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Visions of the future city, beautiful and efficient, have fascinated planners for centuries. Technology has advanced, and our world has been transformed, but the preoccupation with urban optimization is timeless. How can we make cities more livable? Can the recent entrance of digital technologies in our urban space, the creation of “smart cities,” help?

Smart cities seem to answer urban planners’ dreams: every element thought of coherently, the whole functioning like clockwork. A smart city can be thought of as a ubiquitous, high-volume information flow at the intersection of habitation and computing, a condition commonly referred to as “ubiquitous computing.” Galvanized by technology, cities can bring efficiency within reach. But is efficiency really all that we need to create livable cities?

In fact, I believe we should propose an alternate idea of smart city. This is why we prefer to use another term – “senseable city”. “Senseable city” humanizes our approach, as it better encapsulates the social benefits gained by embedding Internet-of-Things technologies into our urban spaces, as opposed to the technology per se. “Senseable” implies both the sensitivity of digital technologies capable of sensing and responding to citizens’ needs, and the more human quality of being “sensible,” of keeping people and their desires at the center.

This boils down to a fundamental divergence within architectural design, computer science, and politics known generally as top-down versus bottom-up. A top-down approach first considers a system at the broadest universal level whereas a bottom-up approach begins with the most atomized unit and builds up.

A Senseable city could incorporate a bottom-up model that is not necessarily at odds with data-driven urban systems. Network technologies allow for fine-grained control over physical space—the same control that can, of course, be used for mechanistic efficiency. But it may also become a tool for citizen engagement, actively involving the broader population in decision-making and operation. A merger of top-down and bottom-up systems can invite widespread engagement and mean effective implementation of solutions, ideally resulting in livable urban spaces. Pure optimization quickly becomes obsolete, but a hybrid model with a measure of chaos may be a more sustainable form of efficiency.

The digitally-augmented cities of the future give us many opportunities, if we’re careful, for creating responsive, livable cities. Prix Bloxhub gives us the opportunity to discuss them, focusing on technologies while always keeping in mind Shakespeare’s famous question: “What is the city but the people?”