The session was prepared as a brainstorming meeting conducted by Scott Cain and titled Cities of Tomorrow: Challenges for Integration with Future Cities Catapult. It was great to share the time with Andrew Hudson-Smith (University College London), Paula Hirst (Disruptive Urbanism) and Lean Doody (Arup) and explore the challenges Future Cities Catapult is dealing with.
I brought to the table three main ideas:
- Technology alone is not the enough and this basic premise, which seems so obvious, is not well embedded in the smart city narrative, I will explain it later.
- There´s no need to wait for smart cities to happen or for others to let people transform the city with their own hands.
- We need to raise questions and have a critical mindset on the implications of these technologies.
Regarding to what extent technology can play a role in our current and future cities, I find this cartoon very illustrative. With the same technology, you can have very different outcomes and consequences that shape our cities and the way we live. Just imagine how different urban mobility could have been in the last decades, and how different our cities and city life could be. Because design decisions implicitly mean certain assumptions, priorities and conceptions about society. To me this is an invitation to add context to technology or, as Saskia Sassen usually says, urbanizing technology.
My second point was this: distrust the smart city rhetoric that sets the promises in the future. Of course we will see great things to come, but my point is that we have to acknowledge what is going on today and the kind of things citizens can already do without any mediator with the technologies we already have. It´s not, in fact, a dichotomy. We need both approaches, but we should have a more balanced view if we want to make the smart city claim something meaningful for everyday life.
If we are thinking about smart cities, we have to critically examine what they mean and I am not sure the smart city narrative is considering this kind of questions. I must admit I get nervous sometimes when I hear about smart cities. The narrative usually employs certain concepts that are easier to mention than to really understand their meaning in urban life. Consider, for example, the Intelligent Operations Centre in Rio de Janeiro seems to be the ultimate representation of the smart city canonical ideal: a real-time mirror to watch the city and predict, adapt and react to everything that is controlled under a complex and expensive system of data flows.
I wonder if this really fits with the cultural shift we are living. Concepts such as peer to peer, commons, distributed production, open source, social hardware, open data,...are becoming core features of our daily life. And cities should be coherent with this and build their systems in this way (and here if where I could not have enough time to go into much detail about these projects):
- With the same raw material, but for very different users, purposes and possibilities, a City Dashboard like this one, developed by Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, can be delivered on an open framework.
- Smart cities are also about community-based organisations working with open-source tools and accessible Do-It-Yourself techniques for civic science.
- We have available tools like the Smart Citizen Kit to be active citizens instead of just passive data generators.
- And we have the tools to create solutions where public authorities fail to offer them, like this project that copes with the lack of reliable transport information systems.
- There are thousands of hacker spaces and media labs organising people to create local solutions and digitally-based civic engagement processes. And this is how a smart city becomes real.
- We have the tools to co-create and design public services in a co-operative way.
- Smart cities are about solutions to create urban interaction design systems to enhance public life in living innovation zones.
- And they are about transforming the public space by digital means to create new contexts for participation and to enjoy the city.
Just finished with some remarks for the following debate:
• Citizens won´t buy into smart cities unless they find them meaningful
• DNA of smart cities potential is that they can empower people
• Smart city industry, consider interaction design in your innovation process
• Think smart city solutions in a broad perspective as services, not as products
• Acknowledge digital social innovation as the smart cities in practice
• Always explore the consequences for people and communities
• We need to work on smart cities from a cross-disciplinary perspective
You can check the presentation I used here: