Dan Hill’s critique of the smart cities movement
Dan Hill (of CityofSound, ARUP, Sitra and now Fabrica fame) is not only extremely prolific, but his writing is also very much to the point.
His latest Smart City (or better “Smart Citizen”) manifesto is a case in point. Weighing in at 10,000 words, it is a “cleaned up” and “stitched together” version of two separate pieces he wrote for the London School of Economics and Volume magazine, which he is now sharing on his CityofSound blog as “one single critique of the smart cities movement”.
The goal, he says, is entirely constructive, and to shift the debate in a more meaningful direction, oriented towards the raison dâ€™etre of our cities: citizens, and the way that they can create urban culture with technology.
The essay surveys three types of activities, and scenarios, demonstrating active citizens, noting some issues along the way, and then critiques the oppositeâ€”the production of passive citizensâ€”before asking a couple of questions and suggesting some key shifts in attitude required to positively work with the grain of todayâ€™s cultures, rather than misinterpret it.
“The promise of smart sustainable cities is predicated on the dynamics of social media alloyed to the Big Data generated by an urban infrastructure strewn with sensors. Feedback loops are supposed to engage citizens and enable behaviour change, just as real-time control systems tune infrastructure to become more energy efficient. Social media dynamics enable both self-organisation and efficient ecosystems, and reduce the need for traditional governance, and its associated costs.
Yet is there a tension between the emergent urbanism of social media and the centralising tendencies of urban control systems? Between the individualist biases inherent within social media and the need for a broader civic empathy to address urban sustainability? Between the primary drivers of urban life and the secondary drivers of infrastructural efficiency?
And in terms of engaging citizens, we can certainly see evidence of increased interest in using social media for urban activism, from crowdfunding platforms to Occupy Everywhere and the Arab Spring. Yet does it produce any more coherence or direction for the new cultures of decision-making required in our cities, or simply side-step the question of urban governance altogether? And what if the smart city vision actually means that governance becomes ever more passive, as it outsources operations to algorithms or is side-stepped by social media, whilst citizens also become passive in response to their infrastructure becoming active? Or might they be too distracted to notice as theyâ€™re all trying to crowd-fund a park bench?”
“*After reading this I feel that I understand myself better: I like *other peopleâ€™s* cities. I like cities where Iâ€™m not an eager, engaged, canny urban participant, where Iâ€™m not â€œsmartâ€ and certainly not a â€œcitizen,â€ and where the infrastructures and the policies are mysterious to me. Preferably, even the explanations should be in a language I canâ€™t read.
*So Iâ€™m maximizing my â€œinefficiency.â€ I do it because itâ€™s so enlivening and stimulating, and I canâ€™t be the only one with that approach to urbanism. Presumably thereâ€™s some kind of class of us: flaneuring, deriving, situationist smart-city dropouts. A really â€œsmart cityâ€ would probably build zones of some kind for us: the maximum-inefficiency anti-smart bohemias.”
All these ‘smart cities” smarties are taking this concept all too seriously. I was talking to a top executive at IBM which arguably was the pioneer in introducing the concept to the masses — or at least to urban planners — on a global scale. I asked him what was the significance of the term, did they really believe cities could be made “smart”? “They can be run ‘smarter,'” the executive opined, “but to tell the truth, we found out that sticking smart before any domain instantly increased the salience of what we had to say among those we wanted to say it to. In other words, ‘smart’ is to city people what a red cape is to a bull.”