The use that could be made of the data that was produced is very close to the idea of what such technologies would bring about, yet how far away they are from Constant's idea of what such technologies would bring about is intriguing. New Babylon had a vision of a smart city that used big data to increase revenue through everything from parking to health care. It was formed by the belief that pervasive and aware technologies would one day release us from the drudgery of labor.

War and sensors

The apocalyptic news broadcasts from Mariupol, Kharkiv, Izium, Kherson, and Kyiv seem far away from smart urbanism. The brute force of the unguided "dumb bombs" raining down on Ukrainian urban centers is no match for smart sensors and sophisticated machine- learning algorithms. The images of the smoldering cities should remind us that the very sensor networks and systems themselves derive from war.

The technologies he imagined to enable the new playful city were actually emerging in the same time as his vision was taking shape. During the Vietnam War, the US Army dropped 20,000 battery-powered wireless acoustic sensors on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in order to stop supply chains from flowing from north to south. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) called it "network-­centric warfare" because it was the result of billions of dollars in funding at MIT and other top US universities.

satellite image of Ukrainian city
Networks of smart sensors are no match for the brute force of unguided “dumb bombs” like the ones raining down on Ukrainian urban centers.


It is well known that technologies originally developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the storied agency responsible for "catalyzing the development of technologies that maintain and advance the capabilities and technical superiority of the US military", have been successfully used for civilian purposes. ARPANET eventually became the internet, while technologies such as the micro hard drive, and dynamic random-access memory, are now features of everyday life. It is known that some of the technologies funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have ended up in the smart city. There is a link between smart cities and military research. A recent program from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) compares manned and Unmanned aircraft, which share data and resources in real time, to the "critical infrastructure systems" of smart cities. The mathematical techniques of complex dynamic systems are applied. The link is provocative because it asks what do smart cities and air warfare have in common. Complex, adaptive networks are needed.

The visions of the sensor-­ studded battlefield and the instrumented, connected, intelligent city are both missing a central ingredient: human bodies.

Environmental changes such as light, temperature, humidity, sound, or motion can be seen through sensor networks in spaces. The networks are similar to bodies in that they are aware of the changing environment around them and react to it. What about actual humans? Is there something else we can do in the smart city besides serve as a repository of data? The Jesuit social historianMichel de Certeau suggested in his 1980 book Practice of Everyday Life that resistance to the "celestial eye" of power from above must be met by the force of ordinary practitioners of the city.

The scope and potential of what diverse human bodies can bring to the smart city is reduced when we assume that data is more important than the people who created it. Commodity flows and information networks are only one part of the smart city. The smartness comes from the diverse human bodies of different genders, cultures, and classes that make up the city.

Chris Salter is an artist and professor of immersive arts at the Zurich University of the Arts. His newest book, Sensing Machines: How Sensors Shape Our Everyday Life, has just been published by MIT Press.