Before the Smart City


As we launch our new site it’s worth going back to the launch of our conference, where we first set the tone of our approach. Before The Smart City was a cream tea social at Exeter Library, the evening before our main event. Not knowing how many people to expect, what format would work best, or where our attendees’ real passion lay, we started simply: with a conversation.

We handed out postcards and asked people to describe their favourite places. This formed the basis for the evening’s discussion and helped us prepare a simple slide for the next day, relating the conference themes back to people and their unique relationships with place.

So, what places mattered to people?

  • Places that we find for ourselves; random treasures that we feel ownership of somehow. Not the place, but the first sight and the feeling we still get when we think about it.
  • Places we get to under our own power for the first time; ugly, utilitarian, busy spaces sometimes that matter only because we take ownership of the journey and the brand new autonomy we exercised to get there.
  • Places that are familiar and intimate.
  • Places that are strange and new.
  • Places that are shaped wholly by us.
  • Places that don’t care who we are.
  • Places that haven’t existed for 20 years and we can never go back to.
  • Places that aren’t finished yet and possibly never will be.
  • Places that were first shaped thousands of years ago and are still standing
  • Places that we love right now because we just discovered them.
  • Places we love because they’re there when we need them.
  • Moors in sunlight, mountains in fog, carpets of bluebells.
  • Kangaroos in campsites and owls in broad daylight.

Some of these places aren’t places, or not just places. They’re also faces and times and tastes and sounds and smells. The first view of the landscape. The regular family gathering with the traditional recipes. The playground that’s now an office block car park. That last quiet hour before bed, with a glass of something special. The tyre swing that fell down a decade ago. The warm cafe on a rainy windswept day. An hour alone with a good book and a comfy chair. Blossom time. The first trench dug.

There’s more to place than geography. More than scenery and buildings and infrastructure. ┬áThere’s still more to place than the people who fill it. Place is something else; all this plus the way we shape it (or leave it alone) and the way it accepts us. Do I belong here? Does this place welcome me, accept me? Does this space need me or does it acknowledge me and wave me on? Does this place react to me, do I react to it, do I need to? Can I just be?

Is quality of life all about a big house with a garden and two cars? Does it always have to come down to real estate and gadgets?

It’s the combination of:

  • The way we felt when we got there, and when we left
  • The way it reacts to us
  • Expectations met or exceeded

So if we want to talk about making places better, faster, richer, more connected, more digital, smarter then we have to also talk about why. Better, faster, richer, more connected, more digital, smarter for whom? Do technology and data fulfill these human hopes for places or do they get in the way?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *