jueves, 12 de mayo de 2016

Smart cities: a quiet revolution

“Looking at the history of technology literally puts us in our place by suggesting that rather than ending time, space, and social relations as we have known them, the rise of cyberspace amounts to just another in a series of interesting, but ultimately banal exercises in the extension of human tools. They are potentially very profound extensions, but not enough to warrant claims about the end of anything, other than the end of a chapter in a seemingly never ending story. Indeed, the history of technology suggests that this would be far from the first time that we have laid claim to the end of history, the end of geography, and the end of politics. Practically every substantial technological change has been accompanied by similar claims. The chant goes on: This changes everything. Nothing will ever be the same again. History is over, again and again and again.”
Vincent Mosco (2004) The digital sublime. Myth, power and cybersapce, MIT Press, Cabridge

The beginning of the XXI century has deployed different technological developments in the urban and their potential for transforming cities today can barely be glimpsed. We are not good at advancing the future, nor at foreseeing the unintended consequences of progress. In any case, we know that all the Internet-based technologies are already the protagonists of urban innovations and the most significant technological advances in the coming years. The internet of the future is the framework for developments related to the Internet of things, cloud computing, big data or sensor technology. Its applications reach all scales, from changes in personal life habits to the transformation of business models in almost any industry. Likewise, any of the features of mobile technology-driven changing habits are eminently urban and shape new patterns in a process of social engineering, and have little to do with traditional habits a couple of decades ago. Lives under this scenario are a continual succession of digital traces from individuals, human groups or entire communities that are captured, stored, processed and exploited, remodelling preferences, customizations and adjustments in real time, while algorithmic regulations and other sorts of black boxes broaden their influence in everyday lives and decisions.

Delivering a Computer in 1957  Photograph via Norfolk Record Office 
These changes are usually presented as a profound revolution. Spectacularization of technology (or, at least, a particular set of technology developments) in the media tends to draw a revolution taking place. However, despite the enormous changes that have led to the panoply of advances associated with the networked society, this transition has been, if not stealthily, at least quiet and peaceful. Faced with the temptation to identify the emergence of the smart city as a new paradigm in urban management and understanding of urban reality, we must recognize that the digital urban layer has been present in academia and thinking about cities for a couple of decades at least. On the other hand, the digital colonization has occurred incrementally and gradually rather than in an explosive way. As individuals, organisations and societies we have incorporated into our daily work, our daily experience, our material means of life and our experienced spaces different devices, quite peacefully and intuitively.

The story of the leapfrog  into the smart city is much less epic than how it is usually depicted, and has more to do with a succession of steady, progressive, incremental and intuitive changes on our habits, conveniences, etc. Frequently, they have physically modified our streets and have transformed our social relations. As such, they have colonized virtually every sphere of our life following a process that began decades ago. It is, therefore, a vibrantly contemporary change. The presence of software in everyday life burst long ago in various fields (air navigation, business organization, financial flows and domestic equipment). This presence is now normal in our pockets, in the public space or public service management. The main jump has derived from the invasive nature of the functions of smart devices, which have individualized capacity intermediating through the network in the most common and even intimate activities of the connected  human life. Of course, this is a massive shift that has equipped us  with new capabilities (big data), through new devices (smartphones) or interfaces (internet of things) and new infrastructure (connectivity, data centers). However, essentially all occurred out of sight, in a diluted form in the sum of small daily acts that hold our existence.

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