Richard Sennet: The stupefying smart city

From the Urban Age Electric City Conference Richard Sennet’s talk on the different ways a “Smart City” might be performed gives forth alternative ways technology might in fact make opportunities for citizens and participants to create the city rather have it developed “top-down” by architects and bureaucrats, this despite the on-going concern that  through the pervasive surveillance and exclusion that the technologies of the Smart City entail in reducing diversity  and creating boring placeless public space. As Sennet has repeatedly  voiced his views that it  is diversity and openness that create opportunity – see for example WHY COMPLEXITY IMPROVES THE QUALITY OF CITY  LIFE

Throughout the history of technology, new tools have come into being before people know how to use them well. This is the problem we face with today’s new ‘smart city’ tools – the CCTV cameras, motion sensors, and computers capable of processing immense amounts of data. The problem is in a way understandable. It takes a long time and much experiment, entailing failure as well as success, to plumb a tool’s possibilities. This was the case, for instance, of the hardened-edge scalpel, which appeared in the sixteenth century: surgeons required nearly a century to figure out best practices and innovative operations with a super sharp knife. But tools for the smart city come with a sting in the tail. Their application can inhibit experiment by ordinary urbanites in their everyday lives. A large city can be thought of as a complex organism whose innards do not work perfectly in sync, whose parts do not add up to a unified whole. Yet there is something valuable just about these dissonances. They can create opportunities economically, when someone seizes on a market irregularity, while lack of coherent control enables personal liberty, and disorder might make subjective experience rich and multi-layered – at least novelists from Defoe to Proust hoped so. To take advantage of these possibilities, the big city needs to be learnt. The risk is that new technologies might repress the inductive and deductive processes people use to make sense, for themselves, of the complex conditions in which they live. The smart city would then become a stupefying smart city. When a new tool proves deadening rather than liberating in use, our first instinct may be to blame the machine itself. That is what Lyon’s silk weavers in the eighteenth century did; they attacked mechanised looms as ‘perfidious works of the devil’. Instead of blaming the machine, we want to ask how the new urban technologies can be used more intelligently – which is more a question about urban planning and vision than about machinery. What kinds of urban design empower people in the street to experiment with their behaviour, and to draw their own conclusions from those experiments? In the 1930s, urbanists like the American Lewis Mumford and architects like the Swiss Sigfried Giedion worried about machines and materials in relation to urban design. Mumford challenged the urban planners’ uncritical embrace of the automobile; Giedion attacked the architects’ conservative use of new building materials. Digital technology has shifted the technological focus to information processing. This can occur in handhelds linked to ‘clouds’ or in command and control centres. The issue is: who controls such information and how is this information organised? Which in turn raises new issues of urban design. The questions the technology poses are much more profound than which software to buy. In this light, I want to make first a comparison between designs that create a stupefying smart city and designs that envision a stimulating smart city. By drawing this contrast, a formal issue then appears: that of the difference between a closed and an open system. And a social possibility emerges as well: the use of stimulating, open system technology to render the city more informal. My own comments here draw on a decade of research done by Urban Age on the visual and social conditions that can enable urbanites to take ownership over their lives.

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Questions of Data Sovereignty -The laws of the city ?

Questions are raised by The Economist  as to what use is all this data – some wonder  wonder is it not just another way to embed control and power and other whether it means anything at all – just  more utopian dreams which will fall by the wayside – so much more archived felled trees and crowded cloud space?

A deluge of data makes cities laboratories for those seeking to run them better

NO FACE looks alike, but human bodies and their genetic make-up are almost identical. Cities too have distinctive charms—but are surprisingly alike behind their façades. Regardless of size, their populations grow at the same average rate everywhere in the world. A city twice as large as its neighbour is likely to be 15% richer. The mix of green space and built-up areas tends to be equal everywhere.

Such findings reflect a recent shift in urban research. Better technology has turned cities into fountains of data that confirm known regularities and reveal striking new patterns. This could transform how cities are regarded, built and managed. Attempts to contain urban sprawl, long the prevailing paradigm of urban planning, for instance, could fall out of favour. Cities could be run with the sort of finely tuned mix of technology and performance associated with Formula 1 racing cars

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A more comprehensive review of  these data driven technologies can be seen  on Pop-Up Cities post

Data-Driven Urban Citizenship

With networked infrastructures mixing with physical fabric of the cities (check out iPavement, paving tiles with embedded microcomputer), there is a gradually growing body of urban data. Often this data is not collected or not stored. Often it is stored without being shared. A steady trickling out of this urban data, however, is taking place through open data platforms and various public-private data partnerships. While there emerges a political demand for rights regarding networked objects (see Adam Greenfield and Bruno Latour and Near Future Laboratory), a range of products, services and platforms are coming up that offer to enrich citizenship with accessible and visualised data.

The everyday citizenship in urban areas is increasingly augmented by all kinds of incoming data visuals — map of ‘every bus trip’ in the city, possibilities of using the same data to pre-empt congestion and resolving them by diversifying traffic, geographic spread of different languages used to tweet across the city, crime landscape of the cities (and of course you remember Crimespotting by Stamen), catching criminals by real-time data miningvisualisation of energy and resource intensities of your city, and exploratory platform for historical visuals and documents embedded on the city map.


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What is a Smart City and How Can a City Boost Its IQ?

A further definition of  a  smart city by  MAGGIE COMSTOCK  on Sustainable Cities and some commentary it has drawn that a sustainable city is more than the sum of its hardware and is essential that it be based on its peoples and their resilience – see Local resilience for sustainable societies

Earlier this month, the World Bank hosted a Smart Cities for All workshop in Washington, DC which convened experts from the United Nations, academia, government agencies, non-profits and industry. The purpose of the workshop was to share insights and experiences of equipping cities with the tools for intelligent growth. Additionally, the forum established a public-private partnership for collaboration in pursuit of shared goals for global sustainability. But what does it mean to be a “smart city”? Is this distinction only reserved for cities starting from scratch? Can an established city boost its IQ?

Source: Clearing the air in Atlanta: Transit and smart growth or conventional economics?, Alain Bertaud, 2002.

First, we must take a step back to reflect upon what it means to be a “smart city.” While there is no official definition, many have contributed to this debate. Industry leaders, such as Seimens and IBM, believe that stronger use of technology and data will enable government leaders to make better informed decisions. Whereas others, including the Sustainable Cities Blog’s very own Dan Hoornweg, consider the social aspects as a component of what it means to be a smart city. In his blog, “Smart Cities for Dummies,” published last November, Dan contends: “At its core a smart city is a welcoming, inclusive city, an open city. By being forthright with citizens, with clear accountability, integrity, and fair and honest measures of progress, cities get smarter.” Though I agree with both the data-driven and socially-conscious approaches, I’d like to propose my own definition of a smart city.

At its most basic level, a city is comprised of a government (in some form), people, industry, infrastructure, education and social services. A smart city thoughtfully and sustainably pursues development with all of these components in mind with the additional foresight of the future needs of the city. This approach allows cities to provide for its citizens through services and infrastructure that address both the current needs of the population as well as for projected growth.

Open Source Urbanism

Saskia Sassen, the Robert S Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University,proposes that urbanizing technology can can allow people to better “talk back” to cities and implement user-driven change. This in contrast to the drive for “smart cities” from many global mega-companies which are trying to control everything – usually with their proprietary technology – she suggests that these control fantasies will lead to  more rapid obsolescence than a more open sourced version which is built form the bottom up similar to open source software.  An op-ed from New York by Saskia Sassen from domus

Where change is perceptible, rapid change makes change itself even more visible. Velocity becomes a concrete condition, not just a measure of speed. Rapid change in cities has highly legible moments—the material reality of buildings, transport systems, re-placements of modest shops with luxury shops and of modes middle-classes with the rich professional class, a bike-path where there was none—and they can be both good and not so good. Further, when rapid transformation happens simultaneously in several cities with at least some comparable conditions, it also makes visible how diverse the spatial outcomes can be even when the underlying dynamics might be quite similar.

All of this brings to the fore the differing degrees of openness of cities. I prefer thinking of this as the incompleteness of cities, which means that they can constantly be remade, for better or for worse. It is this incompleteness that has allowed some of the world’s great old cities to outlast kingdoms, empires, nation-states and powerful firms.

Let me take the imagery of incompleteness further. Powerful actors can remake cities in their image. But cities talk back. They do not take it sitting. Sometimes it may take decades, and sometimes it is immediate—see for instance the thousands of Stuttgart’s residents who staged protests in August 2010 to stop the demolition of part of their old train station and the felling of hundreds of 200-year-old trees in the Schlossgarten to build a new high-speed transit hub. They succeeded. Yes, it is only part of the station and none of this is going to turn back the powerful forces of gentrification there. But it is a way in which the city can talk back.

We can think of the multiple ways in which the city talks back as a type of open-source urbanism: the city as partly made through a myriad of interventions and little changes from the ground up. Each of these multiple small interventions may not look like much, but together they give added meaning to the notion of the incompleteness of cities and that this incompleteness gives cities their long lives, thereby outlasting other more powerful entities.

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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.

Finding a Smarter Approach to “Smart Cities”

Posted by  Jeffrey Riecke on THE CITY FIX All the ‘techno’ interest in cities survival, as well as its skeptics and its detractors:

Dehli, India, one of twenty-four cities awarded development grants through IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge.  Photo via seier+seier.

Rio de Janeiro was one of 24 cities awarded development grants through IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge. Photo via seier+seier.

Consistent with its long-established reputation of exploring the forefronts of technological development,IBM, the technology firm, displayed interest in “smart city” technology with the grand gesture of creating The Smarter Cities Challenge. This competitive challenge awards 100 cities around the world $50 million in grants for technology and services. On March 9, IBM announced the 24 winning cities for 2011, which include Guadalajara, Mexico; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Delhi, India; Antofagasta, Chile; Boulder, Co.; and Glasgow, Scotland. “The cities had to be prepared to match IBM’s investment with their own commitment of time and resources,” the challenge website reads. “Proposals articulating pressing urban concerns that could be addressed by implementing ’smarter’ technologies and processes rose to the top of the list.” IBM is not alone. Cisco has its Smart+Connected Communities initiative. The Economist recently held its “Intelligent Infrastructure“ conference. And the National Resources Defense Council runs a Smarter Citiesproject. With interest in “smart cities” growing—among business, governments, media and nonprofits—urban planners and technology corporations debate this type of approach to urban development.
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