"I Dream of a truly transparent city"

Saskia Sassen teaches sociology at Columbia University and one of the most influential scientists studying urban spaces. We met up in New York to ask her how she envisions the city of the future.

Professor Sassen, before we travel into the future we’d like to talk about the past. Cities like Rome, Istanbul or Beijing have all outlived empires, wars, and many different rulers and societies. Why are cities so resilient? 

Indeed, cities have been able to survive across centuries and millennia – it's quite extraordinary. Why? I argue it’s because cities are complex systems that are never really finished. And in that mix of complexity and incompleteness lies the possibility for cities to survive for a very long time.


Please elaborate.

When you think city, you think cement. You think roads, buildings, allocated spaces. So there’s a rigidity built into a city. But at the same time it's not a closed system. In fact, it's also not just open, it is incomplete. There is forever something that could be added to or changed in a city. Therefore a city has the capability to change built into it.


What are the changes that are shaping cities today?

One of them is that urban space itself becomes an investment. We have a lot of empty buildings here in New York, for example. Now the fascinating thing is that those empty buildings are actually more profitable than if they were rented out. They are being used to create asset-backed securities, which then circulate in the financial markets. The idea of these buildings is not providing housing for people anymore. It is only the profit that matters. This development started in the 1980s when many cities were actually very poor and run down. That was when we privatized, deregulated, and globalized our cities. These are the three big trends that changed everything and that are still shaping cities even today.


Let’s take a closer look at how new technologies are changing cities today. The smart city is the buzzword of our day and age. What exactly is that?

I argue that at its most basic, a smart city is not necessarily using all kinds of technologies. A truly smart city uses the intelligence of its residents, often digitally but not always, to bring their knowledge of the city to the table – to the city government, the city experts – and then acts on that knowledge.


"Smart city means to me that the city government gives a voice, digitally speaking, to every neighborhood and citizen."


Can you give us an example? What does that look like?

There is an app against potholes, for example. You put it on the phone of everybody in your city and they hit it whenever they see a pothole, and that information goes immediately to the repair unit at the municipal government. That is great! Much more efficient than teams driving through the city looking for potholes. Smart city means to me that the city government gives a voice, digitally speaking, to every neighborhood and citizen because each one of them knows something about the city that the municipal government does not. Smart city is not about installing all kinds of cameras and sensors and what not. The mayors and their teams need to figure out: What do we actually need and can we really use the technology in a way it makes sense? Sensors and cameras are only useful when you actually act on the information they give you. But that often does not happen, because cities cannot cope with the amount of data they get. 


Urban mobility is changing as well: Autonomous vehicles and electric engines are replacing the old means of propulsion and new mobility providers are offering new ways to get from A to B…

I think most importantly there's the clear trend that fewer urbanites want to own a car. My husband and I used to have a very nice car and about 25 years ago we said “To hell with it”. It’s the same with many of my friends, and also my younger students. They see having a car as pure hassle. You have to get a permit. You have to find a parking lot. You have to change the oil. You have to change the tires. Hell no! They want some service they can simply use when they need it. These bike- or car-on-demand services are a great example. And I think the future is going to have even more options.


How is that going to change cities?

I think that’s going to vary considerably from city to city. Some will get it really right, and others won't. Rich cities will do better than poor overwhelmed cities.


"What really matters is the sense that urban space is also people's space, rather than just the space of trucks, cars and buses."


What would getting it right look like?

I think cities can become playgrounds for children again. There's already a push for that. Neighborhoods close streets from time x to time y. So when kids come back from school they can play outside on the street. What really matters is the sense that urban space is also people's space, rather than just the space of trucks, cars and buses.


If you allow yourself to be really, really unscientific and just imagine the future of cities in 50 or 100 years, what would that look like?

Well, I must say I don't believe in flying cars because it would be a disaster in terms of crashes. But I think we will see extreme innovations that really stand out. I do imagine that transport systems will be less cumbersome. That we would just step into a vehicle with no ticket, no controls, no nothing. And when we need to use it for three blocks because we’re tired or the bag is too heavy, we just do the three blocks. It’s flexible. Also, personally I love walking and moving very quickly through a city. These moving floors you find at airports are great! I’d love to have those in a city. And what I always wonder is: Should we have different layers in a city? Sometimes it could be very reasonable. Maybe you have one layer of roads for traffic and a different one with space for the people. And finally it would be great to use technology to create more transparencies in cities.


How would that work?

There could be walls partly made of glass so while you wait for the bus, for example, you can see all these different tunnels and streams of water, and even streams of garbage flowing through the pipes and canals. Citizens should be able to understand how a city works. They should be able to see the innards of a city. I believe the innards we have deep inside our urban spaces could generate whole new stories about them.


71 years old, the scientist is Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, New York, and studies globalization and the development of metropolises. Her most important works are the books „The Global City“ and „Cities in a world economy“. She received many honors and presented a TED Talk about Smart Cities.