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DL Seminar | Techno-Optimistic Smart City Imaginaries: A Patchwork of Four Urban Futures

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

By Annalisa Choy | Law Student | Cornell Tech


Illustration by Gary Zamchick

DL Speaker Laura Forlano

Laura Forlano’s work has centered around the following question: “How do you study people, things, and societies that don’t exist yet?” To do so, Forlano (pictured above) uses four different “imaginaries”: the City as a Platform, the City as a Testbed, the City as a Lab, and the City as a New, Urban Manufacturer.


According to Forlano, the City as a Platform is “defined by the integration of digital technologies such as WiFi terminals—is a streamlined version of city government in which many services are provided by third party companies rather than by the government itself.” To illustrate, New York has installed LinkNYC terminals (“Links”) around the city, replacing phone booths with kiosks that offer nationwide phone calls and free WiFi. The Links are part of the City’s goal to bring Internet access to its citizens, bridging the digital divide. Each Link has an interactive screen that provides information such as weather and transit updates. The Links used to have internet browsers, but the City removed this feature after receiving a slew of complaints about users camping out in front of the units, listening to loud music and watching inappropriate content.


Forlano describes the City as a Testbed as “the use of public roadways and simulations that are used for the testing of autonomous vehicles [and] an experimental space for future technologies.” Because this poses safety concerns, the University of Michigan has developed a “Mcity” testing facility for autonomous vehicles, simulating urban and suburban driving environments. This testbed is 32 acres of streets, with added trees to test communication between vehicles and scratched street signs to test the strength of computer vision.


Forlano asserts that the City as a Lab is “defined by the measurement, control, tracking and surveillance of a wide range of urban processes—is a highly scientific and systematic management of urban life.” For example, Chicago is installing modular sensors around the city, albeit slowly, to collect information including noise and pollution.

Finally, the City as a New, Urban Manufacturer, as per Forlano, is “the development of new businesses around design, digital fabrication, and local manufacturing—is a rebirth of manufacturing for the purpose of economic growth.” Chicago’s mHub is an innovation center that focuses on manufacturing, fostering a connection between local manufacturers and university researchers.


While Forlano’s four constructs carry much promise, there will likely be huge cybersecurity and privacy implications with the implementation of these smart cities. Hopefully these constructs are taking these concerns into consideration.

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