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Symposium Tackles Challenges Facing Cities of the Future


Technological advances in the areas of transportation, energy, commerce and healthcare are all expected to make city living more pleasant and environmentally friendly.

But make no mistake; the city has the ability to “hack” changes in ways that are unforeseeable, said Saskia Sassen, Ph.D.

Sassen, the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and the co-chair of the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University, spoke at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on May 11 at “Smart City Symposium: Building Sustainable Cities of the Future.”

Her talk was one in a series of presentations from government, academic and private sector speakers. Sassen pointed to the mis-match between  buildings with complex, closed, pre-programmed intelligent systems which tend to become obsolete fast, and cities, which are complex but incomplete systems.

“In the incompleteness of that complex system that is the city, lies its possibility of long life, over thousands of years—outliving empires, republics, multinational corporations,” she said.

“The city tells us what works. Are we capable of listening? That’s another matter.”

For example, a BMW car, made for speed, distance, and with aerodynamic-design, can handle just about any terrain. But when it arrives in the city center, it is reduced to a “crawling little thing.” Its original purpose has been changed. It has been “hacked” by the city.

Sassen said that these capabilities of cites are threatened by some of the major developments of our period: growing inequality, violence, domination by large corporate firms and vast megaprojects. She is particularly interested in the emerging  surveillance system, increasingly present in cities.

This expanded surveillance of everybody who is not doing the surveying –citizens, tourists, immigrants—takes on added meaning if we consider three other developments from the Department of Justice side. They are national security letters issued to individuals who can keep on living their lives but are informed that they will be under continuous surveillance, unlawful detention, which has swept up 300,000 immigrants in raids; and pre-trial solitary confinement, which has been used for as long as six years for one defendant.

The complex city is one space where we can keep on undermining and weakening the effectiveness of this new control system. She urged those in attendance to recover the capacity to understand the city’s voice –the city is a generous partner in our efforts to undermine control –whether of technical system or the new surveillance systems.

“Urban space is embedded not only with deep histories of place, but also with all kinds of logics and possibilities  that we have collectively produced,” she said.

“To what extent is the city one of the spaces where we can actually unsettle the logic of surveillance?” “My hypothesis is that the city can hack excessively controlling systems, and it hacks them in terms of the complex logics that constitute urban space,” she said.

An afternoon panel tackled issues ranging from the growing digital divide between cities around the world to the backlash that utilities sometimes face when they attempt to install smart energy readers, viewed by residents as a violation of their privacy.

Panelist Rosemary Wakeman, Ph.D., professor of history and director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program, noted that many concepts being bandied about today are not new. Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow, which was published in 1898, for instance, is an example of the sustainable city. As important as the concept of a “smart city” is one of a “smart democracy” that is inclusive from a social point of view.

“If we’re going to think about cities as the new sites of innovation and decision making, the reality is our legal and official rights as citizens come from the nation, and that is what is eroding,” she said.
The symposium, which was sponsored by the Fordham Schools of Business and the Center for Digital Transformation, also featured talks by representatives from IBM and the City of New


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