City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

On the smart city

Written in


Sketch of real-time utilisation indicator on fictional Federation Square bike garage, produced for our work on Melbourne smart city strategy in 2009

Or, a ‘manifesto’ for smart citizens instead

Ed. Originally published at on 1st February 2013, based on a couple of essays written, and talks given, during the closing months of 2012.

The smart city. I have “previous” here, over about a decade of writing about the interplay between cities and technology. And particularly, having written about The Street As Platform, and the Personal Well-Tempered Environment, and The Adaptive City, and about New Songdo City, and “new smokestacks”, and how it’s easier to crowd-source a revolution than a light-rail system, and so on. And then worked on many projects, from Barangaroo to Brickstarter, Masdar to Melbourne.

During this time, what we might call a Urban Intelligence Industrial Complex (led by IBM, Cisco, General Electric, Siemens, Philips et al) has emerged and continues to try to insert itself into urban agendas; with little success, in comparison to the marketing spend, it must be said.

But it’s clearly not an idea that’s going to go away (for reasons both good and bad.) I was be asked by both the London School of Economics and Volume magazine, separately, to write about the smart city (both were related to different speaking engagements.)

The piece for the LSE was a contribution to their Electric City conference newspaper (thanks Philipp Rode and Ricky Burdett). I spoke there about the Brickstarter project we started in Helsinki alongside many great contributions from the likes of Richard Sennett, Anthony Giddens, Saskia Sassen, Adam Greenfield, Greg Lindsay, Michael Kimmelman, Alejandro Zaero-Polo, Erik Spiekermann, Richard Rogers and others, all of whom lined up to critique the smart city idea, essentially. My talk was a little too hurried, I’m afraid, and I felt I failed to connect — which partly spurred me to present the following piece here.

While the LSE piece was written before Electric City, the Volume article was partly reflecting on an event in Rotterdam organised by the fascinating International New Towns Institute (only in the Netherlands, eh?), where I moderated a panel on New Songdo City. Their latest issue presents four case studies of new towns which can be seen as “smart cities” to some extent (Living PlanIT’s PlanIT Valley, near Oporto in Portugal; Lavasa in India; Strand East in London; New Songdo in South Korea). Really, however, they are contemporary variants on the new town idea — what Volume call “the city in a box” approach.

So, as a whole this is different to the pieces published by LSE and Volume, but is constructed from the basic components of both. I hope you can’t see the join. Look carefully nonetheless, as this might appear at first glance like a destructive critique of technology in the city. It is not. Technology is culture; it is not something separate; it is no longer “I.T.”; we cannot choose to have it or not. It just is, like air. There are different forms of technology in different cities, of course, but given that technology and culture have fused (arguably, always had) the issue is now a cultural one; what kind of culture do we want in our cities? How do we orient ourselves, with regards to today’s particular technological cultures?

We know how our cities were oriented as regards irrigation, language, currency, double-entry book-keeping, clocks, looms, trains, sewage, power plants, elevators, cars, containers — these are all forms of technology, which were in some way aligned to, and sprang from, the core urban dynamics of their age (and perhaps those eternal urban drivers of culture and commerce.) So, how do we orient our cities as regards The Network? And how might this then address the core issues of our age?

So the goal is entirely constructive, and to shift the debate in a more meaningful direction, oriented towards the raison d’être of our cities: citizens, and the way that they can create urban culture with technology.

Although it says “manifesto” up there, this is not a manifesto in the sense that Marinetti would write one — probably for the best — but instead a quest for the right questions. As such, you might infer your own manifesto from it (even in opposition to it!)

The essay surveys three types of activities, and scenarios, demonstrating active citizens, noting some issues along the way, and then critiques the opposite — the production of passive citizens — before asking a couple of questions and suggesting some key shifts in attitude required to positively work with the grain of today’s cultures, rather than misinterpret it. Read on.

A manifesto for smart citizens

Big data + social media = urban sustainability?

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 they’re all trying to crowd-fund a park bench?

This essay is peppered with such questions, not because there are no hints or pathways ahead, but because we tend to spend little time on framing our problems with care. As the British architect Cedric Price said in the mid-1960s: “Technology is the answer. But what is the question?”

Efficiency as cul-de-sac

Instead of the smart city, perhaps we should be more preoccupied with smart citizens. The smart city vision tends to focus on infrastructure, buildings, vehicles, looking for a client amidst the city governments that procure or plan such things.

But the city is something else.

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. Yet the city’s primary raison d’etre is to be found amidst its citizens. If we look there, we find that there is more, much more, to urban life than efficiency. In fact, many of those primary drivers are intrinsically inefficient, or at least at a tangent to the entire idea of efficiency. Can a city be “smart” and inefficient at the same time? Perhaps this is a fundamental questions, unasked by smart city advocates.

We might argue that smartening the infrastructure enables citizens to make informed decisions, and this is certainly true. But the infrastructure’s output is hugely limited — it might speak to patterns of resource use, but gives us little detail or colour in terms of those original starting points for the city, which tend to be qualitative rather than quantitative, slippery, elusive, transient, subjective.

So to see the city as a complex system to be optimised, made efficient, is to read the city along only one axis, and hardly a primary one at that.

Enter the smart citizens

We must look somewhere else for inspiration, to the most important aspect of smart cities. That would be smart citizens.

Fear not, because as it happens, all around us, in cities worldwide, we see evidence of smart citizens — that is, citizens using social media and related technologies to organise and act. Despite the heavy infrastructure-led visions of the systems integrators and IT corporations, the most interesting and productive use of contemporary technology in the city is here, literally in the hands of citizens, via phones and social media.

The dynamics of social media have been adopted and adapted in the last few years to enable engaged and active citizens to organise rapidly and effectively; a network with a cause.

Occupy Everywhere is part-enabled by Twitter, just as Facebook helped tip over various perturbation points that fuelled the Arab Spring. We see it less helpfully, if minimally, implicated in the UK riots, partly brought to you by Blackberry Messenger. Incidentally, it’s worth noting that the allegations that social media helped “cause” or drive those riots are surely flawed; after all, people have previously managed to riot quite successfully, for quite some time, without Blackberrys. What is entirely new is a nation-wide mass clean-up the morning after organised over Twitter (#riotcleanup). That had never happened before in urban history.

(Ed: Note also the success of Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle in the recent 2013 Italian elections. Without spending a cent on advertising, and refusing to appear at all on any mainstream media, this party won more votes than any other. That is unheard of in a major western democracy — if not almost unthinkable, just months ago. And how? The story goes that Grillo’s party took to piazza after piazza, every single night of the campaign, holding huge rallies to rapt crowds, in a distinctly non-institutional mode. But they also used social media adeptly, in a way that left the traditional political parties trailing in their wake (masterminded by 5 Stelle’s Gianroberto Casaleggio.) Perhaps the Arab Spring was partly Tahrir Square + Facebook? Occupy was partly Zuccotti Park + Twitter. As the UK doesn’t really do piazzas, the British equivalent was the high street + Blackberry Messenger. And so the Grillo phenomenon is the piazza + platform too. We see social media-driven activism finding a foothold in the essentially ancient urban form of the square — the two work together, with the dynamics of social media manifesting themselves in these relatively open urban forms (Question: Would it even work as powerfully without the piazza?)

We also see this pattern behind a flurry of crowd-sourced, crowd-funding platforms, driven by the exponential growth and increasingly disruptive success of Kickstarter, with 2012 alone witnessing numerous new platforms aimed at engaging citizens in the collaborative development of their own city.

Both strains of activism — crowds, and crowdsourcing — will be unpicked a little more below.

All of these are involved in questions of sustainability, one way or another, at least in terms of triple-bottom-line and beyond (economic and social as well as environmental), with several aimed directly at sustainable outcomes, on the basis that we have all the technology and capital we need to create sustainable cities — our problem is rather that we can’t agree what to do next. So these are platforms for agreeing.

“Smart citizens” seem to be emerging at a far faster rate than we’re seeing more formal technology-led smart cities emerging. This smart city needs no marketing campaign, and little in the way of new urban infrastructure — it relies on loosely joined internet infrastructure overlaid onto the city, and the fact that the city has become the organising principle for humanity. This speaks to a genuine interest, desire, and facility with these platforms amongst citizens — people are voting with their feet. What we are really seeing is active, engaged citizens — “smart” is too loaded a term, too easily co-opted, and unhelpfully vague. This activity is heartening; in the face of institutional collapse, active citizens are knitting together their own smart city, albeit not one envisaged by the systems integrators and technology corporations.

But do they enable more complex decision-making? Isn’t this where Occupy falls over, or the Arab Spring gets wintry?

There are a few dots on the radar that describe systems that might enable a more sustained form of engagement. While they borrow the dynamics, modes and functionality of social media, they needn’t rely on them, and all preference a form of public, physical engagement with urban fabric.

Moving beyond the successful “platforms-for-complaining” like FixMyStreet and SeeClickFix, some attempt to open up urban planning, design and operations to the community. Others indicate a subtle side-stepping of bureaucracy, trying to engage citizens directly, sidestepping a city in technocrat-mode.

Active citizens 1: 2011, Social media and the year of Peak News

There are weak signals that, as institutional frameworks continue to crumble, citizens are increasingly actively engaged in decision-making about their city. Again, at its most viscerally obvious, we can see it in Tahrir Square, Occupy Everywhere, Croydon, Athens, or the underreported protests in urban China. But beyond those flashpoints, we can also see numerous examples of a more systemic change: urban activism becoming urban activity. All these phenomena rely on the dynamics, modes and functionality of social media. They enable the heroic efforts of urban activists of the past — those who produced New York’s High Line, London’s Coin Street, or Renew Newcastle in Australia, say — to be shared, copied, translated and scaled.

Through the lens of democratising urban planning, we see examples like “Sub-Plan” in the UK and “Tallinna Planeeringute Juhend” in Tallinn: simple, user-centred guidebooks explaining how to exploit loopholes in urban planning legislation to more creatively and proactively rework your city. We can see movements like Friends of Arnold Circus in London, where the community has brokered a deal with its cash-strapped municipal government such that local maintenance is a shared responsibility. The outcome is that what used to be a dilapidated, syringe-strewn, rusty Victorian bandstand is now an active and well-tended community garden. Similarly, in Berlin, we see the residents of Schöneberg creating and maintaining their own planter boxes outside their apartment blocks, sometimes asking the city government for permission, sometimes not. As each apartment block is different, the streets become patterned with a playful expression of Berlin’s rich diversity. It’s an entirely informal urbanism, taking root in the cracks left by urban planning, city governance and market forces. But does it scale beyond the window-dressing of tactical planter boxes?

In Helsinki, Ravintolapäivä (Restaurant Day) started in 2011 and now runs every few months, with hundreds of diverse pop-up restaurants peppering the streets, effortlessly circumventing the city government by exploiting legal grey areas or simply relying on strength in numbers, common sense, and clear public demand (as discussed previously.) Created in response to overly repressive, cumbersome and outdated legislation, the festival was devised and organised by a small group of friends, in emergent fashion, coordinated via Facebook and Twitter. The resulting “Ravintolapäivä” was essentially a set of instructions, and you can’t arrest a set of instructions. You can’t arrest code. There is no there, there. It would be like trying to arrest smoke, and consequently the City, the biggest bureaucracy in the country, was sidestepped easier than the Maginot Line. The streets are suddenly full on Restaurant Days, a vivid expression of how fast Helsinki is diversifying, with people you don’t usually see enjoying a diverse range of food you can’t usually eat — empenadas cooked by Argentinians, crepes by French, lasagna by Italians, as well as smoked reindeer from the Finns. To locals, it must feel like a new Helsinki emerging from within the hardened shell of the old.

But interestingly, while such events are a kind of slow-release capsule in changing the culture of the city, changing the stories that the city tells about itself, such pop-ups do not strategically create systemic change, just as Occupy, Arab Spring and UK Riots have not projected any kind of suggestion for a new, resilient decision-making culture. Though it has spread throughout Finland and worldwide — a major marketing success the municipality can barely mention, as Ravintolapäivä still hovers in Helsinki’s legal grey areas — Restaurant Day is largely a phenomenon enjoyed by urban hipsters, and is here today, gone tomorrow. The only problem with Restaurant Day is the Day After Restaurant Day. There, the city snaps back to its previous shape, with no diverse food offering, little creative use of the street, and the hardening chrysalis of the old city visible again.

Events can change the city, clearly — hence the vast investments in Olympics and Expos as well as bottom-up riots — but their effects are slow, unpredictable and spotty.

Yet what these new tools suggest, due to the platform characteristics of social media, is a more rapid, even, and sustained change might be possible. The tools could be used to create a new interface on the city that could, potentially, alter the way that most citizens interact with it.

Moreover, behavioural psychology tells us of the importance of people actually doing things, when attempting to engender significant behaviour change.

It turns out that changing behaviour is a way to subsequently change attitudes; this is entirely counter the thinking behind many smart systems, which are predicated on feedback loops delivering information to people, whose attitudes then change, and who then choose to change their behaviour accordingly. Instead, behaviour change happens through changing behaviour, and then attitudes.

It is not enough to simply “make the invisible, visible”, to use the already well-worn phrase in urban informatics. But change might happen through creating convenient, accessible ways to try something different, and then multiplying that through social proof and network effects, reinforcing through feedback. (This means all those smart meters are a complete waste of time and money, and will eventually have to be uninstalled.)

Active learning — say, by trying out that idea for a pop-up café, without having to commit to it — also enables social proof. Others take part in it. And this, in turn, encourages further activity. This drive towards enabling activity — physical activity in streets, embedded within digital activity, at one and the same time — is also the future of communications concerned with meaningful change: it is no longer enough to convey the image; you have to convey the tools too.

Active citizens 2: 2012, crowdfunding platforms and the year of collaborative city-making

Running along parallel tracks, numerous cities have witnessed an explosion in crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding platforms throughout 2012. Following in the wake of the increasingly high-profile crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, and almost popping up at the rate of one every couple of weeks over the year, these include Neighborland, In Our Backyard (IOBY), YIMBY, SpaceHive, Brickstarter,, Change By Us, Give A Minute, Smallknot, Joukkoenkeli, Lucky Ant, Voorderkunst, I Make Rotterdam, as well as several more general crowdfunding services occasionally bent into shape to serve as urban incubators (Indiegogo, PeopleFundIt, PleaseFundUs, Crowdfunder, and Kickstarter itself).

The basic notion is that someone thinks of and pitches a local project, and people in the community “back” that idea, typically donating small amounts of funding. The network effects of social media enable an aggregation, whilst the architecture of contemporary websites enabled the projects to be tracked, discussed, updated, voted upon, and so on. (See for a more thorough unpacking of these ideas.)

All these systems are predicated on the idea that citizens want to engage in their city; that implicitly, citizens are best-placed to notice, suggest, aggregate and drive a certain kind of urban intervention. This “Kickstarter urbanism“, like Kickstarter itself, is typically oriented towards the small things in cities — let’s turn this parking lot into a community garden; let’s start a co-working space; let’s start a bike-sharing scheme — rather than taking on urban governance models, or attempting to fund large-scale infrastructure.

This in itself is no criticism: what city wouldn’t benefit if people started caring about the small things? But is there is a lingering sense that this might be a little “bread and circuses”? A stream of micro-distractions to occupy the community while the big boys in government get on with the big stuff — education, transit systems, energy policy, grand civic buildings, and so on.

Of course, the basic model of crowd-funding currently limits the capital it might produce, even for dense neighbourhoods. Kickstarter can generate tens of millions of dollars at best, which is a lot for a watch but doesn’t get near the investment required for a light-rail system, say. And the average Kickstarter project raises under USD10k, on a global platform, often promoting global projects. Most urban projects are intrinsically not global, but highly local, limiting the size of the crowd that might fund, whilst asking the basic question of who decides what is best locally, when using a global platform.

Equally, crowdfunding could have a political edge, consciously or not, in that raising capital directly from particular members of a community could impact upon a municipality’s capability to raise money through taxation. Crowdfunding could inadvertently become a substitution for taxation. If these are public projects — and they tend to be — then why does the municipality not fund them via the public purse?

Besides, money speaks rather loudly in crowdfunding systems. A wealthy local resident could increase the likelihood that a project might happen simply by dropping a million euros on it. Such systems tend to use a financial target as primary organising object, rather than its potential appropriateness, quality or any more thorough assessment of need or desire. There is nothing intrinsically democratic about social media. (Of course, we might argue that this is still an improvement on a situation where only a few large players — developers and governments, primarily — can really promote and progress projects, also through their sheer weight of capital.)

We should not pretend that hitching our decision-making apparatus to crowdfunding is in any way a more “democratic” approach, or that it will necessarily produce more appropriate or beneficial local solutions. Whilst it might increase transparency in urban development, which could lead to increased accountability, this is not necessarily a given. Any system so clearly oriented around simple accretion of financial capital will be easily gamed by those who happen to already possess large wads of said financial capital.

So, it is indeed easier to crowdsource a revolution than a light-rail system. We can generate an Arab Spring, but when a contemporary platform like Neighborland, for example, tries to influence the likelihood of a commuter rail extension in Denver, it can attract only 51 “neighbours” backing it. Their well-meaning comments are unlikely to change the situation much — that billions of dollars would need to be found, somehow, from within a culture not predisposed to funding sustainable public transit. Neighborland is a wonderful example of a new platform, but in itself it is not enough to create a new decision-making culture for making more sustainable decisions. It might however contains the seeds of such a thing, if we see it as a sketch rather than a solution.

For we need to bind the energy and dynamics of social media — those active citizens — to active government too. Government is partly there to take such disruptive innovations and productively absorb them into a resilient system that smoothes social inequalities and generates broader access. How should Helsinki take the spirit of Ravintolpäivä and learn from it, to shape its own regulations and culture such that the city benefits from better-quality street food, a facility with diverse urban cultures, and more active, democratic use of the street? Can we enable systemic outcomes rather than simply one-offs?

Equally, crowdfunding systems, by their very nature, will rarely enable a systemic change. They create a tapestry of one-offs and events, but will rarely generate city-wide services or infrastructure. While this might or might not be a problem, depending on the service in question and your point-of-view, the ability to shape legislation, governance and effective services in order to produce urban social equity (or mobility) must surely depend on watching, listening, learning, and acting in response.

Active citizens 3: A suggested precursor, in shared space

Perhaps an equally active form of governance, in a symbiotic relationship with active citizens, is required to take such emergent activity and productively absorb it into the city more broadly. This might look to concieve these activities as strategic rather than simply tactical, through participating. It would enable a city to stop being Maginot Line’d and instead imagine how each one-off pop-up might actually be thought of as a Trojan Horse for a wider systemic change.

So how might we build systems that create active users within active governance, systemically? Rather than look to Silicon Valley for inspiration, we might instead look for a precedent in the unlikely location of an intersection in a small town in the Netherlands.

Hans Monderman’s “shared space” traffic system, designed and implemented in many places from the 1980s onwards, removes all signage and formal “rules” from intersections, instead relying on human interaction — people looking each other in the eyes and making shared decisions, in an network of interdependent trust. Cars, lorries, bikes and pedestrians come together in the same place and negotiate their way through together. Everything slows down, but nothing stops.

This is the safest way to design an intersection. Add traffic lights to this, and we get more accidents, not fewer.

So one can design a system, or culture, in which individual actors are aware that they are part of a wider interdependent system of complex movements, with positive end results — safer, smoother — at a systemic level as well as individual.

Wonderfully, it believes in people; it rewards trust, and demonstrates that this is viable.

It requires governance, to help shape a city that can work in such a way (Search YouTube for “shared space Monderman” and you’ll find videos demonstrating that the Dutch examples are all relatively dense — though not high density — environments with active streetfronts and wide pavements. It wouldn’t work where peoples’ idea of urban space is something you drive through at speed. But then what would?)

Removing all “regulation” at this micro-level turns out to be the safe and effective thing to do as it relies on active citizens, not abdicating responsibility for wider systems and acting as an individual or outsourcing the decision-making to traffic lights. So removing regulation, though not governance, here implies far greater personal responsibility. It is not simply “self-interested actors maximising personal gain” — it relies on smart, engaged, aware and active citizens, rather than the passive systems that smart city visions are often predicated upon.

Passive citizens 1: not so smart

Ironically, given Monderman’s shared space, those currently promoting the idea of “driverless cars” talk of being able to remove traffic lights due to automation. With active citizens, Monderman indicated we don’t need technology to remove the lights.

Smart buildings have systems that automatically turn off lights in meeting rooms, leading to the absurd sights of people leaping to their feet and waving their arms in the air to trigger a light sensor. Look at what such systems do to us!

Smart buildings also turn off our desk lamps for us. Can we not turn off our own desk lamp when we leave the office? We used to be able to, when energy has been more closely managed in the past. In fact, does removing the conscious decision-making element make us less likely to be aware, to care, about our impact on the environment? Are we becoming passive citizens in response to our systems getting smart? Will this approach really lead to a sustainable city for people?

Part of the promise of the events previously mentioned is that they begin to deal with the asymmetry of power in urban decision-making. The fact that citizens can now rapidly organise more quickly and more effectively than bureaucracies is a useful brake on the technocratic approaches typical to city governments. It could be even more useful if that new symmetry can be re-imagined as a powerful counterpoints, a creative tension which recognises the value in both emergent systems and bureaucracies with long-term responsibilities and coherent decision-making.

Yet with passive citizens that asymmetry of power is likely to remain intact; if not made worse, as citizens devolve their decision-making and responsibility to software, as well as city government. Their awareness of their environment diminishes in line with their ability to do something about it. While those promoting smart buildings clearly mean to Do The Right Thing, the subconscious focus on what technology can do, as opposed to what it should do, could be entirely counter-productive.

Passive citizens 2: Shanghai Expo’s urban control rooms

The 2010 Shanghai Expo gave us numerous insights into the state of contemporary urbanism, not all of them good. Several of the more intriguing aspects were not to be found in obvious locations, like the glamorous “architecture as soft power” national pavilions, but instead in the massive, banal spaces constructed for corporations to convey their visions of the Expo’s theme “Better City, Better Life.”

These giant sheds were occupied by the likes of General Motors, Cisco, Broad, China State Shipbuilding Corporation and others. Within one such hangar, General Motors was showing a science-fiction movie about future Asian cities in which cars are the organising principle, projected in a vast movie theatre with moving rollercoaster seats.

Unsurprisingly, the IT corporations preferred to see IT as central to the future of the city. While Cisco’s movie had a strikingly similar plotline and mis-en-scene to that of General Motors, IT is a little harder to make a rollercoaster ride around, “The Social Network” notwithstanding. So the centrepiece of Cisco’s pavilion was a mocked-up “urban control centre”, a “NASA Mission Control”-like environment but for urban processes. Cisco staff were dressed up in lab-coats, pretending to operate screens with no connections, as if they were a urban physicians, carefully nurturing and treating the city, massaging it into a safe, secure, efficient condition. Well-meaning, but ultimately a little like the main street in an old Western; all facade.

Wandering around these various prototypes at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, there are clearly uneasy tensions in the philosophical foundations of such an enterprise. Even given the context of an Expo in the Peoples’ Republic, the conceit of centralised control of a city felt a little awkward. Mercantile, chaotic, heterogenous Shanghai would surely resist this as much as anywhere.

This control room or dashboard metaphor, common to most smart city visions, seems hopelessly inappropriate for cities, even if we focus on the “urban systems” that a city government might ostensibly run. As Saskia Sassen points out, there is a further tendency to “make these technologies invisible, and hence put them in command rather than in dialogue with users.”

The users, in fact, were also invisible. The nearest you got were the fictional narratives threaded through such pavilions, all essentially variants on Chinese soap-opera archetypes. So, equally a confection, rather than the glorious unpredictability of real life.

It betrays a technocratic view that the city is something we might understand in detail, if only we had enough data — like an engine or a nuclear power station — and thus master it through the brute force science and engineering. To dig into the shortcomings of that approach, philosophically, would be a book in its own right. And probably one already written by Callon or Latour, so fortunately I don’t have to. Not that I could.

It recalls the first part of Richard Wilbur’s poem “Epistemology” …

“Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones:
But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.”

The city is certainly cloudy, and that is its immense strength. The reason it works, in fact. That’s what continually beguiles and seduces, such that the story of humanity is essentially the story of cities, a slow reveal on a decision: of people choosing the city, over 20,000 years. The entire premise, and promise, of the urban control room is flawed in this sense — we can no more understand Shanghai through that data than we can from the sense data gathered from a long walk through the city on a sultry June afternoon. The focus on the former over the latter, as if it is a quantifiably “better” way of understanding the city, and thus managing it, generates another slew of unasked questions about the way we run cities.

The centralised approach to city-making, and city-running, that it implies could simply be the latest incarnation of the same sensibility that brought us the suffocating, oil-dependent latticework of suburbs, malls and flyovers of the mid-20thcentury city, one of the more unhelpful cul-de-sacs in human history.

Passive citizens 3: Songdo, we have a problem

Well beyond the Expo’s smoke and mirrors, yet still in the East, New Songdo City rises from the wetlands outside Seoul and Incheon. It’s the clearest living example of the ideas glimpsed in that faux-urban control room in Shanghai.

At the International New Towns conference in Rotterdam, “New Towns, New Territories”, earlier this year, the Songdo project is being discussed as an exemplar of the smart cities movement. (The other case studies are not so obviously “smart” — Lavasa in India, Strand East in London — although the other, PlanIT Valley in Portugal, is the work of a vocal contingent from Living PlanIT, a start-up who are trying to deploy “tech start-up” culture and the principles of contemporary operating systems onto the city.)

Some approximation of “an operating system for the city” is being deployed there, by Cisco and others, as part of the development phase, and in broadly holistic, top-down fashion. (In fact, Cisco’s more interesting projects, perhaps in a later, more considered mode, are smaller scale discrete experiments in Amsterdam, New York, Barcelona and Nice, which integrate over time. Equally, the really interesting people at Cisco are in their IBSG group: the likes of Nic Villa, Martin Stewart-Weeks, Dimitri Zhengelis et al.)

To see one aspect of the problem with Songdo, let’s zoom into the apartments, sitting in their over-scaled towers surrounded by over-scaled roads.(It’s easy to critique Songdo from an architectural or urbanist standpoint — shooting fish in a barrel with a gatling gun, in fact — but let’s not bother to do that.)

When reviewing the promotional literature, we read Stan Gale suggesting that equipping the buildings with pervasive Telepresence videoconferencing might “take anxiety out of where do I meet, need to be?”

Sorry, but is this a problem? Who gets anxious about this? Meeting different people in different places is one of the joys of urban living, one of its clear advantages. A good city is replete with a variety of spaces and scenarios in which to conduct a business meeting, run a workshop, chat through a idea, share your problems, read a book, have an affair, or simply create chance encounters. The idea that dealing with physical space and finite time is problematic might actually reveal a deeper issue that a particular culture has with these “constraints” on humanity, a kind of machine thinking. It describes a desire to control experience, obliterating serendipity. It would subdue the city’s ability to generate encounter with the other, which as Sennett and others have pointed out, is perhaps the great “civilising” condition of cities.

Cisco’s Telepresence is currently best in class videoconferencing, and fairly astonishing quality — I am always amazed when I use it — but it is an entirely neutered experience compared to meeting in person. In 1976, Antony Jay wrote the classic business text “How To Run A Meeting”, noting:

“From time to time, some technomaniac or other comes up with a vision of an executive who never leaves his home, who controls his whole operation from an all-electronic, multichannel, microwave, fiber-optic video display dream console in his living room. But any manager who has ever had to make an organisation work greets this vision with a smile that soon stretches to a yawn.”

This vision is now here — you see it whenever Stan Gale, or one of his execs, addresses a conference from their apartment at Songdo — but you get the sense this vision is still being greeted with smiles and yawns, and rightly so. David Brooks’ “The Social Animal” recently deployed the benefit of another four decades’ worth of psychology and sociology research since Jay’s essay to underscore the importance of face-to-face physical interaction.

For Gale and others, the physical matter of the city might be a problem to be solved through data transfer, perhaps a reflection on the semi-privatised urban culture they emerge from, but might it be the case that for most people, the physical matter of the city is not only its raison d’etre, but part of its appeal, an everyday luxury, an adventure without end? Matter matters.

That cloudy, cloudy condition of stone is preferable to the limited affordances and experiences of the cloud. But don’t read this as a paean to a pre-digital city, or a traditional architect’s plea for the physical qualities of ancient materials — what Gale et al don’t understand is that we can now revel in both — the cloudy and the cloud — at the same time, in a real street.

Moreover, we can use this example of installing pervasive Telepresence to unpick another error at Songdo; a lack of understanding of, or allowance for, the different layers of change regarding domestic technology in domestic spaces.

Put simply, domestic or personal technology now tends to move extremely rapidly, whereas the fabric of domestic and personal spaces does not. While Cisco and Gale might state that “building a city and deploying tech at same time is more efficient”, this is from the builder’s perspective, and will leave the users of the space with a potential problem when they try to unravel these layers at a later date.

In other words, what happens when someone wants to uninstall the Telepresence in their apartment and use Facetime or Skype instead? Or Microsoft Surface or Google Android? The average citizen would not think of uninstalling their building’s drainage systems, but installing and uninstalling software is now an everyday activity. It’s sometimes an unfortunate reality, but a new iPad emerges every six months. New apps emerge every day. Literally hardwiring urban services to a particular device, a particular operating system, is a recipe for disaster, not efficiency. It betrays a lack of understanding of people all too common to large IT equipment manufacturers and property developers. (It’s worth noting that the representative of Ikea’s property development division, working on Strand East, spoke in markedly different ways to other property developers in the room at the INTI conference, or elsewhere in the industry for that matter. If ever an industry was ripe for “radical disruption” from outside, it’s this one.)

Put simply, city fabric changes slowly yet technology changes rapidly. The key, which we can draw from Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn” and other texts, is to enable these layers to move naturally at their different rates. All new cities are somewhat interesting at his early stage, but they are more interesting over time, as they adapt, just as all cities are. There is a worrying lack of thought about adaptation in this desire to install the consumer tech layer as if it were core building services.

There are numerous issues with the vision, beyond these somewhat telling examples. Another was evident in the perceptible shiver that ran through the audience when they were told that the in-apartment systems would enable a parent to track the location of their child, to ensure that they have entered the private school at Songdo. For an extra few bucks a month, that is. This is an anxiety-generating feature, a baby monitor applied to grown children and adults, that would rent asunder delicate social fabric rather than help create it.

Zooming out of that Songdo apartment, we might observe a Cisco exec at the conference noting that their company’s value is directly linked to the volume of internet traffic, and that building a city like Songdo, networked to the hilt, should increase that traffic. This has, inadvertent I’m sure, echoes of that earlier era of technology-led urbanism, when companies like General Motors would allegedly covertly coerce a city like Los Angeles to remove its tramway — the largest streetcar network in the world at that point — whilst lobbying for freeways and roadbuilding on a vast scale as part of an economic shift towards cars. The contemporary Los Angeles is now faced with a near-impossible task of unpicking these decisions.

Infrastructure companies, whether cars and highways or screens and routers, look to increase traffic on their infrastructure. It is in their interest. We can hardly blame them for trying — that’s their job — but we should not so blithely and carelessly let it drive urban strategy as it did 50 years ago.

The landscape architect Richard Weller describes the Australian versions of this outcome as “the cities that cars built when we weren’t looking”. I know what he means, but the problem is that we were looking.

Question: Unproductive efficiency versus productive inefficiency?

So both approaches — the smart city and the city that cars built when we weren’t looking — are driven by a desire for centralised control in order to produce “efficiency”, and focused on second order outcomes: energy, buildings, infrastructure, mobility. These are not the starting points for cities — let’s say culture, commerce, community, conviviality — all of which are intrinsically inefficient, or at least tangential to the idea of efficiency.

When it comes to obsessing over efficiency, we have a bit of previous history here. Have another look at a book like Brian Richards’ “New Movement in Cities”, from 1966 (mentioned here previously). It’s actually a sharp, intelligent, forward-thinking book, featuring diagrams by Warren Chalk and Dennis Crompton of Archigram, and with a relatively strong dose of humane urbanism, but it is soaked in the technocratic stance of the time. It might purport to be solving problems for citizens, yet citizens barely feature. In a short passage on getting projects done, Richards describes the necessary players involved in decision-making, and citizens are conspicuous by their absence, amidst the engineers, planners, architects and occasionally politicians.

Throughout the text, Richards describes the likelihood that traffic congestion will be a problem for cities in the future, then summarises a range of possible technology-led mobility solutions, generally based around building new infrastructure. Yet while his more outlandish suggestions — ranging from moving pedestrian walkways to motorways through London’s Soho to hovercrafts — did not happen, the more commonplace solution of engineering traffic to optimise and “solve” traffic would get enacted, and this is what would later be found to be highly flawed. You can look through any number of lenses — air quality, carbon, conviviality, aesthetics, productivity, safety, fatalities, stress, land value and so on — and see that the outcome of this technology-led mindset was highly damaging for our cities, and our citizens. (Some of his later predictions, such as driverless cars and automated roads are only now being deployed.)

“New Movement in Cities”, in focusing almost entirely on mobility, this second-order aspect of cities, eventually reveals an emphasis on unproductive efficiency rather than productive ineffeciency.

And of course beyond mobility, the same approach would be played out more broadly in architecture, planning and bureaucracy, throughout the numerous new town projects of the post-war era.

Decades later, smart cities have exactly the same problem. How could we develop a vocabulary, a dialogue, about how how a city could be inefficient and yet be productive, delightful and engaging? Or how inefficiency is at the heart of human communities and endeavours? Would one wish one’s marriage to be “efficient”? A dinner with friends to be efficient? A game of football? A great book? A walk in the park? On some occasions, perhaps, but it is hardly the point.

How might we avoid making the same errors, in focusing on second-order drivers, in deploying technology-led “solutions”, in trying to optimise the city, in suggesting that efficiency should be something we aspire to? Are we destined for urban planning history to repeat itself, first as tragedy, and second as tragedy as well?

Question: Just what is it about today’s ecosystems that makes them so appealing?

Partly due to privacy fears, but perhaps also due to a more general discomfort with engaging the messiness of humans, smart cities tend to sense objects not people, infrastructure not culture. While the drive behind monitoring infrastructure is understandable, could it be that it inadvertently generates a less human-centred approach to urban governance? You manage what you measure, after all.

This would be the last thing we need. It’s not that we shouldn’t manage the infrastructure using these new tools; it’s just that we need an equal and opposite effort in terms of understanding and engaging with new patterns of living — not simply patterns of movement, or of resources, but with urban culture, with people.

Even then, the idea that we can produce a harmonious equilibrium in urban systems through systems thinking may be fundamentally flawed. These technologies are not necessarily neutral, of course, in that they often betray the cultural conditions they have been created. There are particular dynamics to both social media and crowdsourcing/funding, which we must be aware of if we are to deploy them as a part of our interface with government, the city, or the neighbourhood.

The filmmaker Adam Curtis, in “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace”, powerfully connected the machine logic of the internet to a form of “neoliberal” ideology, based on a belief in self-righting automated systems and markets. Curtis took apart the idea that “natural ecosystems”, the biological constructs partly underpinning this philosophy, inherently tend towards harmonious equilibrium. In fact, both markets and natural systems are apparently riven with ruptures, waste, inefficiencies and conflict. Thus the idea of feedback loops, common to many smart cities projects, may well be hopelessly insufficient in terms of reversing our carbon-intensive patterns of living, for instance.

Cities, like actual natural ecosystems, are not steady state systems; as capital generators, they tend towards disequilibrium, they move in violent ruptures, they are wasteful, just as nature is. Their progress tends to be produced through cascades of tumbling imbalances, constantly resisting a steady-state. But this is precisely why they work, and why they attract people. It might be worthwhile pondering why that is, and working with the grain rather than against it.

Instead, however, smart cities tend to run counter to the conditions of urban culture, just as traditional software models struggle to comprehend and mimic the complexity of a savannah. When software does achieve that complexity, which it increasingly can, it moves beyond human comprehension. As Kevin Slavin has said of trading software, we are now writing code that we cannot read. Here, the machine thinking that often underpins sustainable city visions could be seen as the equivalent of a kind of “high-frequency trading for urban processes”. as well as an overly simplistic reading of ecosystems.

Is this really the condition we want in our cities as well?

It is still early days, yet the success of social media means that it is being thoroughly critiqued. As a result, we have to be aware that it may be exemplifying characteristics that are in direct conflict with the idea of a “new toolkit for 21st century urban democracy” or “the sustainable city”.

For NYU/Harvard Law School researcher Alice Marwick, social media implicitly and explicitly encourages what she calls “status seeking behaviour” within a “competitive attention economy”. Her critical research describes the effects of transposing a Silicon Valley-derived model of neoliberal, free market principles onto our social organisation, our relationships with our self, and each other. What happens when we deploy this ideology in the cities of, say, Northern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Asian Sub-Continent, Latin America, the Far East? Each has a completely different set of preferential social structures, governance structures, living and working patterns, cultures of decision making.

But let’s assume, just for a moment, that this airdrop of transposed culture via software may be harmless, in terms of these wider cultural effects. But Marwick’s key point — the creation of the selfish, “attention economy” — cannot be ignored in the context of urban culture, and particularly sustainable urban culture. Even the proponents of social media talk of the “attention economy” as if it is just ipso facto a natural state of organisation. But at its most basic level, sustainability necessitates a selflessness, a scaling of empathy beyond one’s immediate concerns, a scaling in terms of space, to those immediately affected by our changing of the climate, and time, to those subsequent generations who have to live with the consequences of our actions over the next few years. At the very least, this is surely in tension with “status seeking behaviour” and we need to critically assess how, why and what to do about it.

Similarly, the basic premise of crowd-funding tends to rely, implicitly at least, on the idea that a kind of bottom-up “civic entrepreneurship” should be the primary motor driving urban development. As this is generally in opposition to state-led innovation, this can also be seen as part of a certain kind of ideological backdrop. In the UK, it could be seen as a Big Society-driven abnegation of urban services, in favour of 1000 startups blooming to take care of the city. Crowd-funding becomes a useful substitution for municipal taxes, offering up obvious political opportunities.

So these political aspects of “smart city” thinking could embody both a centralising technocratic dynamic, albeit aligned to increasingly privatised delivery, and a decentralised individualist dynamic, with urban services delivered by a rag-bag of third sector, private sector and diminished public sector, or not at all.

It is clearly of our time, and with such a strategy Your Mileage May Vary, as they say.

Numerous thinkers, from Zadie Smith to Malcolm Gladwell to Douglas Rushkoff, have written of the implicit limits, or even dangers, when we are unthinkingly uncritical of this culture. Equally, many simply don’t get it, much as Baroness Susan Greenfield simply doesn’t get video games. And for every Gladwell, there’s a Clay Shirky or Steven Johnson, thinkers capable of genuinely engaging in constructive critique. You can choose which side of the Shirky vs Gladwell debate you land on, but at least it’s happening. Personally I see huge value in well-designed social media, and the cultures it might enable. But there are two issues. The first is that the value might be enabled only when subjected to considered critique, continuous exploration, asking the right questions, and engaging with the outcomes in ongoing, iterative fashion. The second is that you have to do apply all of this to anything social media touches too, such as the city.

We should not let the idea of smart cities continue to be so untroubled by informed, constructive critique.

Suggestion: A prototyping culture, beyond IT

Yet critique or not, there is only one true way to find out what balancing act might tend towards sustainable outcomes, and that is to try it. But as “trying it” means considered, iterative prototyping of user-centred platforms, as local experiments that can nonetheless scale, and produced by designers, coders and product managers that understand both The Network and The City, do we have the right people in place, able to take the right approaches?

Sadly, most city officials have absolutely no idea how to do any of this, with a handful of honourable exceptions. Their culture — and thus their operations, attitude, behaviour, skillset — is from another age. Hence we see the systems integrators of the previous age — let’s call it “The Age of IT” — mercilessly exploiting this condition through anachronistic procurement cultures designed almost exclusively for these players.

The results will be the same as for the Age of IT: over-scaled monolithic vertically integrated systems that take too long to develop, are too expensive to buy and maintain (by orders of magnitude), and have an appalling overhead on anyone that tries to use them. Exactly what image does the phrase “government I.T. project” conjure up, after all? (By way of comparison, observe how the “start-up within the UK Cabinet Office”, Government Digital Service, is laying waste to a previous generation of IT systems in a matter of months, creating elegant, simple and user-focused systems using the same agile methodologies and user-centred design that build the likes of Amazon and Twitter, and saving millions upon millions of pounds along the way. You cannot outsource this: it is strategic. We have even more reason to take the same intrinsically internet-age “small pieces, loosely joined” approach to our urban governance systems, given our understanding of the way cities work. But are we?)

This is not about “IT” anymore. A 14 year-old girl updating her Facebook status on her iPhone while she’s walking down the street is not really “IT” What we used to call “IT” is now too important for the “IT” department. These technologies are part of cultural and strategic approaches, and have long since shifted from the back room to front of house, to the top table.

Observe how Amazon and Net-A-Porter are changing the physical fabric of the high street; how Nike+ is changing how we exercise; how Kickstarter is changing the structure of the creative industries; how Apple has changed media; how Google is altering basic literacy, almost extending cognition; how Facebook and Twitter helped drive last years’ Peak News events.

Compare to your average municipality’s IT department: do we have the right people, the right culture, around the decision-making table?

We can now easily see the problem when city governments attempt to engage with this. Trained by pervasive, professionally-produced experiences like Facebook, citizens can now see that almost all the efforts of municipalities thus far are embarrassingly bad in comparison. Politicians can see this too, as we all now use these systems. The issue is with people and culture, not the role of government itself. it’s not that they can’t do it; it’s that they can’t do it. They literally do not know how to. They are currently not equipped to work in this way, with these tools, skillsets and attitudes. They need to build a culture of doing, rather than outsourcing, but most do not yet realise that they now have competition. The UK’s Cabinet Office appear to understand that now, and perhaps a few municipalities like New York and Chicago, but they are an exception, and even in the best cases have not reacted enough.

IT was once a service like catering or postage, to be procured. It, or what replaced it, is now at the core of almost everything. It is becoming the medium for a government’s relationship with their citizens. The systems and cultures that municipalities are looking to take advantage of are not outsourced, they are not put together by “systems integrators”, they are not IT. They are quite different. The platforms of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon are not outsourced; they are owned and operated, designed and researched, coded and maintained, communicated and supported, almost entirely in-house.

Suggestion: Active city government

Yet there is no fundamental reason why municipalities could not work in this way, in terms of its strategic positioning, function, history. It is a question of talent, which in turn is a question of motivation. There are plenty of examples of innovation within a public sector environment. From a tiny sliver of personal perspective alone, I can speak of GDS above, or the BBC ten years earlier. You cannot tell me that those core public sector environments were not “innovative”. Beyond that, Sitra’s recent Helsinki Design Lab event was set up to explore further examples, from IDEO’s work with the US Government to Mindlab’s at the heart of the Danish government.

Yet you do not hear enough about them as it runs counter to contemporary political thinking, much contemporary economic thinking, and they can also easily be outweighed by the number of counter-examples (as I just did in the previous section.) They illustrate, however, that it is entirely possible, it is going on, and thus there are no structural reasons why it should not happen. Such good work, in a public sector environment, is usually not in opposition to the idea of innovation in the private sector — often, the people involved have significant experience of both sectors, and tend to blur the boundaries between them, driven instead by “the mission” in either case (a discussion for another day.)

We need to hear more about such examples of public sector innovation, however, as Western culture is soaked in a form of propaganda suggesting that public sector is slow, big, cumbersome and entirely devoid of innovation. This is genuinely damaging.

If you want to get things done, do you turn to government as your potential employer? Not at the moment, not often enough. Yet what if government was directly and boldly prototyping new versions of itself, using these new technologies? It might be that a sense of public good, of civic responsibility, can be found within a re-calibrated approach to municipal government. If we dovetail active citizens with active governments, building the interactions of both around these new logics but balancing their inherent biases, we might discover better cultures for producing good, sustainable decisions.

As Marco Steinberg says, we currently have 18th century institutions facing 21st century problems. Contemporary municipal governments are entirely redolent of their 18th or 19th century counterparts, despite some facile difference. Drop an employee from, say, 1890s Helsinki city council into their 2012 equivalent and they’d recognise much of what they saw. Some of the clothes might be different, there would presumably be more women around, and they might wander about those small glowing rectangles people keep looking at, but they’d see a department of planning, a city engineer, a schools departments and so on, run in largely similar ways (although arguably rather more risk averse).

Yet we are in a radically different urban condition. Not just in terms of built fabric, whose significance is overplayed due to its sheer obviousness, but in terms of our highly interconnected patterns of living amidst the radically different systems that produce the contemporary city, localised and globalised simultaneously. The nature of our challenges are entirely different, with climate change the clearest example of that.

Even accepting that cities evolve — and slowly — urban sustainability will require a transformation. To produce transformative products or services, you must transform organisations. So you must to redesign the city’s organisations, recalling Peter Drucker’s insight that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, in order to be able to redesign the city. If we want the city to produce a different outcome, it will take a different kind of organisation running it, responsible for it.

The very idea of the city as a public good fundamentally rests on this. And the very idea of the sustainable city relies on understanding that the city is a public good.

Possibility: NIMBY to YIMBY

There is genuine possibility in the new tools, after all. Several of the emerging crowdfunding projects indicate that they might be able to generate significant funds, certainly enough to build serious funding at the start of projects, which is often when they fail, alongside mechanisms for otherwise backing, discussing or sharing best practice.

City halls rarely have a meaningful “suggestions box” on the front door, and these new platforms could be just that. They might reverse a Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) tendency such that it becomes a YIMBY — Yes In My Backyard! — through genuine collaboration and participation in city-making, rather than the dread-word “consultation”.

Few urban interventions currently leave traces of their progress for others to follow, copy, learn from. The internet is built to do that, meaning that you might be able to “view source” for every urban project. Urban activism is usually the province of someone who wants to give up every weekend for years, just to get something done, learning from scratch in each instance as there are no breadcrumb trails to follow from previous projects. With new platforms deployed, activism might become something more akin to plain old urban activity, in which many if not all citizens are more deeply woven into the fabric of their city’s decision-making. Entirely new governance models are implied as a result, with far more frequent, open and active engagement than a vote in the municipal elections every four years. There are different responsibilities both sides here.

Practically and technically, you can read the settling patterns in social media platforms as a blueprint for what a 21st century “social service” might be, whilst also deriving some of the changes in institutional cultures required. And the mode of production in prototyping — starting small, pivoting and scaling, as all contemporary systems do — suggests how we might build. (Brickstarter was a manifestation of this thought.)

For if sustainability fundamentally requires us to think long-term, and with the welfare of others in mind, we must surely create decision-making cultures that not only take into account but actively counter the tendencies of these swirling vortices of individualism and short-termism. If, after Eliel Saarinen, we need to think of our house in terms of the neighbourhood, of the neighbourhood within the city, of the city symbiotically connected to its wider region, and so on, we will have to actively build systems with this in mind. Like judo, we might need to use the powerful dynamics of social media against itself. Otherwise these forces pulling in opposite directions may cause the system to shear itself apart.

In which case, what possible models for cooperative urban governance might emerge from such a culture? Do we need a city in which citizens understand that they are part of a wider system, and behave accordingly, to take a more holistic view beyond individual drivers, to be actively engaged rather than passively observed and “fed back to”, with governments equally engaged as collaborative actors rather than passive procurers? What is the equivalent of Monderman’s dynamic, responsible “shared space” system?

We do need smarter cities

These are questions we cannot fully answer yet, but we should ask them nonetheless.

Yet beyond governance, it’s also clear that much of our existing urban infrastructure is indeed broken. It is, in comparison to “smart”, mostly dumb. The way we procure, develop and construct buildings is well past its “use by” date, and construction, as an industry, is so cumbersome as to be largely ineffective. The way we run our cities tends to be pathetically anachronistic, largely oriented for the 19th century rather than the 21st. Bureacracies cannot seem to scale empathy and engagement, and often seem unable to turn strategy into delivery. The strategic drivers for decision-making about patterns of living and working are either non-existent or not understood. Our shared civic culture is being allowed to atrophy in the face of a powerful hegemony reinforcing a sophisticated individualism as its organising principle.

And we do need to deploy the clear promise of technology into our cities, using a “post-IT” culture to unlock its immense potential to address some of these issues. I, and many others, have written enough about the promise of the smart city in this respect elsewhere — we don’t need to go into it here. There are clear benefits to a more contemporary urban infrastructure — in efficiency, yes, but also in firmness, commodity, delight.

But as well as a new urban hardware and software, it’s in this interface between engaged citizens and engaged government that its real promise may lie, as evidenced by the way that citizens are racing ahead while the smart cities movement lags behind. This medium, as long as it does not put technology in the driving seat, might be immensely useful in terms of introducing genuine efficacy and verve into the way the public sector works, reducing the cost of government massively whilst increasing its positive impact, rebuilding an meaningful civic interface with citizens.

Looking at these emerging patterns described above, we can read a sketch full of promise, indicating the value in an active, engaged government and active, engaged citizens. It will not be enough to have emergent communities without a transformed attitude within bureacracy, just as the Gov2.0 movement has to be more than a Web2.0 front-end plastered over Gov1.0.

The challenge with smart cities, just as with most aspects of cities, is in our various cultures of decision-making. Steven Johnson’s latest book “Future Perfect”, on what he calls “peer progressive” political systems that are built with The Network in mind also provides a useful primer on the emerging thinking here. Similarly, the “hybrid forum” approach being pioneered by architects Elemental and strategic communications firm Tironi in Chile. There, new collaboration methods are transforming the practice of masterplanning, architecture and civic engagement. They are radical in comparison to today’s approaches yet seem entirely common-sense when you dig deeper. We might learn a a lot.

In order to unlock the potential of technology in the city, we must explore a wider frame of reference than that offered by IT corporations and property developers, where a tangle of vested interest and path dependency can only give us neutered, potentially damaging and ironically rather outdated ideas. Let’s be careful not to make the same mistakes we made 50 years ago, which we are still paying for, and still making.

Closing questions: the city as public good

Finally, yet more questions.

Might we enable patterns of living that recognise that cities, as the richest expression of the diversity and dynamism of human culture, thrive on the very unpredictability and inefficiency of citizens, that the city is in itself a form of resistance to steady state systems and refuses to settle on “natural equilibriums”, that it can nonetheless be guided and shaped by shared governance cultures based on its incompleteness, openness and sense of possibility, and recognition that it is a process, not an accretion of infrastructure?

Do we have smart citizens at the core of our smart cities? Are our governance cultures and tools in the right shape to genuinely react to the promise of The Network?

Are we sure that these ideas — drivers and enablers, unpredictability and inefficiency, prototyping and pivoting, personal and civic responsibility, meaningful activity from citizens and government, the city as public good — are part of the smart city vision?

For these are all part of what makes a city work, what makes a good city, and what will make a genuinely resilient city.

Understanding that might be a smart thing to do.

Originally published at on 1st February 2013, based on a couple of essays/talks written during the closing months of 2012.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: