jueves, 17 de julio de 2014

The myths behind the smart city technological imaginary (PhD brief notes #1)

As mentioned before, here are some brief notes on bottom line of the PhD project I am writing. It is a mix of ideas and feeling I am encountering throughout the process and not a formal review, indeed. Even though, I hope these paragraphs still make sense and gives you a clearer perception (or helps me make the project understandable at this stage). It´s been a silent work for months and now that I am beginning to see the light, I find myself more comfortable sharing how it is progressing, but not to a point I start sharing chapter drafts. In this sense, as these last weeks have meant a rush in the writing process, I find the text still too raw and I need to go into details to clear up the mess, but not enough mess not to share these schematic indications of how the text is moving forward.

The first part of the text is based on shifting the basic answer to the question of why there is so much distance between the promises of the smart city narrative and its practical implementation. Some may say this is a matter of solving technical issues, scaling-up problems, defining new business models and value propositions, and so on. The first premise here is not about technicalities of any sort, but about conceptual flaws inherently adhered to the smart city technological imaginary. This is, in a few words, what this first chapter is all about, but it is taking me some time. Here, what is clear to me (basically, how imaginaries produce spaces), needs, as a PhD, a consistent justification via academic formalization, which is quite a struggle to me.


Then there is a more interesting part, which is the one I am currently working on harder, about the functioning of technological imaginaries and discursive regimes on public policies. I have just started to scrap the surface here and I am afraid it will be the part in which time leaks will be a big challenge. However, I feel it will be, if I am lucky enough, a step further from what others have shared more accurately. Right now, I have just been able to set a preliminary scheme of some elements:
  • Tabula rasa: building from scratch a discourse on cities without paying any attention to urban studies.
  • Between pessimism about today´s cities and urban utopianism reloaded, or how a new utopia tries to emerge (and we know how these urban imaginaries ended) to solve those tidy, messing, ungoverned cities.
  • Cities in present tense, or the outdated futurist claim that everything will change in the future, and how this posture obscures the most immediate and practical projects occurring today, much more meaningful for citizens to understand the new landscape of urban media.
  • Solutionism or why there is nothing to be solved in our cities (this way) or, if you wish, social constructivism will be more helpful to do so.
  • Agenda setting, or how the discursive regime sets the problems and, consequently, the solutions, and why we need to make the good questions.
  • What´s wrong with the new science of cities, or why it is not so new, nor so scientific.
Here, I am afraid, I will have to take some time –and I can´t think of anything more boring- to describe the imaginary I call smart cities, but nothing relevant will really come from this part, just an overview of, possibly, hidden things nobody told you about the smart cities poster child.

What it is taking a better shape is the chapter that, in fact, was the primary impulse of the PhD projects, what some months ago I called the underlying assumptions of the smart city narrative. Then it was just a first framework I wrote for Revista Papers and, as you know, it got longer than expected, and now I see it as a more complete and solid set of arguments that compose the discursive regime. I still keep the term “myths”, though I feel it needs an academic filter I am not able to accomplish, so I will probably change that for something less controvert or more handy. But the list of arguments the smart city is proposing and I want to decipher is right now:

The myth of operative efficiency: operational efficiency of local governments as the main objective, confusing the city council with the whole city, or why adding “and citizens” in the last part of your smart city claim won´t  make it nothing but an apparatus of efficient management. 
"The city is its people. We don’t make cities in order to make buildings and infrastructure. We make cities in order to come together, to create wealth, culture, more people. As social animals, we create the city to be with other people, to work, live, play. Buildings, vehicles and infrastructure are mere enablers, not drivers. They are a side-effect, a by-product, of people and culture. Of choosing the city. (…)The smart city vision, however, is focused on these second order outcomes, and often with one overriding motivation: efficiency".  Dan Hill - Essay: On the smart city; Or, a 'manifesto' for smart citizens instead
The myth of sustainability: weak use of sustainability claims, without an overall understanding of environmental implications and with poor attention on some background knowledge from urban ecology.
 “The Masdar City project is covered by a thick layer of discourses concealing this economic domination, and it is not easy to detect its essence. The image of the city is constructed according to the broader sustainability ideology, made of concepts and symbols portraying an ideal urban development in balance with nature. All despite the fact that the ecological performance of the city remains a mystery, and projections are based on a never realized project maimed by the utopian paradox”. Federico Cugurullo - How to Build a Sandcastle: An Analysis of the Genesis and Development of Masdar City 
The myth of simplification: useless simplification of urban complexity, or the obsession with magical equations and algorithms that will make it possible to get rid of those unreliable human beings.
"I see citizens mocking the homogenising of static urban data infrastructures and rejecting their bids to handle cities' "super wicked" messes through reductivist approaches to data. What we decide to measure, how we decide to measure, and why we decide to measure -- these questions are vital for Grub City citizens, who craft and perform data "badly" and "messily", because that enables invention unanticipated by planners". Usman Haque - Messiness will inevitably arise in spite of smart cities
The myth of data neutrality: a tiring discussion to be held at this time, when this was supposed to be a common ground, but it is so easy to send the message of how data will make decisions objective, neutral and peaceful. Keep trying, Sísifo, but this won´t happen and this is not the way life works. 
"(…) the data streams generated  by the Sentient city may seem like instances of objective data gathering, whereas in reality they are far from it. For starters, the decision regarding which data to collect and which to ignore and how to classify it, is already a highly political choice. Next, the data generatd by the Sentient city is interpreted by software algorithms and actuation devices, and there is nothing objective about that either: is is a highly normative process, where subjective values, legal codes and power relations are turned into software codde on the base of which sentient technology ddecides, acts and discriminates”Martijn de Waal - The urban culture of sentient cities: from an internet of things to a public sphere of things
The myth of depolitization: as a consequence of the latter, politicians can be seduced with a perfect scenario: no more political debate, the end of History and how governing cities will be a managerial issue...unless you realize choices, priorities and conflicts will remain as usual, as it always was. Because data won´t prevent you from asking the right questions.
Becoming a smarter city implies giving priority to investments in technology while technology-poor affordable housing or sewage systems are arguably more urgent in many of the world’s cities. Priority-making is of course not an apolitical matter, but the very core of municipal politics”.Ola Söderström, Till Paasche and Francisco Klauser - Smart cities as corporate storytelling
The myth of technological sufficiency: over-representation of technology hides the need to address non-technological issues that are the core part of most urban conflicts, and how design, regulation, politics, social behaviour and so on imprint a more profound trace in urban life problems than infrastructures.
The broader point is that not one of the technological interventions we encounter in these visions is autonomous. If the way we actually experience touchless entry systems, CCTV cameras, dynamic parking schemes, adaptive recycling bins and the other smart-city paraphernalia we´re routinely presented with depends on the specific performative qualities of the technical systems involved, it also depends on the ways in which these qualities mesh, or fail to mesh, with local practices, activities, laws and habits. All of these operate in ensemble to produce meaning. The minutiae of business models, pricing plans, tariffs, spectrum-allocation policy, or the internal organization of bureaucracies will have as much to do with a given presentation´s prospects for success as anything listed on a product spec sheet. And this makes individual technologies very, very hard to dissect out, consider in isolation or successfully transplant”. Adam Greenfield – Against the smart city

The myth of the intrinsic desirability, or how the ideology of technological enthusiasm infiltrates the message of “Do you really want to be the last one to be smart”?
The first tenet of our new civics is that we should never default to smart technology as the solution. It´s tempting to think that new gadgets always offer better solutions to old problems. But they are just another set of tools in an already well-equipped box. (...)Treat smart as an add-on, an upgrade, and not the end itself. The best thing about smart technologies is that you don´t have to clear-cut your existing city to make way for them” Anthony Townsend – Smart cities. Big data, civic hackers and the quest for new utopia
And, finally, the newest addition to the list. The myth of system integration and how integration is not a goal itself and only leads to the quintessential representation of the smart city dream, which is nothing but an operations centre which is, well, not really new, ¿isn´t it? I still need to make the case for this one.

The final part of the text is, obviously, an attempt to build different imaginary. What kind of concepts should we work with to think cities in a networked society in a different way? This is still in a very draft manner and won´t progress in the next few weeks while I refine the previous parts, but it will be the funniest one and, just for now, it only smells like something similar to what I wrote for the Smart Citizens book.

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