martes, 3 de mayo de 2016

Thinking smart cities in present tense

The most established  smart cities narrative is mainly based on future promises through the deployment of technologies that are yet to come that would generate social benefits in the near future, while citizens have the only option to wait to see them come true. The risk of this futuristic reading of urban technologies is forgetting and not acknowledging practices, solutions and technologies that are already happening, although possibly far from the spotlight of commercial presentations and mainstream reproduction of the smart city narrative. The discursive regime of the smart city systematically uses the future tense when depicting how a generic or particular smart city will be. Use of present tense is almost testimonial in this particular way of presenting the digital urban fabric orchestration, which is normally envisioned as a utopian scenario of expectations, presumed benefits and fancy and tidy bird’s-eye view models.

Public Blue Screens of Death Remind Us That Life Is a Farce 
This is certainly inherent to the way tech media tend to spectacularize, but it fails to recognize already available technologies and actors working today with mostly the same kind of technologies smart cities comprise, but in a completely different way (Smart cities of the future? It is already happening, but not in the way we are being told). The smart city has been preferably presented as a highly planned strategic orientation towards the future and consistently refractory to acknowledge other forms of collective construction of technology, nor other socio-political imaginaries. These forms generally bad fit with an imaginary which is generally illustrated through static images, hierarchical diagrams of vertical areas of municipal management, generic renderings and photographs of urban scenes out of context. These performative ways of presenting intelligent city have proofed to be incapable of capturing daily uses of technology and how they are embedded today into everyday life in the city.

This was, actually, the main proposition of the great article, Yesterday’s tomorrows: notes on ubiquitous computing’s, published in 2006 by Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish. In this essay, the authors showed the preponderance of the use of the future tense in the proposals of ubiquitous computing and make the case to place the focus of ubiquitous computing into present complexities. The promises of urban computing and how its developments were imagined finally varied and embodied into urban spaces very differently from those visions. Given the distance between the imagined future and the present, we need to understand why the ideals of ubiquitous computing (in our case, the smart city) are always presented as the near future. So, this foreseen future may not reach anyway and is permanently postponed, or, on the contrary, it always comes to reality, but taking shape in different forms to those initially envisioned.

Clearly, the future of the connected city will take new forms in the coming decades, but this can not prevent us from understanding what is already happening and taking unexpected and derived forms not covered by the generic description of the smart city yet to arise. In fact, the breakthroughs of the broad field of digital technologies and their intersection with urban life are already configuring our everyday experiences, our infrastructures, our social understanding of privacy, etc., and this is taking place without the need to wait for others to build the (smart) city of the future. The more time we dedicate to think these changes as a proximate future, the more time we are wasting to understand its consequences and how alternative uses of current technologies and social practices are transforming nowadays cities. 

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