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Future Cities - Who or What Decides?

In the smart city, we will not change the city through thoughts and discussions, political compromises, plans, demonstrations and revolutions – democracy – but through algorithmic outcomes – technology. The very way we know the city – our epistemological relation with our urban environment – will be fundamentally altered. We no longer know the city ourselves, at first hand. We know it after the processing of big data generated by the city itself. The results will give us insights in the workings and beings of the city in ways the human brain can never deliver. The city, then, will be an algorithmic oeuvre

There is nothing inhuman or superhuman about the algorithmic city. Big data science, in this case mobilized to build a city, is just as much an outcome of human ingenuity as engineering accomplishments, architectural aesthetics or planning restrictions. The question is not whether the city built on big data is good or bad, utopian or dystopian, but whether this is the city we want. The question is ultimately the question that has haunted urban researchers ever since Henri Lefebvre formulated it: who has the right to the city? Who owns, shapes and interrupts its rhythms and flows, its architectural beauty and everyday uses, its pasts and futures? We are now at the point to decide if and what influence the big tech corporations can have in urban development, if and what kind of algorithmic planning we want.

The case of Quayside is not the first time a big tech giant has shown a concrete interest in urban development. And it has no small ambitions: “Sidewalk’s mission is not to create a city of the future at all. It is to create the future of cities” (Sidewalk Labs, Proposal Quayside, Appendix, 2017, p.12). It has made public a wide range of documents, videos, maps and much more that reveal how big tech could conjure up an urban environment, and how they believe they can determine its best morphology. It is of crucial importance that we carefully scrutinize Sidewalk Labs’ explicit and implicit claims and aims about urban planning and everyday life in the city. Only then can we begin to decide ourselves whether we want global tech corporations to ‘decide the future of cities’.