being built with particular this class of professional users in mind; or whether these professionals, like so many others, will have their domain knowledge set aside to accommodate what works or is elegant from a system perspective. Skimming Living PlanIT’s executive team and board of advisors, people who seem to have experience to articulate this seem in the minority — but I’m glad they are there at all.

I stumbled upon this article while skimming Planetizen’s front page. I’m going to further highlight my concerns on this technological vision of the city with another story on their front page: about how city-building is happening in China. I use the word happening instead of planning because according to Christina Larson, planning in China is looking a little like “ready, fire, aim”:

In today’s China, it is most accurate to say there is a profound appearance of planning. This holds true for urbanization, as for much else. “Planning is really a form of publicity,” one researcher at the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in Beijing told me. He explained: “It’s a paradox. Things here are very planned, in that lots of plans are being made. But in practice, it’s a lot messier. It has to do with the way that plans are used — or not used.” As for the megacities now rising across the country: “In theory, all development has to be guided by plans. But cities across China are operating without plans being approved — plans don’t have that constraining effect. ‘City planner’ is an aspirational title; mainly it involves approving plans that are already in the process of being built.”

What I’m finding interesting also is how the beginning of the article on Living PlanIT seems contrasts it with the existing movement towards open data and open standards, described thusly:

[…] someone is working on it  [a city OS, a single platform managing power, water, traffic, security and any other urban system you can think of]. But it isn’t Cisco, IBM, HP, Microsoft, or any other tech heavyweight. In fact, in the course of reporting my story on New Songdo City last fall, representatives of each company pooh-poohed the idea of a purpose-built urban operating system. They believed one would emerge eventually, albeit as the result of a messy convergence of competing standards – you know, the way things work in the real world.

My guess is that these two models — the city on open standars and the Living PlanIT city — will co-exist and very different cities, and city experiences will emerge. It will be interesting to see how this bifurcation might affect playing field career-wise for planners in 20 years, as the differences in the tools and methods underlying a city affect people’s behaviour in urban space. As Jarrett Walker so brilliantly put it recently, cities have to be usable in all the stages between the present and your vision. The Living PlanIT folks are starting from the ground up perhaps to emulate the experience of their market in China and India; but it sounds vaguely utopian to me.


  1. I thought your commentary was very interesting.

    As you can imagine, Greg was working hard to net down a few hours of conversation into appropriate sound bites – didn’t do a bad job given the scale of the challenge.

    However, I completely concur on a number of your items and rest assured, this is not a city designed by technologists, except where technology needs to support human interaction – and then, only in manner that is inclusive and does not require technology genius to operate it ;-)

    We are working with renowned teams on the urban planning elements but also questioning convention that seems past its time.

    The goal here is to deliver in PlanIT Valley a place that people will call home, improves their quality of life and in the process demonstrate what is possible if we collectively put our minds to it.

    As to open plays – let’s not fool ourselves, nothing in the building world is “open standards” in reality – it is siloed, clumsy, expensive and oftentimes ineffective.

    Time to whack it around the knees and shake some sense in to it – foster greater innovation, openness and start addressing critical issues we are all facing today.

    Would love to chat some more with you – enjoyed your post – time to get you some more background and pick your brains on a few things.


    Posted August 25, 2010 at 5:20 am | Permalink
  2. Steve,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed it and even more glad that you are hearing things you’ve heard before.

    I am really interested in this:

    As to open plays – let’s not fool ourselves, nothing in the building world is “open standards” in reality – it is siloed, clumsy, expensive and oftentimes ineffective.

    Your reading of this is really interesting to me, because you are referring explicitly to the building world — something that I’ve had little direct exposure to in my planning education thus far. But it’s also not the area in which I am seeing interest in openness, but more the movement towards civic hacking and city governments making data on city services available to citizens. The Province of British Columbia here in Canada recently did a Apps for Climate Action contest, gathering a data catalogue of climate change relevant data sets and awarding prizes for particularly interesting applications. It is the citizen engagement and participation side of events like this that get me really excited, but it’s also a lot further down the line in a building’s lifespan than I think you are focusing on.

    In other words, there’s interest in the openness in what I believe is typically referred to as “post-occupancy”; and from the sounds of your statement, Living PlanIT is focused on ensuring the capability to have that data at all from the outset, by making sure buildings are designed to be data-collectors/reactors. Neat.

    In any case, I bet that Portuguese Valley will be interesting to walk down in a few years.

    Thanks again,


    Posted August 25, 2010 at 5:43 am | Permalink
  3. You got it.

    I think there are a couple of interesting challenges ahead but for us to have the palette of tools we need to address them, we have to start with where data originates to be thoughtful about who gets to subscribe to what.

    First and foremost, all that we do must be secure – secure to a degree not implemented today given the simplistic technologies most typically deployed.

    Protecting the innocent (separating physical from virtual identities, cloaking and other techniques) is a fundamental responsibility of both those gathering, analyzing and redistrubiting.

    All elements in this process have to, by their nature be active, including when data may be collected about individuals in their interactions with places, it should be BLATANTLY apparent to the user and more importantly, under the users control.

    Ownership of originating data must always be accesible by the individual concerned and they alone determine the merits of further storage i.e. improvers consumers experience / convenience, is an intrusion, or may be used to infer something about the user that has unintended or undesirable consequences e.g. I do not want the world to know about my visit to the mental health worker in building x.

    The only way to address such issues is apply rigorous research techniques and engage the broader community to develop policy and designs for implementation.

    Appreciate the dialogue as always.


    Posted September 3, 2010 at 11:46 am | Permalink

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