In 2007 US creative cities “guru” Richard Florida was flown up to Noosa to tell the local city council how they, too, could become a creative city.
Noosa was one of a long line of cities across the globe queuing up to pay big bucks to the US-based academic-entrepreneur. “Being creative” had become an almost universal aspiration. Who would not want to be a creative city?
And so Creative [insert name of city here] signs sprang up in the most unlikely places, along with stock shots of creative young things hunched over laptops in cafes.
Ten years later, different gurus are being flown around and the signs have been replaced by Smart [insert name of city here]. The stock shots are much the same, but now the young things are being innovative, disruptive and above all “smart”. That’s the trouble with fast policy: here today, gone tomorrow.
Below the surface more tectonic shifts can be felt. In its first outing in the mid-1990s the “creative city”, associated with thinkers such as Charles Landry, was an energising vision of a new role for cultural creativity in our cities.
Now expanded in democratic fashion beyond the world of “high art” to embrace popular, everyday creativity, culture would be a key resource for the 21st-century city.
Culture could re-activate the decayed industrial zones of the inner city, breathing new life into the dead infrastructures of factories and power stations, dockyards and tram depots, schools, barracks and banks.
“Culture could renew stale urban identities, catalyse new aspirations and stamp a different global brand on long-dormant cities.”
And with the creative industries – culture plus all things design and digital – all that was needed were some creative people and a bit of entrepreneurial flair. Then we would have one of the industries of the future.
Creativity broke cities away from the old bureaucratic top-down planning silos of the industrial city and let them approach the future holistically. Culture would be what cities do best, earning a living and enjoying it at the same time.
By the time Florida had left Noosa the discontent was growing. Big investments in photogenic CBD developments seemed more intended for the creative class than local citizens, generating massive real estate profits while the suburbs languished unloved.
Creative industries turned out not to be so inclusive after all. They failed to soak up all those unemployed dirty industry workers and were reliant on educated workers willing to work their way up on low pay and high debt.
The turn of the smart city
Since the global financial crisis the energising vision has been around social justice, citizenship and the right to the city, with a return of community and activist-focused arts activities. Creatives are now less Californian start-ups and more counter-cultural “post-capitalists”.
Enter the Smart City, creativity without all those messy cultural bits. The tech start-ups were just as cool, the fab labs and hacker spaces just as disruptive, but now slotted onto a very different agenda.
This too promised a re-invention of the city, not now a cultural re-imagining but a complete re-tooling of the social and governmental infrastructure of the city. Courtesy of some very big global tech companies, a new digital infrastructure could be rolled out, applying sensors, data-capture devices and large-scale computing power to urban life.
Smart cities are data cities, promising efficient management of transport and utilities, security, and customised commerce. If the early Creative City embraced the messiness of city life, viewing it not as chaos but creative fecundity, the Smart City give us a clean utopian picture of the perfectly transparent city.
It’s messy on the surface, but with a big data back-room providing bespoke information for almost any aspect of urban living your care to ask for. What’s not to like?
A corporate taming of creativity
That the brains of the Smart City – as envisioned by its corporate promoters – are increasingly embedded in its walls rather than its inhabitants reveals much about the trajectory of the digital economy so closely tied to Florida’s conception of the Creative City and its industries.
Internet scholar Jonathan Zittrain has described the rise of “app” culture as a betrayal of the creative potential unleashed by the mainstreaming of the internet. If the open internet was messy and chaotic, Zittrain argues that it was correspondingly “generative”, promoting experimentation and creativity.
By contrast, the “app” represents the pacification and domestication of the internet: its transformation from a productive medium to an infrastructure for consumption and marketing. Apps sort our music and photos for us, tell us where to eat, how to get there, and what to watch afterwards. The price of the newfound convenience that renders smart phones so addictive is a shift in the balance of control away from the end user.
For Zittrain, the “applified” world is, “one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control” – which is not a bad description of the corporate blueprint for the Smart City.
As urbanist Adam Greenfield has observed, the corporate world has taken the lead in both envisioning and promoting its version of the “informated” city. It looks suspiciously like the commercial internet projected out into physical space.
The promise is one of efficiency, convenience and security: smart streets that adjust traffic flow in real time, walls that change images to suit our tastes (which have become indistinguishable from market preferences), even floors that cushion us when we fall.
For all the talk of disruption, the paradoxical promise of the smart city is one of data-driven efficiency and predictability. The promotional materials feature the same smart young things, freed up from the impositions of daily life (traffic, shopping, routine decision-making, even driving), to do … what?
Whose city is it?
There are surely possibilities here, but the version of smart city as automated city looks inhuman. It promises to serve people by rendering them increasingly efficient, perhaps to the point of their own redundancy.
To subject the future of the city to the corporate imaginary is to concede too much to the galloping privatisation of our cultural and informational infrastructure.
What if the right to the city were also a right to participate in shaping its information infrastructures and their implementation? Can we envision an alternative to centralised corporate control of the city’s data? And how might public priorities be redefined in ways that distinguish them from the private imperatives of the ruling tech giants?
These are the guiding questions in our June 15 symposium in Melbourne, which explores the possibility of another kind of urban culture beyond the tightly controlled formats of the Smart City/Creative City.
This feature originally appeared in The Conversation.