The Smartest Cities Rely On Citizen Cunning And Unglamorous Technology
Ignore the futuristic visions of governments and developers, it’s humble urban communities who lead the way in showing how networked technologies can strengthen a city’s social fabric.
We are lucky enough to live at a time in which a furious wave of innovation is breaking across the cities of the global south, spurred on both by the blistering pace of urbanisation, and by the rising popular demand for access to high-quality infrastructure that follows in its wake.
From Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting and the literally destratifying cable cars of Caracas, to Nairobi’s “digital matatus” and the repurposed bus-ferries of Manila, the communities of the south are responsible for an ever-lengthening parade of social and technical innovations that rival anything the developed world has to offer for ingenuity and practical utility.
Nor is India an exception to this tendency. Transparent Chennai’s participatory maps and the work of the Mumbai-based practices CRIT and URBZ are better-known globally, but it is the tactics of daily survival devised by the unheralded multitude that really inspire urbanists. These techniques maximise the transactive capacity of the urban fabric, wrest the very last increment of value from the energy invested in the production of manufactured goods, and allow millions to eke a living, however precarious, from the most unpromising of circumstances. At a time of vertiginously spiralling economic and environmental stress globally, these are insights many of us in the developed north would be well advised to attend to – and by no means merely the poorest among us.
But, for whatever reason, this is not the face of urban innovation official India wants to share with the world – perhaps small-scale projects or the tactics of the poor simply aren’t dramatic enough to convey the magnitude and force of national ambition. We hear, instead, of schemes like Palava City, a nominally futuristic vision of digital technology minutely interwoven into the texture of everday urban life. Headlines were made around the planet this year when Narendra Modi’s government announced it had committed to building no fewer than 100 similarly “smart” cities.
Because definitions of the smart city remain so vague, I think it’s worth thinking carefully about what this might mean – beyond, that is, the 7,000 billion rupees (£70bn) in financing that India’s high powered expert committee on urban infrastructure believes the scheme will require over the next 20 years. It is one thing, after all, to reinforce the basic infrastructures that undergird the quality of urban life everywhere; quite another to propose saddling India’s cities with expensive, untested technology at a time when reliable access to electricity, clean drinking water or safe sanitary facilities remain beyond reach for too many.
We can take it as read that our networked technologies will continue to play some fairly considerable role in shaping the circumstances and possibilities experienced by billions of city-dwellers worldwide. So it’s only appropriate to consider the ways in which these technologies might inform decisions about urban land use, mobility and governance.
However, especially at a time of such enthusiasm for the notion in India, I think it’s vital to point out that “the smart city” is not the only way of bringing advanced information technology to bear on these questions of urban life. It’s but one selection from a sheaf of available possibilities, and not anywhere near the most responsive, equitable or fructifying among them.
We can see this most easily by considering just who it is the smart city is intended for – by seeking to discover what model of urban subjectivity is inscribed in the scenarios offered by the multinational IT vendors that developed the smart city concept in the first place, and who are heavily involved in sites like Palava. When you examine their internal documentation, marketing materials and extant interventions, it becomes evident there is a pronounced way of thinking about the civic that is bound up in all of them, with rather grim implications for the politics of participation.
A close reading leaves little room for doubt that vendors like Microsoft, IBM, Siemens, Cisco and Hitachi construct the resident of the smart city as someone without agency; merely a passive consumer of municipal services – at best, perhaps, a generator of data that can later be aggregated, mined for relevant inference, and acted upon. Should he or she attempt to practise democracy in any form that spills on to the public way, the smart city has no way of accounting for this activity other than interpreting it as an untoward disruption to the orderly flow of circulation. (This is explicit in Palava’s marketing materials, as well.) All in all, it’s a brutally reductive conception of civic life, and one with little to offer those of us whose notions of citizenhood are more robust.
Given how impoverished this vision is, a casual onlooker could hardly be faulted for concluding that networked information technology is something that will never furnish contemporary city-dwellers with the architecture of participation they deserve. But while this is certainly a more defensible position than breathless technophilia, or the blithe stories of triumphally self-regulating urban ecosystems the vendors themselves peddle, I happen to believe this is not the case. I remain convinced that ordinary city-dwellers can use networked informatics beneficially, to support them in their aims of group coordination, collective decision-making and deliberative self-determination. The following two case studies might help put some flesh on the bones of this assertion.
Organised by veterans of Occupy Wall Street, the citizen relief group known as Occupy Sandy emerged in response to the unprecedented damage done to New York City by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its lineage, OS was organised along strong principles of leaderlessness, horizontality and consensus. What may be more surprising is that this group of amateurs – unequipped with budgetary resources or any significant prior experience of logistics management, and assembled at a few hours’ notice – is universally acknowledged as having outstripped traditional, hierarchical and abundantly resourced groups like the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross in delivering relief to the hardest-hit communities.
Occupy Sandy’s volunteers were unquestionably able to do this because they used networked technology to coordinate and maintain real-time situational awareness over their activities. Crucially, though, the systems they used were neither particularly elaborate, nor the ones many theorists of networked urbanism might have envisioned. They certainly didn’t have anything to do with the high-spec, high-margin instrumentation that IT multinationals would have municipal governments invest in.
In a stroke of inspired creativity, Occupy activists repurposed Amazon’s existing e-commerce and fulfillment infrastructure, in the form of a wedding registry, to funnel donated goods to the distribution centre they had set up in a Brooklyn church. If this audacious act of jugaad underwrote the entire recovery effort, its day-to-day operations relied upon another, as the movements of hundreds of volunteers and thousands of donations, hot meals and pieces of construction material were tracked in a single, gigantic Google Docs spreadsheet never intended for any such purpose. Asynchronous, robust, distributed technologies like mailing lists and text messaging completed the picture, allowing coordinators to maintain links between this nexus of activity and the growing community of donors, potential volunteers and activists that sprawled across the entire north-east region.
If supple, network-mediated coordination of this type could help people manage the highly dynamic circumstances that followed Sandy’s landfall, might it perhaps also prove useful under less volatile conditions? After all, the greatest disasters that ever befall most urban communities move more slowly than a hurricane. They are the ones that are economic in nature.
The La Latina neighbourhood of Madrid was once home to a thriving market hall, and later a well-used community sporting facility, demolished in August 2009 to make way for planned improvements. But with Spain in the grips of the 2008 economic downturn, the money earmarked for the improvements failed to materialise, and the site remained vacant, cordoned off from the rest of the city by a chainlink fence. As such sacrifice zones will tend to, this site, el Campo de Cebada, increasingly began to attract graffiti, illegal dumping and still-less salutary behaviour. Alerted to the deteriorating situation by neighbours, city authorities claimed they were powerless to intervene, apparently in the belief that they had no right to intercede on land belonging to private developers.
Exasperated with this state of affairs, a group of community activists, including architects of the Zuloark collective, cut through the fence and immediately began recuperating the site for citizen use. Following a cleanup, the activists used salvaged material to build benches, mobile sunshades and other elements of an ingenious, rapidly reconfigurable parliament – and the first question they put before this parliament was how to manage the site itself.
This self-stewardship was successful enough for long enough for the collective to eventually obtain quasi-official sanction from the municipal administration. Some three years on, in its various roles as recreation ground, youth centre and assembly hall, el Campo has become a vital community resource. If it has problems now, they are of the sort that attend unanticipated success: on holiday weekends especially, the site attracts overflow crowds.
Where’s the technology in all of this? Beyond canny use of Twitter and Facebook, and an online calendar of activities, there isn’t much. That’s the point. The benches and platforms of el Campo aren’t festooned with sensors, don’t have IPv6 addresses, don’t comply with some ISO wireless-networking standard. The art walls aren’t high- resolution interactive touch surfaces, and the young people painting on them certainly haven’t been issued with Palava-style, all- in-one smartcards. Nevertheless, it would be a profound mistake to not understand el Campo as the heavily networked place it is, just as Occupy Sandy’s distribution centres were.
These are intensely technologised sites, places where the shape of action and possibility are profoundly conditioned by what I call the “dark weather” of the network – that layer of information that swirls around the physical environment, intangible to the unaided human sensorium but possessing terrific potency. It’s simply that in both these cases, the sustaining interactivity was for the most part founded on the use of mature technologies, long deglamorised and long settled into what the technology-consulting practice Gartner refers to as the “trough of disillusionment”.
The true enablers of participation turn out to be nothing more exciting than cheap commodity devices, reliable access to sufficiently high- bandwidth connectivity, and generic cloud services. These implications should be carefully mulled over by developers, those responsible for crafting municipal and national policy, and funding bodies in the philanthropic sector.
In both these cases, ordinary people used technologies of connection to help them steer their own affairs, not merely managing complex domains to a minimal threshold of competence, but outperforming the official bodies formally entrusted with their stewardship. This presents us with the intriguing prospect that more of the circumstances of everyday urban life might be managed this way, on a participatory basis, by autonomous neighbourhood groups networked with one another in something amounting to a city-wide federation.
In order to understand how we might get there from here, we need to invoke a notion drawn from the study of dynamic systems. Metastability is the idea that there are multiple stable configurations a system can assume within a larger possibility space; the shape that system takes at the moment may simply be one among many that are potentially available to it. Seen in this light, it’s clear that all the paraphernalia we regard as the sign and substance of government may in fact merely constitute what a dynamicist would think of as a “local maximum”. There remain available to us other possible states, in which we might connect to one another in different ways, giving rise to different implications, different conceptions of urban citizenship, and profoundly different outcomes.
The sociologist Bruno Latour warns us not to speak airily of “potential”, reminding us that we have to actually do the work of bringing some state of affairs into being before we can know whether it was indeed a possible future state of the system – and also that work is never accomplished without some cost. I nevertheless believe, given the very substantial benefits we know people and communities enjoy when afforded real control over the conditions of their being, that whatever the cost incurred in this exploration, it would be one well worth bearing.
The evidence before us strongly suggests that investment in the unglamorous technologies, frameworks and infrastructures that are already known to underwrite citizen participation would result in better outcomes for tens of millions of ordinary Indians – and would shoulder the state with far-less onerous a financial burden – than investment in the high-tech chimeras of centralised control. The wisest course would be to plan technological interventions to come on the understanding that the true intelligence of the Indian city will continue to reside where it always has: in the people who live and work in it, who animate it and give it a voice.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.