Cityscapes #3 – The Smart City?

Cityscapes 3

Date: March 27, 2013 Time: 18:00pm-19:00pm
Venue: The Book Lounge, 71 Roeland Street, Cnr Buitenkant & Roeland Street, Cape Town

The latest instalment of Cityscapes, the hybrid current affairs and culture magazine devoted to “re-thinking urban things”, will be launched in Cape Town on 27 March 2013. Featuring interviews with Lagos governor Babatunde Fashola and novelist Imraan Coovadia, the bumper 140-page third issues has as its thematic focus the “smart city”.

This fuzzily defined term speaks to the increasing use of networked information and communications technologies in ordering of large-scale urban phenomenon. The magazine visits Rio de Janeiro to find out what this means practically. “Technology gives you a faster response,” explains Dario Bizzo Marques, a technology systems coordinator at Rio’s $14-million integrated city management centre, home to Latin America’s largest surveillance screen.

“We increasingly share the space and time of cities with semi-autonomous agents of a nonhuman, indeed non-biological, nature, from drones to algorithms,” offers Adam Greenfield in his provocative 100-point manifesto appearing in Cityscapes and addressing the pervasive use of tech-savvy urban management solutions. Noted urban theorist Ash Amin, in a cornerstone 5000-word interview with Matthew Gandy, is also wary of the ideological implications of reducing city management to the top-down marshalling of abstract data.

“The positivist legacy has been rekindled in the ‘big data’ approach to the city,” offers Amin. “Its conceit is to think that the availability of sophisticated mathematical models able to work large data in nuanced ways, allows the city to be visualised and understood in all its complexities and evolving changes.”

Also included in the latest issue of Cityscapes: an intimate account of living in the Nairobi slum of Kibera; a description of Sao Paulo’s oppositional graffiti cultures; a fond appraisal of the career of legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray; a look at Kigali’s ambitious master plan; a profile of artist Theaster Gates; a speculation on the city without the automobile; and a photo essay describing life in Kowloon, the famous Hong Kong tenement slum demolished in the early 1990s.

About Cityscapes: Launched in 2011 and jointly edited by Sean O’Toole and Tau Tavengwa, in collaboration with Professor Edgar Pieterse, Cityscapes offers a disparate blend of in-depth interviews, enquiring journalism, polemical editorialising and illustration rich content to document and theorise urban experience in the global south

How smart should a city be?

From the perspective of a skeptic I often feel the dream of the ‘smart city’ equates tot the idea of Big Brother and the controls of the police state, the more smart it becomes the more controlled we are – indoctrinated by our media and our tools (smart phones) we buy and live as some “other’ global media conglomerate determines and never forgetting the nightmares of incipient intelligence a la “Minority Report” and other science fiction classics…. I thus welcome a more balanced and user friendly vision of technology in cities and the participation they might afford us by Gravitymax on [polis]

Imagine a city that can anticipate your needs and desires, and provide you with information you’ll need to know based on what it knows about you. Such is the vision of many in the field of urban and ubiquitous computing, and it is a discourse that is becoming more popular and powerful.
User experience designer and writer Adam Greenfield challenges this vision of techno-utopia. Instead of cities that are smart, he prefers ones that make us smarter. Greenfield believes that people will always be much better at making sense of the world than artificial intelligence. He proposes a network of open public “objects” (data collected from, and generated in, public space) that can be understood and used by the public.
Of course, this model is not without its challenges. Government policies surrounding privacy, corporate interests in ownership of data, and standardization of a presentation layer are just a few that come to mind. Tackling these challenges may seem like a daunting task, but hopefully these kinds of conversations will continue and attract the attention of people with the right amount of influence to make things happen.

Adam Greenfield is the founder of the urban systems design practice Urbanscale. He is also a former head of design direction at Nokia and has taught at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. 


Credits: Video from Blinkenlichten TV.