When Technology and Place Collide

One of the joys of the holiday season is to have the luxury to indulge in watching old movies,   I spent a  thought provoking hour and a half watching the 1968 film ‘The Italian Job’ starring Michael Caine. Set in  Turin, this comedy thriller is generally regarded as a highlight of swinging 60s style, an adventure romp of roguish, cockney gangsters who plan a complicated heist of gold bullion from the Italian government. 

Whilst it remains great fun to watch, the movie has two themes pivotal to its plot, which have even greater resonance half a century on. 

The first concern is the abuse of technology that controls city functions, in this case, a computer controlled traffic system. The systems relies on centralised control for all the city’s traffic signals to keep traffic flowing. In the movie, the gangsters hack, the computer controlled system to their own nefarious ends .  The film represents an early allusion to the power of technology and its use by authorities. In 1968 this introduced the theme of advanced technology controlling everyday life and represented through the all-seeing ‘control room’ – a theme that had previously been confined to science fiction.  The movie demonstrates the vulnerability of technology to such abuse even though the hacking is of course low-tech – the gangster simply break into the control centre and replace the program tape spool with a doctored version that creates chaos in the streets of Turin. 

The second theme is the ability of the physical city to accommodate unforeseen behaviour and movement – the entire heist depends on the gangsters ability to exploit Turin’s historic structure to escape through courtyard blocks, colonnaded sidewalks and pedestrian arcades, along with various civic buildings, including the famous Fiat factory’s rooftop testing circuit .  

Interestingly, the 2003 remake of the Italian Job, starring Mark Wahlberg, transposed action to the United States but completely lost the tensions between technology and place, so central to the original film. 

What makes the original movie so prescient and relevant to our discussion is how the two themes interact – reliance on technology to manage historic city in all its complexity.  

The movie is fine example of how city systems that we might consider truly ‘smart’ can never be wholly digital or wholly physical. It is the interaction of the two as part of a whole system, which is crucial to success.  

Smart city ideas and terminology bounce in and out of fashion by the day but the use of technology to manage urban systems and government is not gonna go away.   It would be helpful to learn the lessons this 55 year old movie, can teach us: City systems which ignore how people actually live in, use and colonise urban space will always be doomed to failure. It is naive to expect citizens can be pre-programmed in the same way as engineering systems. Humans are constantly inventing new ways to use old cities.

To have any chance of marrying technology with place quality so they work for us will require new skills combining both systems engineers who understand urban life and urban designers who understand technology. The challenge for us as professionals will be to adapt to this emerging agenda. The experience of urban professionals in the UK is not promising – twenty years ago we were told that good design is good planning yet professional skills have not adapted in response. Can we do better in response to these new challenges?   

The innate power of cities is that they have the capacity to evolve – from the constant, subtle shifts of daily life to the dramatic disruptions of new cultures or indeed new technologies. Of course not every subversion of urban structures is mischievous let alone criminal – creative acts often start by reinventing our experience of the city: art, culture, insights of new communities and resilience to changed climatic conditions can all stimulate the adaptations that make cities grow and evolve.

Up to now, technology has been largely used for control, efficiency or profit. Only when technology aims to enhance our experiences and understanding of the city can it be considered truly ‘smart’, allowing us to see new possibilities for urban places – and maybe have some fun in the process!


Marcus is an award-winning, international architect and town planner, specialising in creating liveable neighbourhoods and with over 30 years’ experience in a range of building and planning projects. As a leading figure in the UK’s urban design movement, Marcus has been at the forefront of changing the way we plan and build towns and cities. His work with local communities has resulted in places that work for the people that live there, making them more popular, safer and well cared for.

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