Songdo in South Korea: “this type of city is no longer a static collection of places but ‘a computer in open air'” © Gwoan Joong Kim/Topic Photo Agency/Corbis
The “Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” opened in May 1853 on Reservoir Square, New York and caused a tourist boom, similar to the one caused by the Great Exhibition in London two years earlier. Each day in one of the main halls a crowd gathered, huddling in front of a stage upon which stood a structure that appeared at first glance like a gallows. Above a platform rose a tall structure of wooden boards with ropes hanging off to both sides. As workmen took the strain, pulling the ropes taut, the platform rose bearing the inventor Elisha Otis as well as barrels and heavy boxes, until it reached 30 feet above the heads of the throng.
After a dramatic pause an assistant cut the hoists with an axe and the crowds gasped as they expected to see the engineer crash to the ground. But the platform only dropped a few inches and remained there, suspended in the air, held by Otis’s patented safety device, the “safety hoister.” Above the murmur of astonishment, Otis assured his stunned audience, “all safe, gentlemen, all safe.” It was a spectacle that changed the history of the world. Otis had not invented the elevator, but had made it safe. Before Otis’s innovation, few places in the world—apart from Sana’a, in Yemen—had buildings over five storeys high; within 50 years there were skyscrapers overlooking Manhattan.
Cities and technology have long influenced each other. Otis’s elevator was invented at the same time as innovations in railways, sewers and steel manufacture; combined they would determine the shape and scale of the modern city. Today, we are experiencing a new technological leap: the intelligent city, which is being heralded with the same fevered, messianic optimism and hard sell as Stephenson’s Rocket or Bazalgette’s sewers. To be smart is to be modern, we are told; a failure to embrace the liberating power of information is to be morally suspect. But this poses the question of what precisely the role of technology might be in the modern city. Can it turn a leaden metropolis into a sustainable, robust utopia?
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