martes, 11 de diciembre de 2012

Sisyphus in the smart city. The problem of thinking cities from above

If you have been a regular reader of this blog in recent years, surely you've read some of the posts in which I tried to decipher critically the concepts behind the idea of smart cities. Most of these writings are now compiled in Sisifo en la smart city. Tecnologías urbanas en la impredecibilidad y complejidad de las ciudades.

Compiling this document meant going over what has been happening around the topic. With a growing feeling of fatigue (there is nothing new under the sun but spinning circles), the major substantive conclusion is the too often reductionist vision of a city that is being used. In every claim of the corporate statements that dominate the landscape of congresses you will always find a futile effort, a constant attempt to pursue predictability, just like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a mountain over and over again. But cities are unpredictable and complex, no matter how many sensors, urban operating systems or surveillance cameras you deploy. The intelligence of cities is on the streets:

The real intelligence of cities lies in the almost miraculous, unstable and spontaneous order of city life. The social relationships between people generate the functional intelligence of cities. Imperfect, conflictive and disastrous at times, they are 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.

Much of the discourse focusing on smart cities has to do with goals such as knowing through the massive information management in real time any basic aspect of the functioning of the city. This aspiration is sensible, useful and largely possible, but only for certain urban areas and will always be only to some extent, especially for those that have to do with infrastructure and utilities management. Security, traffic and emergency management could be three fields that are clearly aiming to have complete control of the variables in order to manage and organize information to adapt management of these services (yes, I exclude surveillance, as no matter how much cameras you install, it will never work). That idea of a ghost town without people as a test bed for smart urban solution epitomises this extreme. But the constantly present promise of command and control has its own limits when you confront fabulous renders and integral visions of smart cities with real life how things happen in a city.

The main way to uncover these kinds of visions is to consider how cities are described in presentations and commercial brochures. A wide variety of the same bird´s eye views that dominate the debate share the same perspective from above. When an urban system is viewed from above -as usually occurs in the mimetic presentations you can always find rendering fabulous aseptic-ideal cities- the underlying concept makes that only infrastructures and urban form are visible. And when you can only see infrastructure, the aim to automate the control and management is the first reasonable temptation, but the city is much more than that. Those renders cannot even depict people (not to say the complexity of social interactions) and smart cities become a matter of managing infrastructures, designing cities from scratch and build an illusory feeling that everything can be under control.

Image by Corey Templeton on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Thus, scale and perspective determines what you see and how you see it. It's going down the ladder to street level where we can find other things, no visible from above and not portrayable in a render. From this level, the intersection of urban life and technology raises issues, fields of knowledge, possibilites and consequences irrelevant for the kind of smart city visions dominating the landscape. This is the reason for the dialogue of the deaf that is occurring on this topic. Two different points of view and two different concepts of what a city is. It is not easy to find bridges considering they are two divergent concepts not purely aesthetic or semantic, but involving different conceptions of the cities, the needs to be answered and the tools to develop.

In a vision from above, a city is just a layout of streets, but what happens there is hidden. A street turns to be just the place to deploy sensors, a street is just a road where traffic flow occurs, a street is a physical feature and complexity can be comprised into algorithms that kill every piece of randomness. But taking the “city” dimension as a macro reference runs the risk of losing the idea of citizenship, politics, conflict, public space, etc, permanent elements of collective life that will remain beyond current technological sophistication. These ideas are hidden behind the futuristic skyscrapers, asphalt, urban form, road networks or electricity grid, the elements that are easy to find from a macro perspective and top-down analysis of the role of urban technologies. Pursuing a future of cities based on the aspiration to predict a whole city will have to confront the unexpected. And the unexpected is exactly what makes life amazing and is part of the real cities we are living in.

Image by Corey Templeton on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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14 comentarios:

  1. Great points. Thank you! Recently I wrote a piece after looking at 69 cities in Western Europe to see what was working for smart city projects. One of the findings was that this whole-of-city, top-down smart city concept is hype and not reality. It's visionary in some ways, but not realistic or probable to implement. What is real is bottom-up, citizen-led ideas or projects from government workers at the line of business level...people who very much don't want to kill randomness but are interested in improving their city's livability (and this necessarily includes creativity, culture, a mix of all sorts of people etc...all the things at the street level that you mention). When I think of a smart city, I think of one that has worked with its citizens to determine its goals, and then uses technology to pursue those goals. If the city wants to reduce CO2 emissions, how can it make policies that help people drive less, use public transportation more? Then suddenly smart parking may be a factor...using smart meters to have variable pricing to reduce driving and sensors to fill spots more quickly. In this way, the technology supports the policy which supports the people and the city but nothing is command and control sterile or stifling. Best, Ruthbea Yesner Clarke, IDC Smart Cities Strategies analyst

  2. Thanks for your contribution, Ruthbea. Do you have any link to access your outlook on those 69 cities? It would be great to have a look at it. There is a need to go beyond visionary approaches because they generate frustration and fatigue and are meaningless for people.

  3. whoa MY portland.. maine in that picture, nice!

  4. Hi Manu - I'm just getting back to seeing your response to my comments. sorry it took me so long...I wrote a blog on this research which you can find here.

    There is a longer report for purchase.

    1. Thanks for getting back, Ruthbea. I came across that post some weeks ago and it was the one you mentioned on your comment. Thanks for sharing!

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