Toronto journalist John Lorinc has won a lucrative new U.S. prize for his book into the perils and possibilities of so-called smart cities.
The inaugural US$25,000 Pattis Family Foundation Global Cities Book Award, announced Wednesday, cited Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology, and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias for covering “pressing, timely geopolitical issues” and preparing people for “the impact of technology on the city and residents.”
Lorinc, a freelance writer and editor who contributes to The Globe and Mail, said the book should encourage people to consider skeptically the technology being introduced into and proposed for cities.
“We should be asking probing questions about whether they’re necessary, whether they solve the problems they’re supposed and whether they intrude on our privacy,” he said in an interview.
“There are ways to do this kind of implementation properly, but it should be scrutinized carefully.”
The winning book grew out of a Toronto controversy over the future of a waterfront property. The site was planned to be a showcase for cutting-edge urban technology by Google spinoff Sidewalk Labs, which promised intelligent building canopies, underground garbage tubes and delivery robots. Sidewalk Labs eventually abandoned the project in the face of swelling local concerns about privacy, governance and mission-creep.
Improving city life is arguably one of the most pressing issues of our time. More than half of the global population now lives in cities, according to the World Bank, a proportion expected to rise to 70 per cent by 2050. But urban life is profoundly unequal, and cities face growing difficulties dealing with the impact of climate change.
Lorinc covers in a broad sweep the thousands of years of urban development that brought us to this point. He offers detail on key inventions such as reinforced concrete, lighting and clean water infrastructure that have made dense city life possible. And he explores some of the many newer ideas that fall under the smart-city label.
Smart cities is an umbrella term suggesting different things to different people. For technology companies, it tends to mean the chance to peddle products such as traffic lights that change more quickly in rainy weather or facial recognition cameras linked to police databases.
At their extreme, smart cities are ostensible utopias, purpose-built and bristling with surveillance technology, intended to eliminate the urban ills of the places they replace. Contemporary versions include Saudi Arabia’s ambitious but controversial proposal, The Line, a 500-metre-tall glass-walled city in one building designed to stretch 170 kilometres.
Lorinc, who wrote in the book that there is “more than a little hubris” in the idea that the messy complexity of city life can be mastered, also says smart-city technologies aren’t inherently bad.
“We have to figure out which ones are benign, and which ones are corrosive,” he said in the interview.
Lorinc will formally receive the Pattis Family Foundation Global Cities Book Award in November. The prize aims to “elevate the discourse around global cities” and celebrate books that explore how cities can address critical global challenges.
The other finalists included Emergent Tokyo by Jorge Almazan, which sought to explore how the Japanese capital balances growth and local life, and The Moving City by Rashmi Sadana, which uses the Delhi metro system to tell a story of urban transformation.