Archives for the month of: June, 2013

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‘Smart City’ event by Close and Remote earlier this year

How would you fancy living in a city built by Google or IBM?

I was interested to read a short piece by Paul Doherty (2013) prophesising a change in the construction industry in the near future. He suggests that we will increasingly see large ICT companies acquiring a construction arm – comparing this to a ‘land-grab’ which is waiting to happen. This chimes with a trend identified in our own research (Joss, Cowley and Tomozeiu, 2013): that of the growing involvement of international IT firms in the development of the ‘eco-city’.

How do we feel about this? If we are to shift to less resource hungry and environmentally harmful modes of (urban) living, then we need to make best use of technology. If part of the challenge is to integrate the different complex systems within cities, then computing networks are rather good at collating information to allow us to do so efficiently. And if we are to take part in the new knowledge economy, our IT systems need to be as good as they can be.  To survive, we need to be smart, and our cities need to be smart. So far, so good.

What specifically, then, do plans for ‘Smart Cities’ envision? The first one I ever came across was that of ‘PlanIT Valley’ in Portugal. This has been designed by private developer Living PlanIT as a 4,000 acre high-tech district, based on the concept of a replicable ‘urban operating system’:

PlanIT Valley will enable the enhanced monitoring of the vital signs of urban life, the condition and performance of vehicles and infrastructure. As a result, managers will be able to optimize normal daily operations of the city and provide greater certainty in reacting to extraordinary events through real-time modeling and simulation. With a view to incorporating new developments, urban management control systems will be updated with the latest information and technology as these emerge. (Living PlanIT, undated)

In its narrow focus on infrastructural technology, this is a fairly extreme example of the genre.  But what interests me is that: (a) it is being promoted as a vision of a city rather than simply of a computing system which will contribute to the city’s life; and (b) it boasts “the legislated endorsement of Municipality of Paredes in northern Portugal and the national government” (ibid). In other words, it has official policy status; it is more than a purely speculative commercial venture.

Just to be fair, here is another – apparently more holistic – conception of the Smart City, published by IBM, which looks beyond the physical infrastructural dimensions of urban life:

IBM smart city

It’s easy to find other variations on the theme.  But I am suspicious of conceptual and practical projects of this type. My suspicions, I should declare, do not primarily relate to issues of personal privacy, nor to the commercial ambitions of the key actors involve. Nor are they rooted in technophobia. It’s difficult in any case to talk of cities, or social progress, without referring to technology – the relationship between technology and society has been endlessly discussed (see, for example, Smith and Marx, 1994); technology, “after all, is about the relationship between human aspiration and the natural environment” (Chant, 1999: 42); and the city itself is the greatest technological artefact of them all.

To begin outlining the grounds for my suspicions, I would like to describe an interesting spectacle, from at a recent event on the Smart City phenomenon, organised by Close and Remote in Deptford (South East London).  (The photograph at the top of this post was taken there – you can even see the back of my head.) Instead of a solid wall behind the four speakers, there was a floor-to-ceiling window. This allowed us to observe the random goings-on of the real life of the city behind the speakers’ presentations and representations. Deptford isn’t a wealthy part of town. Crazed individuals stopped to stare through the glass; teenagers shuffled by, pushing each other and joking; a woman with a pram dropped litter; a dishevelled elderly resident of the council flats across the road came out onto his balcony to stare vacantly at the sky for 15 minutes. The discussion was characterised overall by intelligent critique of the Smart City – but the scene still struck me as nicely allegorical, in that the idea of a Smart City is only a metaphor for the city itself.  Like all successful metaphors, it is a beguiling one; we are blinded by its apparent explanatory force; we forget that it is only partial in its description. In this case, we were literally able to see through it. And speaker Christian Nold caught this idea well in his characterisation of the Smart City as an essentially ‘ephemeral’ phenomenon.

This ephemerality has at least two dimensions.  First, as Nold suggested, the possibility that existing cities might be retrofitted to be ‘smart’ in anything other than a superficial way appears to be a tall order. Nold pointed to the sheer physicality of existing infrastructure – even looking at, say, London Underground alone. He took issue with the idea of the Smart City as a “thing of the future… a thing which is always deferred – the literature always talks about it as something that’s almost there, almost there…you just need to push a little bit further”. He suggested that this attitude hampers us from adopting a critical perspective on it as something which is “here right now”.

Second, it is ephemeral in the thinness of its engagement with the social and political dimensions of the city. In one way, this doesn’t matter; the remit of IT (or Engineering) companies is to provide hardware. Equally, it would be absurd to argue that their representatives are naïve technological determinists, ignorant of the need for this technology to be acceptable to the public, or unaware that it might be shaped by societal forces. If evidence were needed for this awareness, I’d say this recent talk by at the Urban Design Group is fairly typical; the speaker (Paul Reynolds, from design & engineering consultancy Atkins) made it clear that his talk was framed by an understanding of technology as subservient to society: “This is quite a fundamental thing…Although we talk about the city as an object, the buildings that make it up, and more and more about the data that underpins it, actually we do need to remember at the end of the day that it’s about the people. The way they interact with their city and their environment may be changing, but they’re still the most fundamental aspect”.

The commercial actors promoting the Smart City are clearly not, then, irresponsible megalomaniacs. What matters to me, though, and to repeat my earlier point, is that such plans are often presented as visions of the city as a whole (rather than as ephemeral layers thereof) – and that this discourse is being adopted by policy makers.  To quote Christian Nold again: “the people who are actually doing the state governance around the Internet of Things and Smart Cities … are taking their ideas from Cisco”. This is worrying if, in IBM’s diagram above, democratic governance extends only as far as ‘administration’, ‘planning’ and ‘management’.  And who are the ‘managers’ in PlanIT’s vision? Do they mysteriously exist prior to the city, hovering above it, disembedded from the social?  It feels like a return to post-WWII comprehensive or systems planning – the results of which were mixed at best.

Some of the basic unanswered questions about governance in this context were recently raised by Evgeny Morozov:

I have a lot of respect for these people as engineers but they are being asked to take on tasks that go far beyond engineering. Tasks that have to do with human and social engineering rather than technical engineering. Those are the kind of tasks I would prefer were taken on by human beings who are more well rounded, who know about philosophy and ethics, and know something about things other than efficiency, because it will not end well.

We did not elect them to help us solve our problems. Once Google is selected to run the infrastructure on which we are changing the world, Google will be there for ever. Democratic accountability will not be prevalent. You cannot file a public information request about Google. We are abandoning all the checks and balances we have built to keep our public officials in check for these cleaner, neater, more efficient technological solutions. Imperfection might be the price for democracy (Tucker, 2013).

Morozov, of course, has been accused of provocative exaggeration and technophobia; in practice, it seems likely that any future Googlopolis would be developed within existing legislative and democratic frameworks rather than in spite of them. But what of the ‘imperfection’ that Morozov valorises here? Might there be a value in seeing the irrationality of the city in a more positive light?

There are two ways to understand the tensions, conflicts and inequalities of city life – and these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. From one perspective, they constitute barriers to be overcome in a quest to move towards a utopian ideal of social flatness; from the other, they are themselves generative of democracy. The first approach – which seems to be dominant in mainstream plans for urban sustainability – is aligned with a ‘top-down’ managerial ethos. These plans may not quite display a simplistic assumption of a “static, ready-made public to be discovered and represented” (Mohr et al., 2013), but plurality is still reduced to a conceptualisation of different ‘stakeholder groups’; consensus is assumed to be achievable through formal processes of public consultation and negotiation. Such deliberative processes are typically to be accompanied by processes of ‘education’ to ensure that the unenlightened and excluded also get the message. PlanIT doesn’t even get this far: the public here is barely visible, replaced by a series of functional abstractions, and syntactically passive. People are envisioned as ‘humans’, extensions of the proposed technology, merely contributing to the aggregative ‘daily operations of the city’. When PlanIT refers to a city’s ability to react to possible ‘extraordinary events’, it is unclear whether these extend to unpredicted social actions.

The second approach to the contestations of urban life, however, tends towards a more dynamic notion of ‘emergent’ publics. I was recently alerted to how this idea was already present in the work of John Dewey (1989) back in 1927.  And Dewey argued that it is precisely in times of innovation and technological change that ‘publics’ are most likely to arise. He refers to Emerson’s idea that we “lie…in the lap of an immense intelligence” (219), but one which institutions of representative democracy appear poorly able to tap into. The ontological and normative conception of the state as ‘out there’, somehow representing the collective will of the public, as expressed through rational, deliberative discussion, seems increasingly outdated (Chandler, forthcoming 2014).

What is my position on Googlopolis then? I’m not against the idea of ‘plans’ or institutional direction, but I want to understand how we can plan for the sustainable city as fundamentally a space of unpredictable, dynamic public life.  Technological solutions and experimentation are inescapably part of the mix – but a truly smart, sustainable city only seems possible if its starting point is a desire to embrace the complexity of unfolding turmoil, rather than an idealisation of the city of the future as merely an efficient ‘system of systems’.

23 June, 2013, London

References

Chandler, D. (forthcoming 2014). Democracy Unbound? Non-Linear Politics and the Politicisation of Everyday Life. European Journal of Social Theory. 17(1).

Chant, C. (1999). The Near East. In: Chant, C. & Goodman, D. (eds.) Pre-industrial Cities and Technology. London: Routledge: 1-47.

Dewey, J. (1989) [1927]. The Public and its problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press (Ohio University Press).

Doherty, P. (2013). The Impact of Smart Cities on the Construction Industry. Construction Executive eNewsletter. 2(12). Available from: http://enewsletters.constructionexec.com/techtrends/2013/06/the-impact-of-smart-cities-on-the-construction-industry [accessed 21 June 2013].

Joss, S., Cowley, R. & Tomozeiu, D. (2013). Towards the ‘ubiquitous eco-city’: an analysis of the internationalisation of eco-city policy and practice. Urban Research and Practice. 6(1):54-74.

Living PlanIT (2013). PlanIT Valley – the living laboratory and benchmark for future urban communities. Available from: http://www.living-planit.com/design_wins.htm [accessed 17 June 2013].

Mohr, A., Rahman, S. & Gibbs, B. (2013).  Which publics? When? Exploring the Policy Potential of Involving Different Publics in Dialogue Around Science and Technology. Didcot: Sciencewise. Available from: http://www.sciencewise-erc.org.uk/cms/assets/Uploads/Which-publics-FINAL-VERSION.pdf [accessed 21 June 2013].

Morozov, E. (2013). To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist. London: Allen Lane.

Smith, M. & Marx, L. (eds.) (1994). Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Boston: MIT Press.

Tucker, I. (2013). ‘Evgeny Morozov: ‘We are abandoning all the checks and balances’’. The Guardian. 9 March 2013. Available from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/mar/09/evgeny-morozov-technology-solutionism-interview [accessed 9 March 2013].

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I’ve always been intrigued by the way that municipal infrastructure is particularly likely to attract bits of graffiti. Casual acts of rebellion, spatial appropriations – but targeted at space which we are led to believe belongs to all of us. The more ‘public’ the space, the more graffiti it attracts.

For me, though, the public dimensions of the city which define it as a city are to be found more in the graffiti than in the grid.

 

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People have made a special effort to lean over the hedge, to adorn the electricity meter with scribbles and stickers.

 

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Don’t tell me how to move!

 

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Barely visible scrawl on the street corner: the grid under attack.

 

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When the streets are closed to traffic for the day, the young children join in too.

9 June 2013, flying over the Arctic Circle.

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