jueves, 22 de marzo de 2012

The intelligence of a city is on the streets

I recommend listening closely to this speech by Adam Greenfield, founder of Urbanscale and one of the people with the clearest ideas about the role technology can play in urban life. As a pioneer of urban computing, his book Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing -you can read a review I wrote some weeks ago- is a reference on ubiquitous computing and its presence in constructed environments. A brief work in the form of an interview, Urban Computing and its Discontents, is also required reading for anyone approaching these issues, in order to understand the dilemmas in the interaction between the digital and physical space in a city. They are works that have been around long enough to understand, in the first place, that nothing falling under the label of smart city is new (here you have a good selection of books on the subject in the last ten years that gives some perspective) and, in second place, let us see how many promises have been fulfilled and how much there has been and remains of exaggerated optimism about the value of digital technologies in cities.

Smart City is an expression I try to avoid, precisely because in its current state it has only served to confuse things. I prefer to speak of technologies for urban services when I think of improving public services, and civic empowerment enabling technologies when it comes to new forms of digital intervention in the collective creation of the city or simply in city life experiences. That is all about. Furthermore, it is an absolutely misleading expression and those who use it more often recognize they do not know its meaning. It is necessary to scale down to street level for example, in order to understand the value of technology in daily life. To see the city from above as the generic idea of a smart city does, allows us to see certain needs (energy distribution networks, traffic flows, etc.), but it does not provide sufficient clarity to see the real life of the city and its citizens. And that life takes place on a smaller scale, which is where we can discover small daily interactions among people and between people and urban services, and find new innovations that are really necessary and that have better chances of success. It is this scale that allows us to understand what real needs we have to use public transport more, what real obstacles exist to creating viable business models for automated real-time parking information systems. The street is a dynamic space where we can find more daily applications that permit us to use the full potential of the city in its interaction between the physical and the digital. Some time ago, Dan Hill called it the street a platform.

Adam Greenfield on Another City is Possible / PICNIC Festival 2011 from PICNIC on Vimeo.
We have new players speaking intensely about the city and promising it will be smart. They are newcomers to the discussion about cities and are acting with exaggerated optimism and an almost total lack of perspective on the cities the seek to serve. An avant-garde rhetoric to which they add sustainability objectives in order to legitimize their business strategies, but without knowing hardly anything about urban ecology, urban sociology or even the social life of public spaces. Neither do different industries seem to agree. About this, Anthony Townsend raises an idea that I think is fundamental when it comes to focusing on the technological developments that companies want to make in smart cities:

But have only the foggiest notions about what people might do with it. It's a vision of the city driven by a product. We've made that mistake before. In the 20th century, when we let General Motors convince us to design our cities around cars. We can't make that mistake again.

It is clear that companies working with any kind of techonology that can improve urban services have to focus on their products for sale. But it is not enough to add certain additional technologies or redress existing products with a more sophisticated covering. If we really want to contribute to a better urban development, it will be necessary to design these products taking labs to the streets and meet the people that are expected to interact with them. There we will find non-technological design variables that will be decisive in ensuring the products are useful. Yes, Masdar, Incheon or Songo are large projects that give us an idea of the nature and scale with which we are capable of intervening in this territory. But they are no more than contradictory ideas to the very concept of cities as places with memory, history and conflict. They are only examples of an exaggerated technological optimism and an unjustified pessimism about the cities we have; and we lose sight of the primary goal, which is none other than to have better conditions to satisfy the opportunities and capabilities of the people who live there. Lavasa (India) is the perfect example to explain the disconnect between urban and smart, as it is being sold.

In 2011 I counted more than ten events of a certain category in Spain, where the main theme was smart cities. And in all of them an integrated perspective of the city was lacking, a broad vision of the city as a place and not as mere space over which to deploy sophisticated networks or to develop mobile applications. Events where slogans, examples and promises are repeated, mixing equal portions of the umpteenth reinvention of social networks, smart grids, or the latest sensor applications, in a crescendo difficult to understand and in which everything, anything, can bear a #smartcity label. But there is little trace of how to socially address the general use of video surveillance and facial recognition technologies, of how to deal with the sustainability of energy models beyond using technology, of how to understand an intelligent urban mobility model, for example.

Yes, we have the data. Yes we have important technological advances. We have, even trademarked, an urban operating system. But none of that will work, however much is bet, without an understanding of cities in their contexts. Like the failed futuristic visions of years ago. We speak of cities, naturally, because that is where the future of this urban world is headed. But let's put things in perspective before we make mistakes in the ways that daydreams about cities of the future have always been wrong. Start with Jane Jacobs. Any paragraph of The death and life of great American cities can be read today and implications found about the real value of technology in the city. Because the fascination produced by beautiful renderings of new cities in remote corners of the world, the interest awakened by any new iphone application, the potential contained in the release of public data, or the innovative character of smart grids are nothing without context. And the context is urban and is noticeably absent in most of the claims surrounding the smart city.
The best example of this is that news that, like many others, circulated uncritically a few months ago. Nothing less than a city without people in the New Mexico desert, built as a smart technology laboratory for cities. Accepting this kind of thinking is to move away from an open research model where technologies are test with users. Go into the street, which is the primary laboratory, and you will find more answers as to how to guide the development you undertake.

The real intelligence of cities lies is in the almost miraculous, unstable, spontaneous order of city life. The social relationships between people generate the functional intelligence of cities. Imperfect, conflicting, disastrous at times, always open to improvement. Technology only facilitates certain processes, and the logic of collective life will defeat any attempt to implement systems that exceed the required level of sophistication. The technology which gives intelligence to the city and makes things work is invisible and has to do with diversity, reciprocal trust, finding another or the ability to appropriate and build the city together. Technological determinism inevitably collides with the unpredictability and complexity of urban life if technologically sophisticated top-down strategies are employed at a time, furthermore, of budget constraints for local authorities.
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Image taken from *USB* in Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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2 comentarios:

  1. Hola Manu.
    Estoy muy de acuerdo contigo. La inteligencia de las ciudades se relaciona mucho más con su habitantes que con el uso de la tecnología, que puede servir para optimizar algunos parámetros de la vida urbana, pero no puedo transformarla por sí misma.
    Las palabras "smart city" se están quedando vacías, como le ocurrió una década antes a todo lo "sostenible", porque se convierten rápidamente en instrumentos de marketing urbano, productos de consumo para la mercantilización de los servicios relacionados con todo ello, y se alejan entonces de su sentido y origen verdadero. La inteligencia de la ciudad existe desde la Edad Media. Inteligencia no es, obviamente, solo tecnología, ni muchísimo menos.
    Un saludo.

  2. Jacobo, ahí estamos, diciendo a veces lo más obvio, pero no queda otra sino insistir.


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