Cities have always been “smart”

The Cloaca Maxima in Rome, a sewage infrastructure going back 2000 years and still functioning today.

Cities have always attracted people to move from the countryside into their boundaries because they have been perceived, through the centuries and millennia (the first historically recorded urban settlements with thousands of people go back to 5,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia, Indus valley and Egypt) as the place to be. First it was about storing agricultural products, then about creating wares and protecting the riches (and citizens) from assaults that those riches invited. These “riches” were agricultural surplus initially and then they were complemented and overtaken by artisans’ products.

Indeed, what characterized cities was their infrastructure. The better the infrastructures the more attraction existed to people to move into the cities.

Cities were born in symbioses with infrastructures, natural ones first like rivers, then roads and more recently logistic, telecommunications and education infrastructures.

Infrastructures make a city possible (water, sewage) and make it effective in managing resources and producing wealth. 

Infrastructures were basically of two sorts: the ones enabling the “operation” of the city and the ones generating wealth. These latter were both “material” and “immaterial”. Usually material infrastructures served, serve, both the operation and the generation of wealth. A road infrastructure was needed to the operation of the city and at the same time fostered the exchange of goods thus sustaining the economy.

More recently in the human settlement history, “immaterial” infrastructures have increased their importance. One of the first most powerful immaterial infrastructures were the administrative glue that made empires possible: we found it in India, China, Persia, and Rome. A millennium later Venice created an immaterial infrastructure that ruled the westerns world by controlling its economics fundamentals.

The building of the Venetian Arsenal started in 1104, and when Venice acquired control of the Brenner pass in 1178, they likewise prevailed in the silver trading from Germany. The control of the spice commerce, from Malacca, Ceylon and India established Venice as one of the greatest economic powers of the time. 

Medieval and Renaissance Venice was an amazing example of both hard and soft infrastructures. The first industrial “patent” was created in Venice at the Arsenale and it was about ship building, ships that were a core infrastructure for Venice defense and thrift.


Author - Roberto Saracco

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