A Return to High Modernist Principles in 21st Century “Smart” City Planning

[Note: This was an essay that, funnily enough, I wrote for an english elective instead of any of my dozens of planning courses. I’m posting this now because the actual thing I’m working on is taking a lot longer than I expected, oops.

It’s a bit stuffy because I wrote it initially in 2018 before I got a little better at talking about academic subjects without sounding like I have my head up my ass, but I still mostly stand by the content.

This is an extra-long post at something like 3500 words, so I’m sticking it under a cut. Read on to hear me break down why this now endemic “smart cities” trend isn’t one that I’m particularly fond of. The last section is new content and expands on the ways I’ve changed my thinking since I wrote the essay.]


Modern planning theory first emerged during the high modernist movement of the mid 20th century. In the decades since, however, it has been progressively moving away from it and into the sphere of post-modernist theory. Then, in the past decade, interest in the smart city – a conceptualization of a cutting-edge city with governance that is centralized, technologically advanced, and rational – has triggered a resurgence of modernist planning practices (Shelton et. al.) 1.

This paper draws a comparison between the high modernist ideology and the narrative surrounding smart cities being pushed by vendors of smart city technology. The former will be exemplified by planner, essayist, and architect Le Corbusier, whose built and planned projects influenced a generation of planners (Scott 103) 2, while the latter will be exemplified by IBM’s publication, “A Vision of Smarter Cities/How cities can lead the way into a prosperous and sustainable future“, which outlines much of its intentions with running the highly publicized Smarter Cities Challenge.

[Note: references to the IBM publication going forward will be given a green text colour to differentiate it from other citations.]

High Modernism and Planning

High modernism describes an ideology that first emerged in the last decades of the 19th century as the population developed a strong faith in the ability of scientific progress to solve societal problems, a response to the staggering amounts of scientific and technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution (Scott 89-90) 2. A belief in the existence of singular, rational answers to all questions, a rejection of all forms of traditional and local knowledge, and a drive to build utopias through rational engineering are all major aspects of the high modernist ideology.

The advent of high modernist principles legitimized city planning as a technical and respected profession in the bureaucratic intelligentsia (Aoki 703) 3. Because the beginnings of the modern planning profession emerged from these high modernist principles, the first wave of modern planners such as Le Corbusier (1887-1965) in Europe and Robert Moses (1888-1981) in North America exemplified its ideology. High modernist ideology would shape societal development for much of the 20th century, until an ideological shift towards post-modernist thought in the 1970s and 1980s pushed back against these aspects (Aoki 703) 3.

High Modernist Principles Then and Now

Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) is a seminal work critiquing high modernist planning. In the decades since its publication, it has completely changed the way planners think about livable cities. The views espoused in Death and Life are now considered conventional wisdom in the planning field, and Jacobs herself is a highly revered figure despite her condemnation of the field as a whole (Dreier 227) 4. That being said, profit motives and continued property relations have ensured a continuation of high modernist approaches in planning practice (Filion 421) 5. In recent years, as the technological sector expands into the planning field, it brings with it a further reinforcement of the high modernist ideology. Using the three aspects of high modernism outlined in the previous section (belief in the existence of singular, rational answers; rejection of traditional and local knowledge; and a drive to build utopias through rational engineering), a timeline of the acceptance of each will be established, and a comparison of the mid-20th century high modernist belief and the emerging 21st century analogue will be drawn.

The Belief in Rationality

At the centre of modernist ideology is a faith in instrumental rationality: the idea that everything “useful” can be transformed into mathematical abstractions, and that anything that cannot be abstracted in this way is of little consequence (Allmendinger 170) 6. These mathematical abstractions could then be used to calculate the objectively most rational plan for implementation, and this process was thought to be rational and apolitical (Allmendinger 171) 6.

The Modulor, a system of measurement invented by Le Corbusier, was based on the average height of a Frenchman (Le Corbusier himself being French) and the golden ratio. (Le Corbusier 20) 7 He would use the Modulor as the unit in which he drew many of his city master plans. He believed these plans to be derived from extremely rational principles, including a lack of building ornamentation to reduce construction costs, symmetrical and orderly grid systems for ease of wayfinding, and wide streets to facilitate the fast movement of vehicles (Gold 103) 8.

Scale model of Le Corbusier’s city master plan, Paris edition

Since then, planners have come to understand that planning can never be value free and objective in a pluralistic society (Allmendinger 173) 6. Variation in the cladding of buildings turned out to be important in the facilitation of street life, and grid systems and wide streets prioritized vehicles over pedestrians and lessened the sense of community. Planners realized that the complexity of the city system and the differing and sometimes competing needs of its citizens meant that assumptions must be made in the planning decision-making process, and that a blind implementation of the “most rational solutions” inevitably lead to the oppression of the subaltern populations and a prejudiced city (Allmendinger 175) 6. At this time, it became evident that the scientific method is limited in the kinds of question that it could answer. Einstein’s 1939 address on science and religion provides an elegant summary:

The scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other. The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capable, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One, can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations.  Objective knowledge provide us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. And it is hardly necessary to argue for the view that our existence and our activity acquire meaning only by the setting up of such a goal and of corresponding values. The knowledge of truth as such is wonderful, but it is so little capable of acting as a guide that it cannot prove even the justification and the value of the aspiration toward that very knowledge of truth. Here we face, therefore, the limits of the purely rational conception of our existence.

So while we may approach “objective” answers to the amount of food, sunlight, or exercise a person requires daily, values such as personal tastes, neighbourhood heritage and pride, and perceptions of safety are difficult to gauge numerically and plan for in an “objective” manner (Scott 346) 2.

Le Corbusier calculated that each person requires fourteen square metres in their residence as a matter of public health, and so his residential plans reflected this (Scott 110) 2. In calculating this number, he considered the minimum requirements for air, heat, sunlight, and space, but failed to see the complex usages of a home, as a place for entertainment, work, recreation, privacy, gossip, politics, education, and socialization in turns. These complex usages, which should be considered essential for consideration, were abstracted away in the modernist calculus.

IBM’s study does not reflect this understanding of what a home is, either. In this document ostensibly about cities, there is a striking lack of references made to the subjects that inhabit them. Generic, unmarked citizens are talked about in terms of demographic shifts and shrinkages, and while “people” make up one of the city’s “six core systems,” “people” refers to systems of public safety, health, and education (Dirks and Keeling 4-5) 9. The same is true for their descriptions of the other five systems – IBM focuses on the operations of the systems in question, and not with any unofficial use of the system. Transportation solutions include reducing congestion, but nothing is said about the benefits of an active street life and ways to promote it (Dirks and Keeling 10) 9. Similarly, increasing telecommunications infrastructure is framed as a way to better the local economy (Dirks and Keeling 5) 9. Although the publication encourages an understanding of “the bigger picture and how the various systems connect” (5) 9, it is evident that there have been no considerations paid to any aspects of the city outside the six systems narrowly outlined in the report.

The Rejection of Mētis

Complementing the faith in instrumental rationality is the rejection of mētis: practical knowledge acquired through experience and awareness of the local environment (Scott 313) 2. Modernist planners favored a top-down approach to planning backed by “scientific knowledge,” disavowing all other sources of judgement (Scott 93) 2. Previously existing structures were condemned as being the product of superstition and tradition, and planners saw in their profession a duty to both the betterment of cities and nations, and to teach an uneducated, “subsistence-oriented” population to love the modern, scientific age (Scott 94-96) 2.

This rejection of local knowledge is explicitly stated in Le Corbusier’s visionary “The Radiant City”, first published in 1933:

“This plan has been drawn up well away from the frenzy in the mayor’s office or the town hall, from the cries of the electorate or the laments of society’s victims. It has been drawn up by serene and lucid minds.” (153) 10

A clear authoritarian bent can be seen here: as human problems have solutions that only objective experts have the power to discover, the reasoning goes that deciding on a solution through democratic means will only lead to subpar resolutions.

Contemporary planning theory emphasizes an “epistemology of multiplicity” that takes into consideration local knowledges and experiences (Allmendinger 189) 6. Plans are still drawn up, but public and expert consultations are considered a necessary part of the process to localize the plan into one that has a reasonable chance of succeeding in its stated goals. Through repeated failures, the field has learned that no two sites are alike, and that local knowledge is always needed to create effective plans (Scott 328) 2.

To become smarter, IBM’s study recommends that cities “assemble a team” of stakeholders to collaborate on key issues (12) 9. However, instead of approaching local citizens, the study instead suggests that municipalities collaborate with the even further removed “state and national levels of government” as well as the private and non-profit sectors (12) 9. The ultimate goal stated in the study is to “deliver sustainable prosperity for its citizens” (12) 9, but there is no mention of citizens ever contributing their insight into the plans in question.

The Quest for Utopia

Because of their faith in instrumental rationality and the dismissal of local knowledge, many high modernists believed in the existence of a universally applicable design for the rational city. Without an understanding of the importance of localities, high modernist planners believed that the solution that is right for any given city must be right for all cities.

When Le Corbusier’s design proposal for a new Moscow was rejected by the Soviets for being too destructive of existing institutions, he removed all references to Moscow from the proposal and started presenting it as a plan for central Paris. (Scott 114) 2. Paris also rejected the proposal, but some aspects of this plan were eventually implemented by Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, India (Scott 131) 2. Elements of his proposal were also refined and adapted by his successors in the construction of the planned city of Brasilia in Brazil (Scott 118) 2.

In contemporary policy planning, there has been increasing concern over the knowledge transfer process and the importance of localization of policy. Contextual adaptation is seen as essential to the long-term viability of any policy recommendation, with it becoming increasingly important as the distance of transfer increases (Khirfan and Jaffer 483) 11.

The Smarter Cities challenge has promoted a similar set of practices across all six habitable continents, and makes no reference to any form of localization. Conversely, practices from places as disparate as Korea, the UAE, Switzerland, and the United States are all cited as good examples to follow for any city that wishes to become “smarter” (Dirks and Keeling 10) 9.


It’s evident that IBM’s “A Vision of Smarter Cities” still follows a high modernist ideology despite contemporary planning theory’s shift away from it. Two reasons for this are evident: the ideology of the tech sector leans heavily towards modernist ways of thinking, and a modernist viewpoint is necessary for IBM to pitch its top-down planning technology suites.

Tech Sector Values

Having started as a hardware design and production company, IBM is rooted deeply in the ideology of the information and communications technology (ICT) sector. The three high modernist principles outlined in the previous sections are more viable in the ICT sector than they are in most others. When dealing with hardware or code – simple, closed, man-made systems, it is reasonable to assume that the root causes of errors can be logically deduced and that similar errors tend to have similar solutions.

In this environment, it is also easy for data collection to seem apolitical if it’s done for the purposes of efficiency and optimization. Possibly because of this, no privacy concerns were addressed in the study even when it suggested the creation of a municipal database merging medical, business, residential, and government data (10) 9. If nothing else, the disclosure of the medical information of citizens is a cause for legal concern.

In “A Vision of Smarter Cities,” it’s evident that Dirks and Keeling have applied thought processes suited to enclosed man-made systems as opposed to the open and intricate systems that cities are comprised of. From the confident introductory assertion that “cities are based on six core systems” (4) 9 to its conclusion that municipal policy analysts are struggling because of the city systems’ unoptimized, unresponsive feedback mechanisms (12) 9, it seems unlikely that contemporary planning theory was consulted in any meaningful sense.

Pitching the Product

“A Vision of Smarter Cities” was published in June of 2009, one year into IBM’s pivot into urban technologies, and two months before IBM officially registered a trademark on the term “smarter cities” (Söderström et. al. 311) 12. As a general contractor for large-scale computing solutions, its ambition was to become the “choreographer, superintendent, and oracle rolled into one” (Townsend 63) 13 for any city that wants the designation “smart city” – a designation that only became desirable after a 100-million-dollar IBM campaign promoting “smart” urban technologies (Söderström et. al. 312) 12.

As its targeted interpretant is not the residents of a city but its bureaucratic intelligentsia, it does not engage with vulgar and subaltern conceptions of the city and instead chooses to speak in the language of government employees and business executives.

The city is conceptualized as a site for economic productivity, and improvements to its infrastructure are justified because it increases economic productivity. The more subjective dimensions of cities (as places where human connections are made and unmade, political action is taken, restaurants are discovered, and life experiences of all kinds are gained) are set aside without a single glance or reference.

The document shares a visual similarity to policy documents released by thinktanks and non-profits, a ploy for legitimacy through intertextuality. A liberal usage of tables and graphs gives the impression that the assertions made in the brief are backed by “objective” data. A dispassionate, passive third-person voice gives the impression of impartiality, helped along by a smattering of superscripted endnote numbers at the end of some assertions.

What is portrayed by this document is an objective report on the flaws that all cities are struggling with, all of which IBM is perfectly suited to solve with their consulting services.


Whether or not IBM truly believes in the assertions laid out in its document, the end results are the same – IBM is promoting a consultation service, and cities are paying for it. As the market leader in the business of smart city technologies, it has a vested interest in the perpetuation of the narrative that the flaws of a city can be solved through technological means (Söderström et. al. 312) 12. In some ways, the fact that this narrative is high modernist in nature is purely incidental.

However, the incidental nature of the connection does not give IBM’s narrative immunity to critiques against high modernism. To plan for a just and equitable city, modernist ideology must continue to be rejected. Here it may be useful to explore the conditions under which high modernism was rejected in the late 20th century. Scott posits the existence of three decisive factors. The first is the belief in a private sphere of activity, in which the state cannot legitimately interfere (101) 2. Much of Foucault’s work can be conceptualized as a mapping of state incursions into this private sphere. The second is the existence of the free market, which is too complex to be managed completely by a government administration (102) 2. Third is a democratic process that allows the dissenting masses to have their opinions heard and catered to (102) 2.

In the advent of a new wave of technological progress, the public is regaining faith in a modernist perspective. But as people become more comfortable with disclosing personal information to tech companies (Waters and Ackerman 101) 14, and it becomes increasingly common for the private industry and public sector to form partnerships (Hodge and Greve 545) 15, and the political system in North America starts looking more and more like a plutocracy (Gilens and Page 564) 16, it’s increasingly important for city dwellers to develop more nuanced insights into the benefits and downsides of modernism.


Hey, congrats on making it to the end of the essay! Here’s some additional information about it if you’re interested:

Some notes from the prof that I haven’t worked into the updated essay, posted for posterity:

    • He would have liked to see more elaboration on terms like “reason”, “rationality”, and “experience”.
    • More specifically, I defined “metis” as “practical knowledge acquired through experience and awareness of the local environment” – but this sounds like the method of scientific empiricism, which is very much aligned with the scientific method.
    • I cited Einstein as a proponent of the “science can’t solve everything” brigade, and there were lots of other well known 20th century scientists who were also part of this brigade. In light of this, it’s possible that the problem might not be high modernist and scientific thinking itself, but those in power who choose the wield the “scientific method” as a weapon to advance its own goals.

These are all very valid points. Since I wrote this essay in 2018, I have updated my thinking in this area to be a bit more pro-rationalism. The previously stark line between mētis and techne has blurred. I also have a more nuanced view now of the way that power may wield scientific thinking (or its veneer) for its own goals, without it necessarily meaning that scientific thinking itself is extremely flawed.

To be clear, I still think that it’s flawed in some pretty critical ways. I also think that it’s not easy to cleanly splice “scientists” and “power wielders” and say that one party is innocent, because the modern academy is a powerful institution, and it is also heavily entwined with both industry and government. But where I’ve previously seen just murkiness I now see a tiny baby in the bathwater, that I think we should take care to not yeet.


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