Smart Cities, Wise Cities

Smart Cities, Wise Cities

In 2011 the Harvard University economist, Edward Glaeser, produced a landmark contribution to urban studies entitled Triumph of the City. Among other things that condition and qualify successful cities, he cites the place of what he calls ‘smart cities’.  By way of example, he gives serious consideration to Boston, Milan, and Minneapolis.  According to Glaeser’s criteria, others could certainly be mentioned – perhaps Copenhagen, Johannesburg, and Beijing?

The common denominator between them is, not surprisingly, education.  This is spelled out by Glaeser in terms of the number of college degrees infiltrating the populace, the presence of institutions that promote biomedical, scientific, and technological research, a quality of life shaped by the arts and widespread appreciation of the arts, and a political ethos that encourages inquiry and a high regard for all that contributes to healthy curiosity.  In essence, Glaeser suggests that smart cities attract smart people who are entrepreneurial and enterprising to such a degree that their immediate urban environment benefits significantly.

Theological constructs that are worth their salt would have no argument with these suggestions, but with one very important caveat: smart cities are not necessarily wise cities.  The Hebrew tradition of wisdom offers a depth of thinking, reflection and practice that graciously confronts the realities of urban hegemony and goes way beyond what might be too easily described as ‘smart’. The main word that informs a rubric for what is wise in Hebrew is חכםה (hokma, pronounced with rough h), literally meaning ‘skill’ or ‘know-how,’ but know-how (skill) directed at the art of living life with the intent of living better and living honourably.  It is no doubt an intellectual and volitional ability, but it functions not so much in the accomplishment of specific tasks and more in the shaping and perpetuation of both personal and communal character.

How does honourable living demonstrate itself in the public square, and what might it offer by way of a political commentary on any sort of polis that can legitimately profess to be wise?  The recent American presidential election cannot help but come under evaluation and scrutiny when the relationship between smart and wise are on the platform.  If ‘smartness’ can be limited to and defined almost entirely by pragmatism, then perhaps some excuses can be made and begrudgingly allowed.  But when Hebraic wisdom is in view, there is little (if any) wiggle room for what qualifies as not only better but even more honourable living.  A public that elects someone whose rhetoric and action promote misogyny, racism, bigotry and arrogance is anything but smart, and certainly not wise.  It bespeaks a culture that has lost the way of wisdom.

What we are desperately in need of is not theoretical but incarnate wisdom.  How are we to conceive of this?  It is not without reason, nor should it escape our notice, that the Hebrew tradition uniquely personifies wisdom as a ‘woman’ (Proverbs 1-3). She is not to be crudely objectified, but rather subsumes all humanity in a subjective role under her tutelage.  But the Christian Scriptures go even further than this, giving the ultimate incarnational expression of personified wisdom a Christological focus.  The striking words of the Apostle Paul come to mind: ‘…Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God’; “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God…’ (1 Corinthians 1:24,30).

Christ’s way unswervingly unveils the ugliness of what has proven to be a perverse public predilection for gender biases, racial bigotry, marginalizing of the already marginalized, the constructing of walls and the instigation of fear of otherness.  It has this revelatory power because it is the way of wisdom.  Seeking the development of smart cities can only take us so far.  If we aspire to a genuine neopolis, we cannot settle for anything less than encouraging a public propensity that happily opts for what is wise.

Wesley White, PhD, DMin

To explore further the Christian vision for a ‘wise city’, you can attend the next Neopolis conference Renewing The City:A Christian Vision. It will be held on Saturday 7th January 2017 at Parkhead Nazarene in Glasgow. Click on the conference title to find out more and to book tickets.