martes, 21 de enero de 2014

Smart city and its discontents

The idea of the smart city seems to have triumphed as a term that aims to bring together the link between the twenty-first century technologies and their deployment in the city. Even though its narrative compresses very diffuse profiles, interpretations and definitions, the smart city –no matter you feel comfortable or not with the term itself- has gained a privileged position in the whole scope of urban discussions and particularly in the field of urban technologies. But after some years of massive attention, the list of skeptics and openly critical positions keeps growing.

Undoubtedly one of the most debated issues at conferences and public events trying  to push the smart cities trend is referred to the challenges and barriers to implementation and as years go by, we are still waiting, at least to witness how those envisioned renderings take real form. And here, after some years of compulsive talking, frustration and disappointment are a basic bottom line, due to the long distance between the promises marketed and reality (brilliantly described by Adam Greenfield). Because if the ultimate formalization of a smart city is the operations centre in Rio de Janeiro, there was no need to make such deal of it, and it is also the time to, please, stop using Songdo, Masdar an other canonical obsessively-repeated cases as smart city inspiration examples, when even their own implementation is giving scarce evidence and keep struggling to be more than just fake cities.

Despite these difficulties, the intersection of urban life and technology is a key element - along with other more traditional and ever-present issues in our society such as equality, democracy, etc. - to understand our cities today. The growing demand for public services, the demographic shift towards an urbanized world, the economic crisis and the constraints on public budgets, the interest of the urban economy by technological sectors or the increasing social demand to scrutinize the use of public spending are factors that push towards a new set of smart public services.  That´s the litany. Moreover, the solutions are available today, referring not only to new technology developments (ubiquitous technologies, broadband, internet of things, M2M and sensor networks, image processing software, big data, RFID tags, etc. . ) , but also to the transformation of business models (cloud , software as a service , crowdsourcing, open source technologies , ... ) or to new models of governance. Beyond this, a dialogue of the deaf: celebratory songs with repetitive lyrics and tedious melody.

However, we can dare to think that things are not going as fast, nor in the way fancy presentations tend to describe.  There is a feeling of frustration due to the lack of practical, consistent and meaningful results, and an evident fail on how to turn the smart city narrative into something comprensible for citizens. The reasons for this situation clearly point to underlying conceptual problems and definition: excessive influence of the supply side (companies interested in placing their products are interfering with the definition of a realistic and close to the needs of local council´s own demands), lack of clarity or interest in defining a social return in the form of tangible and direct benefits to offer greater value to citizens, confusion about how to move from isolated and disconnected solutions to creating better integrated systems embedded in the global cycle of different services, problems in identifying, justifying and financing the economic model behind many smart solutions, acritical assumption of social and political consequences of smart technologies, etc. Besides these issues, the main problem is that this institutionalized mindset of the smart city is hiding the projects, innovations and developments taking place from a different way of thinking (check Anthony Townsend´s book) about the kind of urban innovations the digital sphere can bring, the smart city in present tense.

These are critical elements that are preventing the spread of new practices and experiences and, consequently, a growing number of discontents are ready for a backlash (Smart citizens book is a good compilation of essays on this topic). At this time, more and more companies (telecoms, utilites, operators, consultants , event , ...)  have chosen to serve that market – with fuzzy profiles and impossible quantification- while many municipalities have put their attention to this issue trying to understand what role they might play in it. At the same time, society perceives, especially through headlines and institutional advertising, a new word -smart - appears in the distant common language of politics but no clear outputs are explained in a comprensible and meaningful way. Meanwhile, other agents already working at the intersection of digital technologies and the city in the networked society (activists, digital artists, interaction designers, contemporary art centers, living labs, media labs, ...) perceive that those that co-opted the debate some years ago remain impervious to broaden the scope of the smart city narrative. And on the other hand, other professionals and fields of knowledge related to the city as a whole (urban planning, sociology, anthropology, ecology, architecture, ... ) try to make their voices heard and claim the need to understand the urban phenomenon and incorporate the vast knowledge on key issues outside of the mental map that is emerging around smart cities.

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