Friday, December 07, 2012

"Smart" or scalable?

Two related posts came my way quite concidentally within a few minutes.  They are worth considering as a pair because of the concerns they illustrate. 

The first is from Richard Sennett who worries about what may come of a confab now in progress.  "No one likes a city that's too smart ... Let's hope Rio rather than Songdo or Masdar is the inspiration for the urbanists gathering in London this week." 

There are amazing new technologies coming into our lives.  Can they replace the spontaneous order nature of successful cities? Sennett ends sensibly with this:  "We want cities that work well enough, but are open to the shifts, uncertainties, and mess which are real life."

On a similar theme, the second post is from Bertrand Renaud who writes about "The Costs of Utopia".  It's actually an old problem but ignored by by people who still see cities as entities they can design.  From The Urbanization Project, here is Renaud's punch-line:
Haussman did design street patterns in nineteen century Paris, so did L’Enfant in Washington. However, these “urbanists” only designed the boundaries between public and private use. They only allocated precise functions to public space: streets, avenues, parks, and public buildings. But they did not design the city in the sense that, with the exception of public monuments, they did not decide who was going to live where, they did not decide where offices and residential areas will be located and what should be the density in these areas. Market forces were left free to fill the bulk volumes allocated to private use.
Yes, it's mostly in-fill which the grand designers have very little to do with.  Sandy Ikeda has many times elaborated the idea that Jane Jacobs was the F.A. Hayek of cities.  Both Sennett and Renaud are writing in the same spirit.

Another way to say it is to consider the scalability of design.  But what does that mean? We rely on designers to do great things.  A pencil, a 787 Dreamliner, a comfortable chair, a skyscraper, my iPhone and countless other wonderful things in our lives rely on the skills of many sorts of designers.  But these involve designs that must meet a market test.  They must be susceptible to error correction.  The utopians that Sennett and Renaud worry about could be tackling a scale that does not easily avail itself of error correction.  Get a Hoover Dam or a high-speed rail line from Madera to Bakersfield California or a Burj Khalifa tower wrong and that's that.