Just like the natural world, real urban communities are complex and messy places that defy neat and orderly solutions.
There is a trend, driven by technology companies like IBM, to promote an approach known as "smart cities." I'm all for some of that. For example, while I was mayor, we embraced technology like GIS locators for city snowplow trucks and other vehicles, automated trash and recycling collection, automated parking meters, and a host of performance measuring techniques like Neighborhood Indicators and Madison Measures (PDF).
Now there's a company that is building a model city in the desert, populated by robots, in an effort to test urban technologies like smart grids and intelligent traffic management systems. Named the "Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation," the project is being built by Pegasus Holdings, a Washington-based technology firm. You can read more about it here.
This is okay, as long as we don't lose sight of the fact that the most important things in life -- and in cities -- can't be measured. In fact, simple numbers can sometimes drive you to the wrong conclusions if you ignore the unavoidable value biases of the creators behind any matrix. For example, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara learned during the Vietnam War the he could measure the number of troops we could put in the field and the amount of firepower we could throw against the enemy, but we couldn't measure the other side's will to fight.
And about the big number that we too often use to gauge the health of our economy Robert Kennedy famously observed that:
The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
And finally, there's this from Donald Miller's excellent history of Chicago, City of the Century:
A city's greatness is the result of an uneasy balance between order and energy, planning and privatism, diversity and conformity, vice and reform, art and enterprise, high culture and low culture, the smart and the shabby, the permanent and the temporary. Interesting cities are places of stimulating disparity and moral conflict where crudity and commerce are often accompanied by memorable advances in the arts. And like Aristotle's Athens, a city of filthy streets, chaotic markets, and scandalous sanitary facilities, they specialize in the making and the remaking of interesting human beings.
Just as it's often a mistake to try too hard to tidy things up around nature, it's usually a mistake to think that an organism as complicated and intricate as a city can be governed successfully by data and technology alone. To make a successful city, it still takes some heart, some passion, and some willingness to accept the unpredictability of interesting human beings.