I first heard of the term ‘urban savoir-faire’ in a podcast by Adam Greenfield—the same podcast I learned about Schelling points. Adam describes how the increasing networked world we are living in, and the near ubiquity of smart phones is coming at the cost of traditional urban aspects of serendipity, solitude and anonymity. Together these aspects form the makings of ‘urban savoir faire.’ Such aspects are the intangibles of living in an urban environment. They give people an innate ability to navigate their city with a polished refinement.
Before ubiquitous computing, it took years, if not decades to understand the rhythm of a city; including such things as the true (vs. published) transit schedule, or the dive bar with the great grilled cheese. But once you understood it, you gained a panache and sense of accomplishment, and felt connected to the city in a unique way. Now, people don’t head to the light rail station until their iPhone tells them the next train is moments away, and use services like Yelp to find the great ‘hole in the wall.’ that is now packed with suburban ‘tourists.’ In other words, our increasing networked society has diminished the concept of urban obscurity and added a new level (and meaning) of transparency to the urban environment.
This in and of itself is not a bad thing. Our lives are a bit better, and definitely run smoother because of this shared knowledge. From a personal perspective, I would not have been able to get up to speed on the ins and outs of downtown and central Phoenix so quickly without such networked information. However, the soul of the city is in danger of being lost in this efficiency.
In this interview, Adam mentions sociologist’s Richard Sennett argument that what makes urbanity is “precisely the quality of necessary, daily, cheek-by-jowl confrontation with a panoply of the different.” I agree. When anybody can navigate a city easily, it becomes less of an authentic experience and more, for a lack of a better word, a suburban one. Ubiquitous computing smooths the rough edges from the urban experiences and eliminates many of the intangibles that make city life unique.
The challenge is: how do we take advantage of the benefits of the networked city, while keeping the concept of urban savoir-faire alive?
Let me know in he comment if you have any suggestions.