We have always done it wrong: the city as complex network, superorganism and more-than-human sentient being: An experiment in interdisciplinary [re]thinking

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Roberta Buiani


 This paper draws on an experiment in interdisciplinary pedagogy, which took place in the Winter 2019, during a course on “Digital Technology and Society” at the University of Toronto. During the course, the city was chosen as the main source of inquiry. At the core of this experiment was a concern that current models of the city as “Smart City” have become disproportionately skewed towards the implementation of digital technologies, creating monocultural conceptions that prioritize predominantly anthropocentric top-down visions, and neglect the rich more-than-human layers of networks and naturecultural relationships shaping the city today. This concern has been addressed by a number of scholars such as Shannon Mattern (2016, 2017), James Bridle (2018) and Erik Swyngedouw (2006), while alternative views by new materialists such as Jane Bennet (2009), and human geographers Sarah Whatmore (2005) and Ruth Panelli (2010) among others have better addressed the complexities and the multispecies intersections, unfolding within urban conglomerates, and making up the urban techno-cultural fabric. Students were asked to reflect on the following questions: What is a Smart City? How is the city made smart [1]? Who/what makes it so? Is the city a complex system? Preliminary responses to the above questions reflected an exclusive vision oriented towards technological innovation. Introducing a fluid approach based on evidence from direct observation and in vivo exploration, hands on experiments with non-human others, and crossdisciplinary readings, challenged this perspective and nourished a different view of the city as a much richer, complicated and unpredictable entity where biology and information exist in symbiosis.

Keywords: Complexity, Networks, Computing, Biology, Superorganism, Slime mould, Smart City


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