lunes, 16 de mayo de 2016

An urbanizing world and one size fits all solutions

The smart city as urban proposal seeks to provide a framework to explain and sort out the digital presence in the city that is becoming normal in the urban realm. As such, it represents the new urban utopia proposed as an all-encompassing explanation of many phenomena of change coalescing in urban life and city management. The complexity of the transition to a world (progressively) ubiquitous and (mostly) urban requires giving meaning and coherence to explain this reality.

The smart city has emerged triumphant as a model and social theory, integrating or co-opting previous narratives (sustainability) but using the usual claims (bureaucratic planning and better management of urban development). Despite its totalizing ambitions, the debate on smart cities has been very limited, biased, incomplete and precipitate. After starring in recent years much of the institutional debate (in the form of conferences, plans, pilot projects, etc.), the smart city is not able to explain itself understandably to discuss their explicit goals and implicit consequences.

Where cities are growing, Urban Age, LSE Cities 
The meaning of the technological innovations attached to the smart city storytelling in such an urban world (by percentage of population living in cities but also by the increasing number of large urban agglomerations) are so disparate (a world of urban realities as different as Lagos, New York or Jakarta) and are yet to be explored. It is not possible to keep on understanding and depicting technology as an alien space that we have to assume for granted, and society (cities) as a mere recipient of that technology. In the same way, it is not possible to frame the debate of the smart city as a relationship of cause and effects between the city as generic and technology as something that evolves independently outside the social reality.

This is especially symptomatic in the case of different urban contexts represented by what we might call the global north and south. While the litany of any public presentation of the smart cities is expected to begin asserting the largely urban character of the world's population, immediately its solutions are presented in renderings that resemble at best an idealized and futuristic vision of a modern city western. This denies, in principle, the point of departure since the protagonists of this global urbanization are forgotten. The particular technological imaginary of the smart city plays a generic message aspiring to be meaningful in any context, be it London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Shanghai or Bangalore without considering the local specificities related to their structural, economic, social conditions that should be the starting point of any exploration of urban futures. Lack of contextualization is often present in many of the failed projects of implementing smart city projects.

As a result of the above, the range of solutions related to the smart city is usually presented generically, regardless of or social, technical, political, demographic or cultural circumstances. "One size fits all" defines this type of solution (smart grids, sensors, big data or any other product) that are meant to work and fit in Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Valladolid, Detroit or Santiago de Chile.

viernes, 13 de mayo de 2016

1931: bienvenidos a la smart city

Como comenté, el paso 5 de mayo dí una conferencia en el Colegio de Ingenieros de Caminos de Cataluña. Dejo aquí la presentación que usé.

Fue un recorrido que hasta ahora tenía pendiente hacer completo y, por una vez, me dejó la sensación de haberlo contado como quería. Quería hacer una actualización de La tecnología no es suficiente: aprendiendo del semáforo revisando el modelo de ciudad del pasado siglo y la nueva propuesta urbana representada por la smart city.  Partía de una ficción (¿o no?) y era la de evitar la disputa sobre cuál es la definición de la smart city más adecuada y de si existe una ciudad inteligente, asumiendo que la ciudad inteligente nació hace tiempo. Hoy la inauguración de cualquier red de sensores, de fibra óptica, de farolas inteligentes o de una flota de coches eléctricos municipales no es capaz de crear las arremolinaciones populares que crearon los primeros semáforos (la foto, ya la he puesto alguna vez, corresponde a la instalación de un semáforo en Londres en 1931).

Photograph: Fox Photos/Getty Images 
Allí, en la pequeña magia tecnológica de sus circuitos y sus luces, ya estaban inscritas muchas de las características de la ciudad inteligente: automatismo, regulación, eficiencia, gestión,... La smart city, en buena medida, es una continuación más que una revolución. El semáforo como equipación técnica de la ciudad del siglo XX subida a un vehículo privado. Con la idea de llegar a una frase que uso mucho (“A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam”, de Frederik Pohl), correspondía un repaso de las consecuencias quizá inadvertidas pero irremediablemente negativas de ese modelo. Todo aquello que, tras décadas de pensar la ciudad en torno al coche, llevamos unos cuantos años tratando de resolver antes de que el cambio climático, la disolución de los espacios públicos, la segregación espacial,...terminen con nosotros.

People in The Netherlands admiring the first ever traffic jam. 1955 
Todo ello como punto de partida para señalar que no se nos da especialmente bien que las utopías salgan bien y que no somos muy hábiles a la hora de anticipar los efectos indeseados de las cosas que hoy nos parecen razonables y deseables. Tiempo para preguntas que aún deberíamos hacernos sobre cuáles son los "atascos" del futuro que traerá la smart city y que no podemos o no queremos ver: ¿Podemos planificar todo?, ¿Sólo vivimos en ciudades buscando eficiencia?, ¿Dónde está el cerebro de la ciudad inteligente?, ¿Y si falla?

Todo para llegar a la conclusión final: la forma física y material que toma la tecnología no es tan importante como las decisiones sobre su diseño, la normativa que la regula, las condiciones específicas en que se utiliza, etc. 

jueves, 12 de mayo de 2016

Smart cities: a quiet revolution

“Looking at the history of technology literally puts us in our place by suggesting that rather than ending time, space, and social relations as we have known them, the rise of cyberspace amounts to just another in a series of interesting, but ultimately banal exercises in the extension of human tools. They are potentially very profound extensions, but not enough to warrant claims about the end of anything, other than the end of a chapter in a seemingly never ending story. Indeed, the history of technology suggests that this would be far from the first time that we have laid claim to the end of history, the end of geography, and the end of politics. Practically every substantial technological change has been accompanied by similar claims. The chant goes on: This changes everything. Nothing will ever be the same again. History is over, again and again and again.”
Vincent Mosco (2004) The digital sublime. Myth, power and cybersapce, MIT Press, Cabridge

The beginning of the XXI century has deployed different technological developments in the urban and their potential for transforming cities today can barely be glimpsed. We are not good at advancing the future, nor at foreseeing the unintended consequences of progress. In any case, we know that all the Internet-based technologies are already the protagonists of urban innovations and the most significant technological advances in the coming years. The internet of the future is the framework for developments related to the Internet of things, cloud computing, big data or sensor technology. Its applications reach all scales, from changes in personal life habits to the transformation of business models in almost any industry. Likewise, any of the features of mobile technology-driven changing habits are eminently urban and shape new patterns in a process of social engineering, and have little to do with traditional habits a couple of decades ago. Lives under this scenario are a continual succession of digital traces from individuals, human groups or entire communities that are captured, stored, processed and exploited, remodelling preferences, customizations and adjustments in real time, while algorithmic regulations and other sorts of black boxes broaden their influence in everyday lives and decisions.

Delivering a Computer in 1957  Photograph via Norfolk Record Office 
These changes are usually presented as a profound revolution. Spectacularization of technology (or, at least, a particular set of technology developments) in the media tends to draw a revolution taking place. However, despite the enormous changes that have led to the panoply of advances associated with the networked society, this transition has been, if not stealthily, at least quiet and peaceful. Faced with the temptation to identify the emergence of the smart city as a new paradigm in urban management and understanding of urban reality, we must recognize that the digital urban layer has been present in academia and thinking about cities for a couple of decades at least. On the other hand, the digital colonization has occurred incrementally and gradually rather than in an explosive way. As individuals, organisations and societies we have incorporated into our daily work, our daily experience, our material means of life and our experienced spaces different devices, quite peacefully and intuitively.

The story of the leapfrog  into the smart city is much less epic than how it is usually depicted, and has more to do with a succession of steady, progressive, incremental and intuitive changes on our habits, conveniences, etc. Frequently, they have physically modified our streets and have transformed our social relations. As such, they have colonized virtually every sphere of our life following a process that began decades ago. It is, therefore, a vibrantly contemporary change. The presence of software in everyday life burst long ago in various fields (air navigation, business organization, financial flows and domestic equipment). This presence is now normal in our pockets, in the public space or public service management. The main jump has derived from the invasive nature of the functions of smart devices, which have individualized capacity intermediating through the network in the most common and even intimate activities of the connected  human life. Of course, this is a massive shift that has equipped us  with new capabilities (big data), through new devices (smartphones) or interfaces (internet of things) and new infrastructure (connectivity, data centers). However, essentially all occurred out of sight, in a diluted form in the sum of small daily acts that hold our existence.

sábado, 7 de mayo de 2016

Jane Jacobs y la tentación de simplificar la complejidad urbana

Esta semana se han celebrado 100 años del nacimiento de Jane Jacobs, imposible no enterarte si sigues medios más o menos relacionados con temas urbanos. Es imposible señalar tantos artículos que se han escrito, así que me conformo con destacar este en The Guardian (en su, por cierto, excelente serie de miradas a la historia reciente de las ciudades) sobre la oposición a Robert Moses y el modelo urbano que representaba. Una controversia tan simbólica y profunda que da para una ópera incluso, A Marvelous Order.

Celebrating Jane Jacobs. Ilustración de  James Gulliver Hancock 
Después de todos estos años, en el blog ha aparecido muchas veces como referencia y he dedicado también reseñas sobre la edición en castellano de Muerte y vida de las grandes ciudades  y de un libro de análisis de su pensamiento desde diferentes disciplinas, The urban wisdom of Jane Jacobs. Siempre tengo a mano sus libros y, aunque no soy muy aficionado a las citas, terminé por utilizar una, quizá una más desconocida, en la introducción a la tesis. Leyéndola de manera aislada, pero también en su contexto, refleja muy bien algunas de las cosas que trabajé y que sigue teniendo gran actualidad.

Señala las tentaciones totalizadoras y a la vez simplificadoras del pensamiento urbano recurrente que se transforma en modelos y utopías, pero también en estrategias descontextualizadoras y mágicas, una condena a chocar irremediablemente con la complejidad del funcionamiento que, en lugar de ser asumida como realidad se convierte en tentador objeto contra el que luchar y al que dominar mediante soluciones modernizadoras, racionalistas, centralizadoras, burocráticas, de una vez y para siempre.

Bonus track
De los múltiples videos y documentales que se pueden encontrar, este es uno de mis favoritos:

martes, 3 de mayo de 2016

Thinking smart cities in present tense

The most established  smart cities narrative is mainly based on future promises through the deployment of technologies that are yet to come that would generate social benefits in the near future, while citizens have the only option to wait to see them come true. The risk of this futuristic reading of urban technologies is forgetting and not acknowledging practices, solutions and technologies that are already happening, although possibly far from the spotlight of commercial presentations and mainstream reproduction of the smart city narrative. The discursive regime of the smart city systematically uses the future tense when depicting how a generic or particular smart city will be. Use of present tense is almost testimonial in this particular way of presenting the digital urban fabric orchestration, which is normally envisioned as a utopian scenario of expectations, presumed benefits and fancy and tidy bird’s-eye view models.

Public Blue Screens of Death Remind Us That Life Is a Farce 
This is certainly inherent to the way tech media tend to spectacularize, but it fails to recognize already available technologies and actors working today with mostly the same kind of technologies smart cities comprise, but in a completely different way (Smart cities of the future? It is already happening, but not in the way we are being told). The smart city has been preferably presented as a highly planned strategic orientation towards the future and consistently refractory to acknowledge other forms of collective construction of technology, nor other socio-political imaginaries. These forms generally bad fit with an imaginary which is generally illustrated through static images, hierarchical diagrams of vertical areas of municipal management, generic renderings and photographs of urban scenes out of context. These performative ways of presenting intelligent city have proofed to be incapable of capturing daily uses of technology and how they are embedded today into everyday life in the city.

This was, actually, the main proposition of the great article, Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s, published in 2006 by Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish. In this essay, the authors showed the preponderance of the use of the future tense in the proposals of ubiquitous computing and make the case to place the focus of ubiquitous computing into present complexities. The promises of urban computing and how its developments were imagined finally varied and embodied into urban spaces very differently from those visions. Given the distance between the imagined future and the present, we need to understand why the ideals of ubiquitous computing (in our case, the smart city) are always presented as the near future. So, this foreseen future may not reach anyway and is permanently postponed, or, on the contrary, it always comes to reality, but taking shape in different forms to those initially envisioned.

Clearly, the future of the connected city will take new forms in the coming decades, but this can not prevent us from understanding what is already happening and taking unexpected and derived forms not covered by the generic description of the smart city yet to arise. In fact, the breakthroughs of the broad field of digital technologies and their intersection with urban life are already configuring our everyday experiences, our infrastructures, our social understanding of privacy, etc., and this is taking place without the need to wait for others to build the (smart) city of the future. The more time we dedicate to think these changes as a proximate future, the more time we are wasting to understand its consequences and how alternative uses of current technologies and social practices are transforming nowadays cities. 

martes, 26 de abril de 2016

Smart cities as socio-technical imaginary

Until now I could not find the time to post this English summary of my PhD dissertation (December 2015) titled The smart city as socio-technical imaginary. The prefabrication of the urban digital utopia (La smart city como imaginario socio-tecnológico. La construción de la utopía urbana digital).
The work conducted in 2013-2015 is aimed at reviewing the underlying assumptions at the prevailing discourse of smart cities as technological narrative and its implications for the contemporary urban agenda. The main objective is to provide an analytical framework for understanding the preconceptions that are behind the narrative of smart cities as it has been presented by its leading proponents. This discursive and practical imaginary refers to a series of theoretical concepts and assumptions with crucial implications in shaping urban but have been poorly attended so far in the mainstream storytelling. These elements are framed by the dominant players through a new discursive regime about cities and technology, with some immediate impact on city life and the role of urban policies.

The text proposes an understanding of the smart city narrative from its implications for public policies and in the light of social sciences. We develop a dissection of its explicit arguments and implied consequences typically pitched as self-fulfilled benefits. To do so, the concept of myth as ideological signifiers supporting this narrative is used to detect how the promises of sustainability, optimization, integration, etc. work to legitimate discourses, projects and initiatives. Based on its characterization as a hegemonic imaginary, we depict the ability of this discursive regime to move from the symbolic to the embodiment through projects that are transforming urban relations, spaces and ideologies around cities and technology.

Building upon this depiction of how the smart city discourse works, the text frames possible counter-hegemonic of the connected city and the possibility of finding and building other narratives and other visions that can widen this imaginary to bring it closer to the social conditions of the connected society and make it more meaningful. These under-represented practices in the hegemonic rhetoric offer new possibilities for collaboration and collective organization.

The text is structured into 5 parts, as follows:

Here we establish the object of study, the basis for the recognition of the digital trace of life in cities through different devices, infrastructure, services and flows that characterize the connected society. This serves to locate the context in which the smart city new storytelling emerges as representation of the contemporary city. Its problematization, its features (polysemy and hegemony, mainly) and the reasons from academic literature can be found for questioning are delimited, as well as its significant influence in the shift of the current agenda of cities and urban studies. In the same way, the research problem we wanted to solve initially arises: insufficient and problematic character of the smart city as a paradigm for understanding the dynamics of technological transition.

This chapter is aimed at building a conceptual framework to bring together the various criticisms and questionings that have emerged around the smart city as a generic discursive description of the networked city. This is not purely a descriptive exercise of what a smart city is, or even a compilation of projects or initiatives usually attached to the smart city narrative or self-proclaimed smart projects. We are not facing a recapitulation, a systematic state of the art or a technical assessment of its promises. On the contrary, based on our interest in putting the smart city in the light of social studies, we try to outline how this narrative is influencing urban policies. To do this, we link the smart city to deeper discussions related to the digital society, from new epistemologies derived from big data to the influence of the Californian ideology in the way we consume digital experiences and even activism in the network, through the comparison to other recent utopias or the incardination of the smart city in certain categories such as social representation of the city. In any case, despite what was stated above, this section includes a selective overview of the practical implementation of the intelligent city, as the types of projects selected are those that will help build the next section of the text. Without pretending to be a state of the art on the degree of development of the smart city or a categorization of different types of projects, we aim to depict the projects that have served as mainstream references for setting the imaginary through proposals that have achieved a great media attention. Thus, we draw a panorama that unfolds in both the ideological and narrative field and in the field of project implementation.

This chapter constitutes the main contribution. It implies a systematization of arguments that are usually assumed and reproduced as the foundational features of smart cities and smartmentality. These arguments work as narrative myths on two levels: as explicit proclamations of the benefits of smart projects and as underlying assumptions implicit in the consequences of the smart city realization. The use of the myth here may seem at first glance a subjective or even cynical assessment. However, it helps us understand how social narratives automatically transmit values and cultural representations, promote make self-explanatory promises and hide the possibility of questioning. In this regard, the reference to the myth does not imply a refutation of the possible veracity or relevance of the smart city, but attempts to highlight the way in which any kind of social imaginary works, especially when they entail idealistic views about technology as it is our case. The set of myths presented here aims to provide a systematic overview of different levels of critical argument that the smart city has raised almost since it began to occupy a dominant position. In this sense, the chapter is a contribution by proposing a complete systematic of different positions that have already been advanced by other authors or from specific disciplines but not sufficiently ordered together. These myths, in short, are:
  1. The myth of operational efficiency: the obsession with optimization as the sole objective of urban services
  2. The myth of sustainability: the claim to a weak sustainability thinking based on behaviour irresponsibility
  3. The myth of economic competitiveness: technological accumulation as economic development factor
  4. The myth of integration: the pursue of a perfectly integrated infrastructures and a seamless urban experience
  5. The myth of simplification: reducing urban complexity to simulation models instead of thinking cities as wicked problems
  6. The myth of big data neutrality: the fiction of an aseptic, bias-free, objective and perfect knowledge through data.
  7. The myth of depoliticization: the ambition to reach a post-political scenario of urban management and control.
  8. The myth of technological smugness: identification of technology as the critical factor to solve any urban issue.
  9. The myth of intrinsic desirability: the inescapable and undisputable technological progress.
This chapter intends to approach other relevant layers of discourse in understanding the digital skin of the city and the impact of the connected society in the way that cities work. In addition to offering a vindication of the multiplicity of narratives in pluralistic societies, the chapter focuses on some socio-technical practices in which we note a potential not enough acknowledged (urban interaction deisgn, city-making, media labs, urban media,...) . Thus, having affirmed the hegemonic nature of the smart city, at this point of the research the text proposes some criteria and concepts that build or recognize a counter-hegemonic discursive regime already operating, albeit outside the dominant discursive regime.

This last chapter suggests a number of conclusions and elements for future research of the city in the digital society. This section can be read as an open list of topics for a research agenda that complements the connected city or, where appropriate, exceed myths noted above.

In short, this research is intended as a criticism of a proposal for a new urban model that has established itself as dominant reference to explain the contemporary technological basis of city thinking.

More info:

Ciudades inteligentes: retos de diseño para las políticas urbanas

El jueves 5 de mayo comienza el curso “Enginyeria de la Ciutat Intel·ligent”, organizado por el Colegio de Ingenieros de Caminos de Cataluña. El primer módulo del curso incluye una jornada abierta en la que participaré con una aportación que he titulado Ciudades inteligentes: retos de diseño para las políticas urbanas. Básicamente, pretendo plantear algunas preguntas, a partir de la estructura de los mitos discursivos que planteo en la tesis, en torno a la forma en que se diseñan servicios inteligentes, sobre todo desde el punto de vista de la sostenibilidad o la ambición de la integración de infraestructuras.

Este es el programa:
16h – 18h | Lección inaugural:

  • Jordi Julià: La formación de la ciudad: Barcelona.
  • Alvaro Nicolás: El nuevo paradigma de la ciudad inteligente.

18h-18:30h | Coffee-Break
18:30h – 19:30h | Debate: La ciudad inteligente:

  • Pilar Conesa: Cómo hacer una ciudad más vivible, social y colaborativa.
  • Wouter Tebbens: ¿Cómo democratizar la ciudad inteligente?
  • Manu Fernández: El smart city como imaginario socio-tecnológico.

19:30h-20h | Inauguración oficial del curso:
  • Oriol Altisench, Decano del Colegio de Ingenieros de Caminos de Cataluña.

lunes, 25 de abril de 2016

Libro. Sharing cities

Las cosas van muy rápido. Se presentan como un desconcertante caos que apunta a cambios sociales y políticos incoherentes entre sí o, al menos, ambivalentes. Apuntamos a tendencias en las prioridades y expectativas sociales y de consumo de las nuevas generaciones, a la ruptura de los modelos tradicionales de muchos sectores económicos, a la emergencia de nuevas formas de acción colectiva, a la llegada a las instituciones de nuevas organizaciones políticas, a las formas digitales de acción colectiva propias de la sociedad conectada, a la renovación de las demandas sociales en la ciudad,… Anótense aquí muchas otras dinámicas que tratan de describir qué hay de nuevo en nuestras ciudades y encontraremos una gran variedad de realidades que reflejan una nueva realidad urbana.

Siempre empeñados en descubrir lo nuevo como si fuera un cambio paradigmático en lugar de una sucesión, una herencia o continuación histórica de la que podríamos aprender, pensar la ciudad se ha convertido en un lugar propicio para situar términos que aspiran a dar coherencia a cambios y sucesos que alguien necesita darles unidad. Esta pasión por crear términos programáticos (las ciudades utópicas) o diagnósticos ha sido constante y en los últimos tiempos se ha acrecentado. Llegaron (¿y se fueron?) las ciudades creativas, llegaron (¿dónde están?) las ciudades inteligentes y llegan ahora las ciudades colaborativas.

Sharing cities es el penúltimo término que busca darnos un marco coherente para explicar los ultimísimos cambios en la vida urbana. O la contextualización en el espacio urbano de un término más asentado como el de la sociedad colaborativa. Un término este que ha creado tanta tendencia como confusión, y que trata de explicar al mismo tiempo demasiadas cosas (y no todas necesariamente colaborativas). Por ello, las ciudades colaborativas aún necesitan explicarse mucho.
Este es el objetivo del libro Sharing cities. A case for truly smart and sustainable cities, recientemente publicado por Duncan McLaren y Julian Agyeman, quienes han unido sus bagajes en el activismo social y ecológico y la academia para construir un completo repaso de diferentes tendencias y cambios urbanos. Estamos ante un esfuerzo complejo: reunir conceptos, prácticas y proyectos urbanos de muy diferente orden y mirarlos a la luz de una posición de partida muy clara sobre cómo dar un sentido comunitario a la idea de compartir que vaya más allá del modelo monetario de tantos claroscuros que se ha transmitido a través de la llamada economía colaborativa.

De la economía colaborativa y su ejemplo paradigmático (Uber) a las ciudades compartidas hay un enorme trecho que no es fácil de saltar. No es cuestión de cambiar un sustantivo por otro y aspirar a que el adjetivo no pierda matices o, pero, pierda su sentido. Los autores son muy conscientes de ello y de ahí su empeño en construir un marco ambicioso y abierto con el objetivo de mantener la justicia social como criterio de discernimiento de dónde reside una verdadera ciudad del compartir. Desde su inicial paper preparado para Friends of the Earth en 2013 hasta convertirse en este compendio de reflexiones y tendencias de los últimos años, el libro es una magnífica referencia para evaluar los entresijos de muchas aplicaciones y servicios, teorías, artículos y proyectos municipales conexos a la idea de las ciudades colaborativas. Así, se trata de una mirada amplia, crítica y equilibrada a dinámicas expresamente conectadas al consumo colaborativo, pero también una contextualización de otras dinámicas urbanas de más tradición (desde los proyectos de reactivación de la vida pública en los espacios urbanos hasta los presupuestos participativos en el marco de la idea de las ciudades compartidas, pasando por la reivindicación de la producción colaborativa como elemento olvidado y más rompedor de la ecuación o la reclamación del papel de los municipios y la política local.

El libro está construido con una estructura compleja y puede resultar desigual en su lectura. Caben desde el análisis de estudios sociológicos sobre el papel de la confianza en las sociedades contemporáneas hasta la actualización del movimiento cooperativista en el siglo XXI, desde la contextualización de los movimientos urbanos de protesta hasta la revisión de los modelos de negocio de servicios como Uber, airBnB, etc. Por ello, el libro también cumple con su función de ser a la vez una mirada a diferentes tendencias que quieren asociarse al último término de moda y una crítica fundamentada de los cantos triunfalistas y superficiales en los que se ha apupado la economía colaborativa.

Si el libro What's Yours Is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, de Tom Slee  es una referencia para revisar el lado oscuro de la visión más superficial de la economía colaborativa, Sharing cities supone un acercamiento crítico y propositivo al mismo tiempo sobre qué esperar de este fenómeno desde el punto de vista de la vida y la política urbana.

Este texto fue publicado originalmente en el blog Seres Urbanos de El País el 21 de abril con el título Sharing cities: una mirada crítica y una reivindicación.  

lunes, 11 de abril de 2016

La base física de la red: invisibilidad y privacidad

La invisibilidad es característica de las tecnologías digitales. Hasta ahora, cualquier otra gran transformación técnica de la Humanidad ha sido protagonizada por instrumentos materiales, tangibles físicamente e incluso pesados. Quizá el teléfono o el telégrafo se acerquen a esa invisibilidad pero, en último término, siempre han estado asociados a sus terminales, oficinas o líneas de comunicación visibles en nuestro día a día y, en cualquier caso, su funcionamiento es relativamente sencillo en comparación con la complejísima red de infraestructuras, protocolos, software,… sobre la que se soporta la Red. Hoy tenemos los dispositivos conectados –con el smartphone como símbolo-, pero la transformación fundamental está en la conexión inalámbrica y la transferencia de información que generan. Datos, algoritmos y código son producto y resultado de la inteligencia ofrecida por los mecanismos materiales que usamos para conectarnos. Así, el teléfono móvil inteligente se ha convertido en el ejemplo perfecto de cómo un objeto absolutamente visible y material propio de la vida conectada es, sin embargo, resultado funcional de un sistema de redes complejas e infraestructuras (centros de datos, servidores,…) invisibles y desconocidas que sostienen todo ello, pero radicalmente materiales y que conforman una geografía física de la red. Esta pérdida de conexión sensorial con la base física de la Red podría explicar nuestra dificultad para captar las consecuencias profundas del cambio tecnológico que vivimos y hace que, en el día a día, la experiencia digital esté más cerca de lo inconsciente y la sensación de tener en nuestras manos una tecnología mágica sobre la que apenas tenemos capacidad de comprender sus consecuencias, su funcionamiento básico y las prerrogativas que le cedemos a cambio de su uso.

The Internet´s undersea world

Todos estas cuestiones nos urgen a formular un modelo crítico para comprender la transición hacia una vida conectada que ha llegado de manera gradual pero abriendo importantes cuestionamientos sobre el significado de esta colonización digital. Podemos ver los sensores instalados en las farolas de alumbrado público, pagar el aparcamiento acercando nuestra tarjeta de crédito, seguir en tiempo real nuestro consumo energético o incluso, al menos entender, en qué consiste la plataforma de integración de datos que nuestro ayuntamiento está desarrollando a modo de sistema operativo. Podemos descargarnos una app en nuestro móvil, aceptar la política de cookies de una web o acordar con una empresa a través de un formulario web una determinada política de uso de nuestros datos personales. Pero aunque podamos tocar estos objetos o realizar estas acciones de manera consciente (aunque sea a golpe de clicks automáticos), su significado más íntimo en términos de quién hace qué con nuestros datos, qué control tenemos sobre las imágenes de video-vigilancia a las que estamos sometidos o por qué el buscador de información municipal nos ofrece unos datos u otros, sigue siendo una caja negra. Mucho más oscuro aún es comprender que nuestros datos personales están alojados en servidores y centros de datos de Estados Unidos, que el diseño de ese sistema operativo de nuestra ciudad tiene su cerebro (servidor) en California o quién es dueño de los cables submarinos que nos conectan a la Red mundial. Por eso, a pesar de haber descubierto recientemente que nuestra sociedad y nuestras vidas, tan beneficiadas por estar conectadas, están también sometidas a los sistemas de espionaje masivo más complejos de la Historia, nuestra sensibilidad sobre los problemas, por ejemplo, de privacidad, sigue siendo muy baja.

Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors from Ben Mendelsohn on Vimeo.

Esta realidad nos señala una necesidad imperiosa de disponer de recursos críticos para abordar estos cambios desde un debate social consciente, crítico y constructivo. Precisamente por el carácter invasivo e invisible que hemos señalado, las tecnologías que hoy disfrutamos tienen la capacidad de maravillarnos, instalarse cómodamente en nuestras rutinas y ser asumidas sin mayor cuestionamiento que la conveniencia que nos producen en nuestros quehaceres diarios. Pero si bien el enorme y complejo desafío de la privacidad y la seguridad se presenta como el más significativo y sensible a nivel personal, otros muchos desafíos se presentan en el horizonte de la esfera pública y comunitaria. Estos desafíos, en la medida en que se plasman a través del imaginario de la smart city en las formas de gobierno, en los arreglos institucionales a través de los cuáles se despliegan las infraestructuras básicas de la ciudad y nuevos servicios derivados de la esfera digital o en las expectativas sobre los límites de la democracia, abren la necesidad de cuestionar las asunciones implícitas detrás de estas tecnologías. Sin entrar en más detalles que no corresponden a este texto, la esfera digital –de la que la smart city forma parte como proposición de organización social en las ciudades- nos hace, al menos mientras no nos resistamos de manera consciente, poco hábiles para comprender y reaccionar a su significado íntimo. 

viernes, 1 de abril de 2016

Week picks #26


Theatrum Mundi is a network of people from the performing and visual arts, the built environment disciplines, from across the academy and community and social collectives. Based in London, it activates projects, meetings, and research in cities around the world.

Theatrum Mundi asks questions about urban culture. Who makes it? Where does it take place? What are the politics of production and display? What are the connections between performance, design and politics, and how can those connections help us understand cities?

The aim of Theatrum Mundi, across its diverse activities, is to afford vulnerable provocation between people involved in confronting these and other questions about the condition, inequalities, and politics of urban culture today.


Indian cities are now more at the centre of debates on urban utopias than ever before. Whether for their entrepreneurial spirit, modernist planning, contested heritage claims,  or ‘smart’ visions, the Indian city has time and again narrated the story of India’s postcolonial coming of age. The future of the Indian city is shaped by its own history – where utopian visions of urban planning are continually reassembled by grassroots articulations of urban citizenship. Each of these grassroots imaginations of citizenship can be seen as a vision for a new alternative utopia. This international network brings together scholars, policy makers, planners and civil society members from India and the UK to explore alternative histories of the utopian city in India.
Alternative utopias of the future

Taking four contrasting cities – Varanasi, Chandigarh, Navi Mumbai and Nashik – this project explores how alternative utopias to top-down planning visions are envisioned at the grassroots. Grassroots imaginations of urban futures are often silenced as illegal, illegitimate, dissenting and anti-developmental. Yet at the same time, they can radically transform the rationalist planning visions that are often out of sync with everyday life at street level. Grassroots visions of urban futures are not necessarily against the city – they have different visions of urban utopias based on citizenship rights, justice and democracy. These visions are shaped by their historic, social and political engagement with city spaces and urban environments. We call these ‘alternative utopias’. We argue that these alternative utopias are key to the planning of future cities in India, at a time when it stands poised towards a radical shift to smart urbanism.


The technological development of the last decades made it possible to accumulate a large amount of data on every aspect of our public or private life.

Not many of us know that a large part of those data are publicly available: several public administrations are already publishing large data sets, that citizen could use to generate innovative applications to change the way we live, move, use the city and the territory.

There is a clear gap between the opportunities offered by the abundance of open data and the citizens’ capability to imagine new ways of using such data.

It involves citizens into a co-design process (hackathons), together with IT experts, public administrations, interest groups and start-up companies, in order to develop new services to improve urban quality and certain aspects of their everyday life. The aim of the project is to raise citizens’ awareness about the opportunity offered by open data and create a new culture of innovation in public services.

In each of the five pilot locations (Copenhagen, Karlstad, Rotterdam, Milano and Barcelona) the project will also create physical or virtual locations (OpenDataLab) that will become the reference point for all citizens and interest groups that want to propose innovative applications based on open data.


How can democratic values be built into technological designs for smart cities that require citizens to share data with each other as well as with commercial companies and governments? In this project, two philosophers and two social scientists will address this question in close collaboration with (ethical) engineers, representatives of neighborhood organizations, local councils, corporations and other interested individuals and groups.

In the future the majority of the world population will be living in cities. Many European governments and companies, therefore, stress the importance of creating smarter cities through the use of information technology. In these so called Smart Cities, tiny computers – embedded in streets, houses, cars, clothing and even on the bodies of city dwellers – gather data about traffic flows, consumer behavior, energy consumption and many other activities. A variety of applications that automatically analyze and use these data will make the city a large, efficiently organized and streamlined, comfortable living environment.

However, in view of the growing concern about the safety of information networks and the unequal distributions of power built into digital platforms, many European governments now strive to ensure that we create future smart cities based on democratic values. This challenge is the starting point for this project. In the next three years, researchers Dorien Zandbergen, Merel Noorman, Tsjalling Swierstra and Justus Uitermark will explore how democratic values can become part of designs for the Smart City.

Three things will be investigated:
1) How values, such as privacy, participation and ownership, can be built into technology.
2) How more people can actively discuss and decide about their own digital environment.
3) How the research findings of this project can be generalized, for instance, through a kind of certification tool that allow users of a digital system to see on which ethical considerations the system was based and to actively partake in the decision-making processes about the design of the system


Week picks series features different initiatives and projects I found or want to highlight on this blog. It will help me track new findings from community groups, startups or local governments working and delivering solutions relevant to the issues covered on this blog. I often bookmark them or save them on Tumblr.
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