martes, 4 de junio de 2013

Notes - Smart cities: urban innovation and civic engagement in a networked society

Notes of my talk at Know Cities final conference (San Sebastián, 28th May 2013).


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Two main trends are shaping our world: urbanization and ubiquity. We are familiar with this, I guess , I won´t go into major details about urbanization trends, but I would like to remember that when thinking about future cities, most of them will look more like Kampala than Las Vegas. For those thinking of delivering solutions in the smart cities market, this is crucial, I guess.

The second trend is, obviously, about digital technologies and the broad range of related solutions: broadband, open data, cloud computing, smartphones wireless networks, tablets, media facades, sensor networks or RFID tags... This is already happening, it is not about the future, taking the form of an everyware, quoting Adam Greenfield, between software and hardware, a complex set of devices with embedded technologies.

As I stated in the introduction, apart from practical implementation problems, we are facing a basic common agreement on the reasons why smart cities are needed (though I would remind that, for example, some conceptions on efficiency or automatization are overrated) and probably what kind of technologies will be protagonists, but the main field of disagreement is on how we will do it. Is there a clear path with so many cities, companies, thinkers and practitioners thinking about how to use digital technologies to create new public services in a smart city?

The starting point here is what we can call quantitative urbanism as an model to command and control city governance. The promise of a new science of cities and big data as the new gold rush that will fuel urban management. But we should remember cities are complex systems, with a mess of people, subsystems, services, infrastructures, interests, conflicts,...Are cities really a giant math equation? Is it possible to capture all their variables and turn urban management into a formal, quantitative, deterministic and automated system?
I don´t think so. I will try to explain why this underlying conviction that you can model, plan, and manage urban life without actually understanding urban life itself is not enough.

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.

Let´s take one of the most illustrative versions of this idea of highly planned top-down approach. The Center for Innovation Testing and Evaluation is  a project to build a city from scratch in the New Mexico desert. A whole test bed for companies to conduct experiments of their smart solutions. What´s the problem? No people will be living there.

Sensors networks will try to replicate human behaviour in a closed scenario for testing. This is another symbol of how not to understand urban innovation and the role of co-creation and collective intelligence in making cities more liveable. Let´s better concentrate on other approaches such as living labs, user experience or any other that helps us to take citizens from the beginning to conceptualise, test, improve and own technologies. Let´s better concentrate on trying to make technologies make sense in the everyday life in cities, taking first steps of research to the streets. I am sure it will be a more suitable and successful strategy to conduct urban research and technology deployment. Living labs are the fourth P of the well-known public-private-partnerships. People, citizens enjoying an open innovation framework in which universities, R&D departments and companies share their knowledge to validate users’ ideas, to grow form small to large scale local solutions, supporting user-driven innovation and considering end users and citizens in the mix of researchers.

Coming back to that pursuit for a new science of cities, the main idea I want to share is that the intelligence of cities is on the streets. It seems that cities need a remedy and I do not share such a negative attitude about cities. But every day, in every street, thousands of voluntary and involuntary acts facilitate (or hinder) life.  The real intelligence of cities lies 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.
Jane Jacobs was a great activist and researcher and her work reminds us that cities are systems of disorder, apparently. This is the obsession of some smart cities proponents: fighting this disorder with automated command and control centres that will dictate urban life. But go outside and see how behind this disorder, there is a complex order that makes cities work.

Technical innovation alone will not provide a solution, because there are structural features that retard of mitigate the impact of technology change and societal levers are as (or more) important: regulation, economics, behaviour, perceptions,... Consider this image. It is just a real-life situation. A metro station in which we can deploy a huge array of solutions for real-time tracking, public information, automatic doors and so on.  What will be crucial for that woman with a baby push-chair to take the train? It will be a mix of luck, polite behaviour of people aware of her needs, design solutions in the platform and carriage, etc. Just an anecdote, but meaningful I hope.

Open data is another great promise (The promises of open data and the same old conflicts). It´s great this movement is making loads of datasets freely available so we can use them to generate new applications and have better public information systems. But the risk here is to focus on the role of citizens as data gatherers instead of creative makers and to promote more stable ways of civic engagement. There is also a risk of falling into the trap of a deterministic vision in the use of data in political debates, which will not disappear. What kind of role can citizens play to have a say in co-creating new public services and to take action in this data ocean?

Considering these remarks, let´s see what kind of collaborative processes can be promoted to encourage civic innovation and creativity. Lots of examples could me mentioned and I chose these ones:
  • New Urban Mechanics, an initiative aiming at promoting civic innovation and new public services.
  • Sf.citi, as a collective effort of companies in San Francisco fostering new tech services to help tackle citizens´problems.
  • Code for America as a platform for civic hacking to engage digital citizens in the process of governance and creative problem solving.
  • Medialab Prado, as a laboratory for collective innovaton.
  • UrbApps, a minor initiative I founded, to go beyond the classical approach to hackathons so that activists and citizens engage in coding and mobile apps development processes.
To sum up, what it is emerging is a new way to collaborate now that we have in our hands, with all the pervasive technologies we live in, a potential for a transformative role of technologies. But to do so in our hybrid cities, community engagement and strong physical connections are still relevant and the mix of digital knowledge and activism is needed more than ever.

So, let´s encourage early testing and using the city as a platform.

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