Smart cities vs smart citizens

PBL expert meeting on Smart Cities with Dan Hill

Over the last few years the South Korean New Town of Songdo has emerged as the epitome of the ‘smart city’ of the future – a city that uses software and sensor-driven feedback loops to optimize all kinds of infrastructural city functions. Songdo, planned to be completed by 2015, was heralded as a city with ‘smart DNA’, a showcase of what could be done in urban development if new media technologies were tightly integrated in the urban planning.

However, according to Fabrica CEO Dan Hill something is missing in this picture. In these scenario’s new technologies are used to solve old world problems such as traffic congestion. And while of course it’s nice to have an adequately managed urban infrastrcuture, the real issue is that the world itself is changing, partly due to the uptake of new technologies such as social media. What we really need is a new vision on how our traditional city making institutions themselves should adapt to this newly emerging network society.

At an expert meeting organized by the Dutch Planbureau voor de Leefomgeving (The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency), Dan Hill explained that there are several reasons why he thinks the vision of Sondgo will never be a real model for smart city development. Primarily, we cannot trust cities that are exclusively based on algorithms. Would we really want to deliver ourselves to a system of Automatic Urban Processing that resembles the computer systems involved in High Frequency Trading on the stock market? We are all experiencing the lasting effects of the stock market collapse and we definitely don’t want to have that happening to our cities.

Secondly, one cannot install smart technologies in the way you would install plumbing and other building infrastructure. The fundamental difference is that in the case of holistic smart city systems, one company takes control over all the urban processes. To optimize the city’s performance, it is necessary that every urban process feeds information into the others. And that works best if one company can manage the whole system. In the case of Songdo, Cisco would be responsible for the waste collection, the energy production, the water management, the traffic control;. Undoubtedly, no city government wants to put all their eggs in one basket by trusting just a single company with their entire infrastructure.

The third reason why a smart city like Sondgo would not work is because we simply don’t make cities in order to build infrastructure. Buildings and infrastructure are just the enablers for us to come together and exchange, create cultures, communities and conviviality. The things that we actually look for in our cities are often about inefficiency. There is a clear tension between these two poles and we have to decide where we want our cities to be efficient and where not.

Using technology to solve urban problems is not a new idea; in his 1966 book New Movement in Cities, Brian Richards was already imagining contemporary technologies addressing all folds of urban life. Even the conventional infrastructure built in the ‘50s and ‘60s was all about efficiency in urban living and it’s also facing a lot of problems. As Cerdic Price put it in 1960’s «Technology is the answer, but what is the question?» We do currently have all the technologies we need to build a 21rst century resilient city, so why is it impossible to it?

One of the answers lies in the nature of our institutions. Not only they are old, but they are also responsible for creating the problem. This creates a clear tension between society and institutions, which is expressed, for example, in the widespread riots that have become a common condition in many countries in the last few years. In this framework the design challenge is not the one of the technological development but the redefinition of the culture of public decision making. Referring to the recent example of a design academy graduate who developed a 3d printed gun, Dan Hill questioned how institutions expect to regulate gun use with policies when guns will be printed at home? It is simply impossible to address this problem with the same tools we have been doing it so far.

This issue extends into the use of public space, which has been increasingly regulated in the past decades. This created a vicious circle of narrowing down publics that have access to it and the activities that can be performed there which leads to public spaces’ deterrioration which is usually addressed with more policies controling activities and so on. But we need to understand what public space can be, what one can do in public spaces. The reason, according to Hill, that Beppe Grillo’s party Movimento 5 Stelle did so good in the last italian elections was that they completely rejected all institutional media in promoting their program. Instead, they focused on two things: social media and appearances in public spaces. Beppe Grillo, a devoted blogger, has been talking in a different square every night throughout his electoral campaign, bringing back the public space of the city in the heart of politics.

Similarly, there is a widespread rise of active citizens. This new type of «hipster urbanism» as many call it, creates competition for local governments in running cities. In many cases people take care of public green because the municipality cannot afford it any more, so undoubtebly these initiatives are good, even though they are not stricktly legal and are also not really efficient. However, this is also problematic. These processes are not democratic and these citizens can not be held accountable for their actions. In addition to this, they are fundamendaly based on social media, which provide a very individualistic view of the world and promote a «like-minded» mentality, loosing sense of the civic. So self organising systems are quick and direct but they are also temporary and have no real impact on legal structures. Simply stated: pop ups tend to pop down. Crowdfunding, another very popular concept, also doesn’t come without downsides. It only works for people who can pay anyway, making it impossible to be used in cities and to replace the state.

So to get back to the issue of smart cities, Dan Hill concluded that it is impossible to keep up with the speed of social developments, using an infrastructure-lead mindset. But it could make a real difference to address the nature of the institutions, as policy changes can have a bigger impact. Undoubtedly, we need strong institutions, they just need to be redesigned from scratch. So for him the real question is whether institutions can appropriate the dynamics of social media without inheriting their ideology, to become more agile, project based and able to maintain a central role in city management.

Simple information feedback doesn’t change behaviors. Open Data is a starting point but data alone is not enough, it is the people who make the algorithms that have the connection to the public. On the other hand, this connecting position cannot be left to private companies. There lies a potentially new position for governments, according to Hill. Governments should regulate the technologies market and create the interfaces to create coherent platforms bringing together many providers.

Dan Hill, is the CEO of Fabrica, a communications research centre and transdisciplinary studio based in Treviso, Italy, which is part of the Benetton Group. In the past, Hill has been part of Sitra’s (the Finish Innovation Fund) Strategic Design Unit. He was also an Urban Informatics leader for Arup. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the Architecture department at University of Technology in Sydney (UTS) and a member of the Integrated Design Commission Advisory Board in South Australia. In 2012 Hill was a keynote speaker at Social Cities of Tomorrow, a conference organized by The Mobile City with Virtueel Platform and Arcam.

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