The get “smart” these days, city leaders usually beef themselves up with a network of sensors. They become a city of things, wired and tuned. Unfortunately, that alone doesn’t make a city a nice place to be. For that, you also need wabi-sabi.
It’s a Japanese thing, and like so much of Japanese culture that Westerners like, it’s hard to explain.
I picked up a little book, on Seth Godin’s recommendation, that does a pretty good job of explaining. It’s Leonard Koren’s Wabi-Sabi, for Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers.
“Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete,” it says on the first page. “It is a beauty of things unconventional.” That begins to describe the kind of place I like.
Skip to the easy part. The quality that’s most applicable to cities is the quality of intimacy. The book explains that things wabi~sabi are usually small and compact, quiet and inward-oriented. They beckon: get close, touch, relate. They inspire a reduction of the psychic distance between one thing and another thing; between people and things.
Places wabi-sabi are small, secluded, and private environments that enhance one’s capacity for metaphysical musings. Wabi-sabi tea rooms, for example, may have fewer than a hundred square feet of floor space. They have low ceilings, small windows, tiny entrances, and very subdued lighting. They are tranquil and calming, enveloping and womb-like. They are a world apart: nowhere, anywhere, every- where. Within the tea room, as within all places wabi-sabi, every single object seems to expand in importance in inverse proportion to its actual size.
I say to the architects of smart, go ahead with the sensors and the AI. But make sure to design in a good dose of wabi-sabi, too.