The Death and Life of Future Networked Cities: Jane Jacobs and the Internet of Things

Jane JacobsOn April 10, 1968, Jane Jacobs was arrested and accused of criminal mischief and inciting a riot at a public hearing. The incident was the climax of a decade-long battle between the activist-journalist Jacobs and powerful New York City planner Robert Moses over the fate of her neighborhood Greenwich Village. In the resulting book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, Jacobs denounces the top down city planning of Moses, who took advantage of the American Housing Act of 1949 to fund slum clearing projects and build massive highways and Corbusian residential “towers in the park” in their place. “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder,” she writes, “and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served” (Jacobs, 1961). Jacobs argues in favor of the greater complexity and spontaneous organization found in diverse city neighborhoods, and emphasizes the importance of “eyes on the street” as a critical factor for ensuring public safety and civic engagement.

In the more than fifty years since the publication of Death and Life, the world has seen the emergence of an incredibly complex and spontaneous information network, which has changed the way we experience public and private space and engage in the urban environment. So far, the Internet has existed for the most part separately from the physical world, at its best acting as a sort of contextual overlay, providing a deeper connection to and awareness of the places we inhabit, and at its worst diverting the attention of its users from the real world and destroying the boundaries between public and private life. As the Internet extends its reach into the physical world, through the proliferation of networked sensors and actuators known as the Internet of Things, there is the potential for a more dynamic and horizontally organized urban environment, enlivened by Internet-connected “eyes on the street”. However, as government organizations and technology giants such as the NSA, Google and Facebook have demonstrated, it is perhaps more important than ever to be critical of the distribution of power and individual agency in this new system, as it continues to radically redefine the organizational framework of the urban environment.

Today, the battle between the bottom-up self-organization championed by Jacobs and the top-down planning of Moses and Le Corbusier is being fought as much on social networking sites as in public hearings, with smart phones and the surveillance thereof serving as the most powerful weapons for both sides. In the case of the future Internet of Things, it is unclear which camp has the upper hand, and it is likely that what we get will be a strange combination of open collaborative commons and Deleuzean digitally-modulated control society. In this paper, I will attempt to make the case for an open Internet of Cities, using the arguments laid out in Death and Life as a framework to address both the incredible disruptive potential of peer-to-peer (P2P) and machine-to-machine (M2M) networks in the urban environment and the significant challenges that could prevent the distributed model from overtaking the vertical hierarchy which is the status quo. I will begin by considering the role of communication techniques and technologies on the organization of cities, drawing connections between Jacobs’ observations of local knowledge sharing in a neighborhood, Norbert Wiener’s definition of the field of cybernetics, the effects of rapidly evolving communication technology on the dissemination of information in a network, and the potential dangers that can arise when a powerful central agency can exert undue influence on the flow of information. Then I will revisit Jacobs’ qualities of successful city streets, in particular the differentiation of public and private spaces and the notion of eyes on the street, with a special interest in the impact that sensors – whether embedded in the environment or carried in personal electronic devices – have on public safety and surveillance. With this understanding of the current state of the networked city, I will conclude by proposing that an open and distributed Internet of Cities is consistent with Jacob’s concept of a city ecosystem, which has been extensively expanded upon and updated for the Information age by city planners such as Vicente Guallart and the Peer to Peer Urbanists.

Information, Communication and Control in the Network Society

In his seminal text The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, the mathematician Norbert Wiener stated:

It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever increasing part. (Wiener, 1950)

While Jacob’s does not directly address the role of such communication facilities in Death and Life, one can draw some important conclusions from her ideas regarding public contact. One important source of community information was the self-appointed public character, such as Mr. Jaffe (or Bernie as he is known by his patrons), the owner of a candy store in Jacobs’ neighborhood. Jacobs identifies the variety of roles that Mr. Jaffe takes on in the course of an ordinary day, during which he “took custody of two keys… gave street directions… gave out information on the range of rents in the neighborhood… listened to a tale of domestic difficulty and offered reassurance… provided an incidental forum for half a dozen conversations among customers… and got a back copy (this was for me) of the previous day’s newspaper” (Jacobs, 1961). With such a multiplicity of public roles, storekeepers such as Mr. Jaffe were well respected in their neighborhoods, and enjoyed the trust of the many private individuals with whom he was engaged.

As Wiener predicted, in the decades since his and Jacobs’ texts, technologies that enable communication between man and machine have increasingly replaced such personal interactions as described in Death and Life. Google may not be able to hold onto a neighbor’s spare keys (yet), but it can give directions, provide local rent information, access news articles, connect people to a variety of message boards and forums ranging from domestic support groups to celebrity gossip, and much more. Wiener states that “to live effectively is to live with adequate information,” and this has never been truer than it is today (Wiener, 1950). Search aggregators and mobile web browsers have made access to information nearly ubiquitous, to such an extent that researchers have concluded that the Internet has become an extension of the human mind, acting as a sort of collective memory stored outside of the brain (Sparrow, Liu, & Wegner, 2011).

Meanwhile, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have lead to the emergence of social phenomena such as “ambient awareness,” which Clive Thompson describes in his book Smarter Than You Think as a sort of sixth sense, an unconscious ability to assemble many small bits of information, each of which would be meaningless on its own, into a bigger picture of someone’s life. Rather than individuals necessarily participating in direct conversation with one another in order to communicate effectively, users of Facebook and Twitter maintain an ambient awareness of the daily lives of their peers through a steady stream of status updates, comments, photos, links and likes. This new communication technology has largely replaced more intimate forms of sharing information. Cell phones are rarely used for making phone calls nowadays, as the introduction of texting and later wireless internet connectivity have made the former activity seem particularly intrusive. Even less common are the spontaneous conversations between patrons of a shop described by Jacobs. More than likely the customers at such a shop are already dividing their attention between multiple conversations using a variety of platforms (text message, Facebook chat, Twitter, Snapchat, etc) as they distractedly check out at the register.

Privacy and Publicity in the Internet of Things

It is important at this point to return to a critical feature of the public relationships that Jacobs describes, the element of trust. Jacobs argues that “A service like this cannot be formalized. … The all-essential line between public service and privacy would be transgressed by institutionalization. … The service must be given as a favor by someone with an unshakable understanding of the difference between a person’s key and a person’s private life, or it cannot be given at all” (Jacobs, 1961). Yet Google and Facebook are undoubtedly institutions that have successfully and irrevocably blurred the boundaries of public and private life. The question then is whether the networked individual can truly trust these multinational corporations to act as “responsible custodians” of one’s personal information. These companies’ trustworthiness has been called into question time and time again, as significant breaches of personal privacy have come to the attention of the public.

Two news stories from 2014, separated by less than two months, revealed questionable activities by both companies that caused waves of distress among users. On May 6, Al Jazeera America published two email exchanges from 2012 between Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin of Google and then-director of the National Security Agency Gen. Keith Alexander, which revealed a close relationship between the technology giant and the controversial government spying agency. The article suggested that the NSA, under the guise of protecting Google’s servers from Chinese intruders, may have installed secret back doors in order to hack in themselves. Then, on June 29, several news organizations, including the New York Times, reported on an experiment conducted in 2012, in which Facebook altered the news feeds of almost 700,000 users in order to study the effect of positive and negative content on the users’ emotional states. Compared to Mr. Jaffe, who was “startled at the idea” of introducing two customers with similar interests, Google and Facebook seem to lack a clear understanding of the difference between public and private. If users do trust these corporate entities with their personal information, it is a tenuous and contingent trust at best. Yet despite the public’s concern about their privacy, more and more users keep pouring in their personal data.

In his essay The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things, published September 1, 2014, Bruce Sterling makes it clear from the very start that he doesn’t trust Google and Facebook with his Things:

The first thing to understand about the “Internet of Things” is that it’s not about Things on the Internet. It’s a code term that powerful stakeholders have settled on for their own purposes.

They like the slogan “Internet of Things” because it sounds peacable and progressive. It disguises the epic struggle over power, money and influence that is about to ensue. There is genuine internet technology involved in the “Internet of Things”. However, the legacy internet of yesterday is a shrinking part of what is at stake now. (Sterling, 2014)

Sterling specifically calls out the Big Five, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook as well as a few other major players in the Internet of Things, such as Intel, Cisco, IBM, Samsung. These technology giants, he argues, treat their users as cattle, offering free online services and algorithmically curated content in exchange for tidal waves of valuable data. “They may ‘think different”, they may “not be evil”, but the reader didn’t elect them” (Sterling, 2014). His distrust is not unjustified, considering the recent outrage in the media. However, one can’t help but be critical of Sterling’s choice of words when he implies that corporations, who we do not elect, are less trustworthy than governments of elected leaders and appointed officials. Sterling dismisses Facebook’s popularity, but it is the same popularity associated with the power law as described by Clay Shirkey in 2003 or by Chris Anderson in 2004. Shirkey argues that the unequal distribution of influence in the blogosphere is fair for several reasons, but the most telling is that internet popularity is inevitably the result of many people expressing their distributed approval by clicking on links. It is the same effect, scaled by several orders of magnitude, that makes Google so powerful, and in many ways their control of their users’ personal data has greater legitimacy than any access granted to the NSA by a secret court.

It is true that users typically know very little about what is done with the data they produce, although Google has taken steps toward greater transparency by making data such as the number and nature of requests for user information by governments available on its transparency report. Still, since very few people read the terms and conditions that apply to such free online services, it is often very unclear who owns the data being collected. In their book The Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel address the effects of ambient technology and big data on personal privacy and propose certain measures to counteract its erosion. One important feature for trustworthy data custodians is a silent mode, allowing users to easily keep certain information private. Scoble and Israel believe companies who respect individuals’ privacy in such a way will thrive due to their perceived trustworthiness. They also believe that data ownership should be clearly delineated in plain language. “It seems self-evident,” they argue, “that we should own our own data and that any third-party should need our permission to use it, and our refusal should not trigger financially punitive measures” (Scoble, 2013). This statement could be the preamble for the “Pachube Internet of Things Bill of Rights”, as set forth by Usman Haque and Ed Borden in their essay Data and Owner:

  1. People own the data they (or their “things”) create.
  2. People own the data someone else creates about them.
  3. People have the right to access data gathered from public space.
  4. People have the right to access their data in full resolution in real time.
  5. People have the right to access their data in a standard format.
  6. People have the right to delete or backup data they own.
  7. People have the right to use and share their data however they want.
  8. People have the right to keep their data private.

It is clear that, as the Internet continues to invade our personal space, there is a great need to make such clarifications regarding the ownership of data. It should also be clear that this is the very same issue addressed by Jacobs with regard to public and private space at the scale of the street. Listing the three most important qualities of safe city streets, she asserts, “First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects,” (Jacobs, 1961). City streets and cyberspace are both incredibly complex human inventions which have adapted and must continue to adapt to questions of privacy and publicity in response to mass collaboration on multiple scales. These questions must be answered if society is to avoid the corporate-surveillance state scenario predicted by Sterling.

Sensors on the Street

Jacobs’ second quality of a safe city street is the presence of “eyes on the street”, which is to say that the streets are safest when people are present, either on the street itself, in stores and other public places lining the street, or watching from the privacy of their own homes. “By definition again, the streets of a city must do most of the job of handling strangers for this is where strangers come and go” (Jacobs, 1961). Jacobs is concerned not only with how streets deal with the presence of potentially dangerous strangers but also with the safety of everyday strangers who pass by with no ill intent. While she admits that the idea of community self-surveillance sounds rather questionable, the author insists that it is not as bad as it sounds. In fact, she asserts, this type of surveillance works so well because the neighborhood residents are hardly aware of their participation.

Today, thanks to the combined efforts of the NSA, Google, and Facebook, Americans are increasingly aware that they are being watched. Since the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 regarding mass surveillance programs such as PRISM, Americans have grown more and more suspicious of the government and of data-driven multinational corporations such as Sterling’s Big Five. This is not the self-surveillance championed by Jacobs. Rather, this is the evolution of the Deleuzean control society, in which “individuals become ‘dividuals,’ and masses become samples, data, markets, or ‘banks,’” (Deleuze, 1990/1995). Indeed, if we are to consider that sensors are the networked “eyes on the street” of the Internet of Things, it is clear from a study of the sensors already embedded in the urban environment that the digital modulation of the city’s many complex systems is not a bottom-up process, but rather an extension of the vertical hierarchy, with government institutions at the top controlling the flow of both information and people.

Consider, for example, New York City’s traffic control system. According to a study published by TransCore, the engineering consultancy responsible for the modernization project, the system relies on a city-wide intranet that provides a wireless communication system between all of the city’s essential public services (TransCore, 2013). The sensors involved in managing traffic – overhead microwave sensors, radio-frequency identification (RFID) readers, and video cameras – feed their data to the Joint Traffic Management Center in Long Island City, where engineers and algorithms work to optimize the flows of vehicles and pedestrians. In the future, TransCore expects to provide more real-time traffic information to the pubnelic, but with the rise of connected and autonomous vehicles, one can’t help but wonder whether this provision is truly a move toward greater transparency or simply a political gesture meant to placate an uneasy population as it continues to lose control over its own mobility.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The distributed, ambient awareness of the street inspired by Jacobs is embodied today by the proliferation of cheap sensing technologies among the general population, the most ubiquitous of which is the mobile phone. In the case of traffic control, this approach is most evident in the model developed by Waze, “the world’s largest community-based traffic and navigation app” ( According to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their book The Second Machine Age, by utilizing the GPS capabilities of modern smart phones, Waze turns each phone running the app into a node in a distributed network of sensors working together to monitor traffic conditions while providing a feedback mechanism to help reduce congestion and save time and energy. This sensor data is being generated by mobile phones, but the Internet of Things implies that such sensors will soon be embedded in the cars themselves. It will be critical then, in determining the future power structure of transportation, to decide whether the sensor data produced by connected vehicles is shared in a distributed system, such as Waze, or funneled vertically to a control center like New York’s Joint Traffic Management Center.

It is easy to see why many people, like Sterling, believe that the Internet of Things is essentially a hoax, perpetrated by massive corporations to fool users into believing in their individual agency while milking them for valuable data. After all, it is true that Google acquired Waze in 2013 for a reported $1.3 billion, a prime example of what Sterling calls “knifing the baby”, or the tendency of major corporations to acquire and incorporate innovative start-ups before they can become profitable themselves (Sterling, 2014). The acquisition of start-ups is just one of the strategies of disruption which major corporations use to undermine the competition in the epic power struggle over the Internet. Yet it is important to emphasize the disruptive effect that these companies are having on power structures at all scales. Facebook and Twitter contributed enormously to the overthrow of several authoritarian political regimes in the middle east, by providing a platform for individual protesters to self-organize and disseminate information in a distributed network. Amazon has not only undermined the dominance of big box retailers such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy by completely redesigning the logistics of shopping, but has also provided a valuable platform for small businesses to reach more customers, while eBay accomplishes a similar effect with a system that relies on user-generated reputation scores, allowing the community to police itself. If Google’s self-driving cars have the distributed sensing capabilities of Waze built in, New York City may find itself with a bunch of obsolete technology on its hands, unless it can repurpose its traffic sensors to communicate horizontally. Distributed power structures are inherently disruptive to the vertical hierarchies they will replace.

Urban Ecosystems and Operating Systems

In the forward to the Modern Library edition of Death and Life, Jacobs notes that “at some point along the trail I realized I was engaged in studying the ecology of cities. … A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethical processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies” (Jacobs, 1961/1993). It is quite incredible that, more than fifty years ago, Jacobs anticipated the understanding of cities in terms of biology, as a problem of “organized complexity” which cannot be solved simplistically using top-down planning methods. Ecosystems are intrinsically bottom-up processes, involving a multitude of interrelated problems that cannot be properly addressed in isolation. As Jacobs asserts in the final chapter of Death and Life:

Cities happen to be problems in organized complexity, like the life sciences. They present ‘situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways.’ Cities, again like the life sciences, do not exhibit one problem in organized complexity, which if understood explains all. They can be analyzed into many such problems or segments which, as in the case of the life sciences, are also related with one another. The variables are many, but they are not helter-skelter; they are ‘interrelated into an organic whole’ (Jacobs, 433).

This biological mode of thinking about urbanism has evolved significantly since Death and Life, particularly as climate change has taken its toll on cities around the world. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which shut down much of the city’s public infrastructure, there has been considerable discussion regarding the ‘resiliency’ of cities, or their ability to adapt to change and unexpected external forces. Biourbanism, or peer-to-peer urbanism, is a design philosophy derived from Jacobs’ observations and from the numerous advances in the life sciences, computer science, systems theory, and mathematics that have occurred since. In an article published in Metropolis Magazine titled ‘Toward Resilient Architectures 1: Biology Lessons’, urbanist Michael Mehaffy and mathematician Nikos Salingaros define resilient biological ecosystems as interconnected networks, featuring diversity, redundancy, multiple scales of structures, and the ability to self-organize. It follows, then, that resilient urban ecosystems consist of interconnected infrastructures of transportation and communication, diversity and redundancy of programs at the scale of the street, block, neighborhood, city and region, and the flexibility and freedom to adapt to change over time. It is not a coincidence that these are the same qualities that have come to define the Internet. As Alexander Galloway observes in Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, the distributed organization of the Internet was originally designed as a safeguard against the potential of nuclear war and the vulnerability of centralized control systems.

Vicente Guallart, Chief Architect of Barcelona, argues in his book The Self-Sufficient City that cities must learn from the organization of the Internet if they are to survive climate change and the depletion of natural resources. He imagines a city in which computers have dissolved into every person, place and thing, each performing as a node in a global network connecting everything to everything else. However, it is essential when programming such an Urban Operating System that planners and architects take cues from resilient systems such as the Internet:

In order for this vision to be developed, it is not enough to create sensors and actuators that send data to a centralized computer that controls the different parts of a dwelling or a city. The algorithms for controlling the system should be distributed throughout the system, so that if one part of the system crashes, the rest can continue operating normally. (Guallart, 2014)

In Guallart’s Energrid project, buildings and city blocks produce their own energy, which they can either use, store, or sell back to the community. The architect asserts that it would be necessary to mix and match multiple functions within the block in order to reduce peak energy loads, since different functions consume energy at different times of day. Jacobs made a similar argument for multiple functions within a city district, to ensure the presence of people throughout the day. At the scale of the neighborhood, the Internet of Things has the potential not only to efficiently manage the use of energy and other natural resources, but also to encourage the sharing of social resources among neighbors. Thus, by embedding technology in the physical urban environment, it is possible to counteract the loss of meaningful social interactions between people in the city. It will also be possible for cities to interact with each other on a global scale, sharing quantified analyses of their performance in real time using a set of common standards that Guallart calls the City Protocol. “The City Protocol should create a system for evaluating cities and a knowledge platform worthy of the information age” (Guallart, 2014).

Conclusion: The Legacy of Death and Life

In a 2014 post on the Atlantic’s CityLab blog, Michael Mehaffy states that “the lessons of Jane Jacobs are more vital than ever.” Mehaffy identifies five common themes that Jacobs observed decades ago, which are now well understood by planners, engineers and social scientists, and which are achievable due to and necessary for the development of the Internet of Things. First, cities create value through the networked interaction of multiple social, biological, and economical processes within multiple scales of spatial organization. These processes can and should be augmented by ambient technologies of information exchange, rather than suppressed by artificial top-down power structures. Second, cities that support such a network effect make more efficient use of natural resources, which is becoming increasingly crucial as technology continues to advance at an exponential rate. Smart energy infrastructures may be the killer app for the Internet of Things. Third, cities are most effective when individuals are connected and actively engaged in the urban network, even in seemingly mundane ways. This has already occurred to some extent with the proliferation of smart phones, but these devices favor virtual over physical connectivity, and it is the great potential of the Internet of Things to reconnect people to the built environment. Fourth, cities must be able to adapt to the dynamics of human psychology. Individuals are becoming more and more comfortable identifying with digital avatars and uploading bits of memory to the cloud, and the Internet of Things could be seen as an urban adaptation to incorporate the networked persona back into the real world. Finally, connected cities must provide their citizens some level of control over the degree of publicity or privacy that is afforded to them. With the current widespread paranoia regarding state surveillance and data ownership, it is simply not enough for the Internet of Things to be managed by a city-wide control center.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities was born out of a destructive crusade to suppress the natural order of human life in dense urban environments, and in that regard it could have been a very pessimistic narrative. However, in many ways it showed a great deal of optimism and faith in the nature of human relationships. New York’s public housing projects may still stand in the places that once housed vibrant and complex neighborhoods, but they are relics of the 20th century planning ideology of Robert Moses and Le Corbusier. Their greatest achievements have become our biggest burdens, and 21st century designers are now rediscovering Jane Jacobs’ ideas a half-century later as they grapple with the implications of our rapidly evolving technology. Once again, the power struggle will be waged over infrastructure, this time a digital network of interconnected things, places, and processes. It is imperative that planners, policy makers, and the public learn from Jacobs and from the Internet’s successes and failures so far in planning for its imminent arrival in our built environment.


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