Reinier de Graaf

Partner, OMA

Reinier de Graaf is a partner at The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), where he heads the work of its think tank AMO, dedicated to demonstrating the wider relevance of architectural thinking beyond building and urban planning. Projects include: The Image of Europe, addressing the European Union's iconographic deficit; D-40210, a strategy to prevent further gentrification of European town centres; Eurocore, about the contours of Europe's first cross-border metropolis (spanning parts of the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium); and The State of Moscow, a proposal for a more accountable system of governance for Moscow. De Graaf is also in charge of AMO’s increasing work on energy planning, including Zeekracht: a strategic masterplan for the North Sea; Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Europe, with the European Climate Foundation; and The Energy Report, a global plan for 100% renewable energy, with the WWF.

Aug 1, 2014 | Architecture column
Trade off

May 28-30, 2014: Attending the third "Global Infrastructure Initiative" in Rio de Janeiro, organized by McKinsey & Co. The gathering is dominated by an almost limitless optimism about the blessings of technology and the belief that innovation by the infrastructure sector (coupled to extravagant funds) will eventually cure all the contemporary city’s ails…

As the conference progresses, hopes are increasingly pinned on the ‘digital’. Inasmuch as there has been bad infrastructure planning in the past, it is now firmly believed that the digital, in its infinite ability to monitor and manipulate traffic flows, will retroactively turn bad planning into good planning. The few representatives of the digital world attending seem to enjoy the confidence that is placed in them (even if it makes them officially part of the same sector whose mess they are expected to clean up).

We are taken to the Centro de Operaçoes of Rio de Janeiro: a kind of ersatz town hall, commissioned by Mayor Eduardo Paes, built by IBM. The centre collects, computes and analyses a smorgasbord of data from GPS, sensors and video cameras, from both public and private sources. Through a set of advanced computer algorithms it becomes possible to collate these data in such a way that patterns and trends affecting the city can be identified. The centre enables the behavior of the city to be predicted almost like the weather, allowing authorities a quicker response time in the face of imminent trouble, and thus providing its citizens with better services.

So far, so good. The shock comes when we actually visit the control room of the centre. It deals with weather circumstances, like floods and rainfall, but it similarly it deals with man-made disasters: traffic jams, garbage avalanches from hill-side favelas, etc... It meticulously calculates the likely occurrence of certain crimes (armed robberies and protests alike), so it can pre-emptively counter these crimes. The interior of the room is entirely modelled on NASA’s control room in Houston, to the point that it actually prescribes its employees to wear a somewhat quaint kind of astronaut jumpsuit. The metaphor underlying the physical appearance of the room unwittingly conveys a rather disturbing flip-side of the whole thing: if the city is monitored from NASA’s control room, one can only conclude the city has become the equivalent of outer space. The city, made by us, for us, becomes a remote fact of nature, encountered like an extraneous phenomenon.

What ensues in terms of the city’s governance is a curious mix of action and resignation. In equating natural disasters to man-made ones, the political sphere finds itself in a position where it can conveniently divert attention from the fact that certain disasters are a direct consequence of its own political choices, and thereby absolve itself of any form of blame. In return we get a shorter response time to calamities (which inevitably ensue when real political responsibility is shed). In that sense, the smart city constitutes a poor trade off.