martes, 5 de noviembre de 2013

Smart cities. Big data, civic hackers and the quest for new utopia (book review)

It has been a long wait since Anthony Townsend announced he was working on a book on smart cities, but Smart cities. Big data, civic hackers and the quest for new utopia is here now. Some weeks ago it was made public and I spent the last few days reading it and jotting down almost every page. It is definitely a must-read book if you do not easily buy into the most established narrative of smart cities and feel the need to go beyond to explore what they really mean.

One of the most remarkable things about the book is that it comprises most of the names, authors, cities, companies, projects and research efforts that have played a role in influencing and shaping this trend in the last years from different perspectives. Thus, the book serves as a great overview for those approaching this field for the first time, but also for those who want to step back and put some perspective and what has been going on in this messy debate. In such a way, the book stands for a sort of archaeology work, from the first corporation that moved into smart cities as their new business strategy to the research groups, activists and grassroots movement tinkering digitally-driven local solutions.



More profoundly, Townsend makes the case for understanding the implications of the panoply of technologies involved in the smart city movement in an alternative way to the more mainstream one. Anecdotes and data illustrate a well-balanced set of reasonable doubts and forceful assertions, drawing a solid claim for move forward understanding of the role of citizens in this scenario of situated technologies. This potential is addressed considering the current maturity and promising emergent technologies, but particularly through a broad perspective of the different dimensions involved: the context for flagship projects like Songdo and also its lack of accomplishment, the rising market of smart cities and the role big companies are playing in defining a supply-based market where the demand is dubious in the terms these companies are profiling it (with a special mention here to the history of IBM, how they reached to smart cities, the underlying concepts behind their strategy, and, again, their most celebrated project, the Intelligent Operations Center in Rio de Janeiro, a precise dissection of its flaws and its pretended non-ideological model of city management), the limits of system models based on urban computing (and a clear explanation that the myth of quantitative urbanism is only enjoying a new comeback after previous failures in urban studies decades before), insightful comments on the role urban planning should take as a discipline able to connect the dots of the diverse implications of urban living and how cities work in a debate excessively dominated by engineers, a careful examination of widely spread approaches to a new science of cities (yes, Geoffrey West and his famous TED talk deserve  a revision),...

The book also navigates into more propositive arguments picking up trends, projects and concepts around that quest for a new utopia in which civic hacking can make a difference with detailed descriptions of the origin and impact of some significant projects working from a more civic-oriented perspective. Here again, you will enjoy some great stories (basically placed in U.S.) of civic hacking that exemplify the impact of the mix of open technologies, the will to solve local needs and certain collaborative contexts. Some familiar names of people and organisations that illustrate the planet of civic laboratories Townsend has been suggesting in the last few year. For example, the chapter on “Reinventing city hall” is a brilliant summary of the kind of problems forward thinking cities are facing: from market barriers from big companies to the risks of experimenting with smart technologies (I am glad to see how his analysis of the weaknesses of smart city apps contest model perfectly matches the kind of assumptions and critiques that were behind the UrbApps project and my assessment of hackathons), from the benefits and perils of open data strategies to the inefficiencies of urban innovation.

The book turns out to be a warning notice on undesired scenarios (Chapter 9, “Buggy, brittle and bugged” is dedicated to dysfunctional smart technologies –errors, unintended social consequences and, what is worse, deliberate anti-democratic uses of these technologies such as mass urban surveillance- but the whole book is full of cautionary assertions) and demonstrates clearly how these consequences are being intentionally hidden from public debate in the banalized version of smart cities. And naturally, the book concludes with a sum-up of crucial positions towards “a new civics for a smart century”, an invitation for all those involved in designing and delivering today´s cities (yes, there is no need to wait for the future), this is, all of us in the end, not only city leaders, geeks or urban planners, to take the best of mobile and networked technologies and make them work for freedom, quality of life, equality and creativity.

Anthony Townsend, among others, has been an inspiration all these years and some parts of the book perfectly recapitulate some of his previous articles and talks maybe you are familiar with. But here is a detailed, comprehensive and rounded proposition from a positive view of existing cities and a contextualized use of technologies in cities. Top-down visions are spreading a feeling of disappointment or fatigue of smart cities because they are proving to be so far from local councils´s needs and from how people use their cities and this book suggest a different approach in which more diversity of disciplines, broader sense of ownership, better-balanced expectations of what technologies can provide and a mix of engaged citizens should be the core.

I made one out of three so far. Adam Greenfield´s book is the next one.


You can also check some excerpts from the book, but surely won´t be enough:

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