Dreaming of Another City

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The contemporary vision of a smart city utilizing modernist digital technologies, in fact, suggests a safe, secure, and comfortable heaven just for a few and at the expense of everybody else. However, there is another kind of citizen-centered smart city where the same technologies can be used for real, tangible benefit to entire communities, argues Adam Greenfield who shared his futuristic views during his public lecture at the Moscow Urban Forum this June.

We are all enticed by the vision of cities becoming smarter, more convenient, and more viable. However, I would argue that the prevailing notion of a smart city as we generally perceive it nowadays is garbage, nonsense, and another waste of investment, and that the vision of technological modernity that is usually presented to us as the future is, in fact, already the past. It will hardly have anything to do with the vision of information technology at the service of people and directly guided by people – in their choices, desires, and ambitions.

Strong statements require strong evidence. The Intelligent Operations Center Corporation built by IBM for the city of Rio de Janeiro is probably a good example. This facility, which cost taxpayers $40 million, is truly technically, and intellectually sophisticated. It collects a great variety of different kinds of information, such as weather data. It absorbs social media postings and, by means of its artificial intelligence abilities, can do sentimental analysis, so it is attempting to find out literally the mood of the city. It also takes video streams from surveillance and CCTV cameras, data from street sensors and public transit information, and it brings it all into one facility, which allows city managers to make better-informed decisions.

So, why bother? Given an in-depth understanding of this technology is in place, one would be afraid of something called an application programming interface (API), which is a structured conduit of definitions, protocols, and tools for building software and applications. The very interesting thing about the IBM center in Rio is that there was no provision made for the design of an API, even though it is very cheap compared to the cost of the facility.

What that tells us, in fact, is that the designers of the center did not intend for anyone but Rio de Janeiro’s city management to make use of this information, and that the intent is to keep it to themselves to make proactive, predictive, anticipatory decisions about the state of the city. For example, one option available is to deploy police to poor neighborhoods to manage them and curb expressions of discontent. The troops in Rio are none other than the Special Operations Police Battalion, an organization that has been cited over many years by Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations for violating the rights of the city’s citizens. Whatever the politics are like, it doesn’t look fine with politics of the people in Rio.

An example of how predictive analytics might work can be seen in the city of Chicago, where the police department here has a hot-list, a list of about 400 individuals in the city who are considered to be most likely to commit violent crime in the future. The litany is developed based on the things people say on social media. So, if somebody expresses anger, rage, or frustration on Twitter or Facebook, he or she should be aware that they may be added to the city police force’s hot-list. Then, whether or not they actually commit any crime at all, the police force may come and knock on their door to say, “Hello, we are watching you.” This is how predictive analytics, predictive policing works, which is illegal in most places on Earth because it violates people’s rights.

In fact, the brand of logic and ethics of watching people in a smart city from above is one that implies the state has a god’s eye view, a perspective on what each of us is doing at any time, in any place. This is the vision that we ourselves do not share. It is about nothing, in fact, other than the exploitation of people by city managers that arrogated to themselves the right to act on our behalf. In this model, residents of a smart city are not cured citizens. They are merely subjects whose only role is to gather and generate data that is used by other people for their ends, never for the people’s own desires and uses. In this model, residents of a smart city are only material. They are almost meat.

There is another subtext to these systems, which is commercial exploitation. But it is obviously not a commercial exploitation people think is interesting in a meaningful sense of the term. All that we have been able to do with this technology so far is reach people for marketing purposes. It looks like you are getting an SMS-message saying, “You passed our shop 10 times last week, but you have never been inside. Can we offer you five greenbacks off your next purchase? Maybe you’ll walk in the door.”

This is literally what taxpayers in the city of Rio de Janeiro or Chicago spent tens of millions of dollars on. But does this benefit the shop’s consumers? Probably yes. But to a very small extent. Does this benefit the shop itself? Maybe slightly more than that. Does that really benefit the city? What is the return on this investment, and is it worth that investment? These are some questions that representatives in a city government should be asked when they move toward putting the taxpayers’ money into these kinds of technologies.

This is the smart city as we have it today. In fact, it is a state of lassitude and laziness. And it is a complete surrender to market logic with a profound moral vacuity at its core.

For the Good of Society

But is there an alternative, potentially positive vision of technologized modernity in an urban place? The answer is yes, there is. There is a concept that takes the same set of available technologies and turns them toward more fruitful and productive ends.

A big point here is how we get and make use of information. The first thing that we should do if we are to do it in a productive way is to stop fetishizing data. We are constantly told that ‘big data’ is our future, that it is the way to unlock profit and potential, and that it is the key to increasing revenue and democracy. But things do not actually look like this. The problem is that almost nobody who uses the expression ‘big data’ understands what it means, or how to proactively make use of this information in a way that is productive or fruitful for an enterprise or for the good of our society.

So, for example, an analytical report produced by MIT Senseable City Lab, based on mobile phone data gathered at a Madonna concert in Rome in 2014, literally tells us that when Madonna gave a concert in Rome, a lot of people went to see her; and that when the concert was over, they left the venue by different paths, going home in different directions. But instead of deploying tens of millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure to tell us things that we probably already would know if we merely asked ourselves, there is another approach to making real sense of data. It would be to get the information collected by people themselves.

There is an example of a recent door-to-door survey, conducted in a poor neighborhood of London by its residents. It may seem like a very old-fashioned approach, but the advantages of doing things this way, in fact, turned out to be huge. One clear benefit was that those hired for the job were elderly, very young, unemployed, so the £10 an hour they were paid was not trivial. And the undertaking helped them learn something about the neighborhood in which they lived; in going door-to-door, these people realized the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic diversity of their environment. Even more importantly, they felt they were valuable, contributing members of society, possibly for the first time in their lives. And, very interestingly, they added some extraordinary value as they collected better data than any sensors ever could. So, when the effort of gathering and repurposing data is undertaken in this way, the benefits are multidimensional.

Another crucial point beyond how we make use of data is how we make and fix things in our cities. A modernist approach would be to take digital fabrication technologies, such as 3D-printing or CNC-milling, and using repositories of freely downloadable specifications. It means there should be online libraries of patterns that are feely licensed and available for free download that would cover virtually every kind of thing we could possibly want in everyday life.

When these tools and technologies are deployed in clean economic, ecological city-center workshops, when they are powered by micro grid, solar, wind, or geothermal power, and when they are under democratic community control, people around can realize a kind of advantage that we do not have now.

They can start making things for use value, not of fetish value. Instead of going to a department store and seeing aspirational goods that we cannot afford and do not need, we can build things that are necessary and we would want to use in our lives, including housing and infrastructures at scale. We are going to move toward digital fabrication as a cultural element, of a way of doing the world. There is very little to do with consumerism and much more to do with need, and with production for need.


The vision of everyday life that is encompassed by the concept of a smart city implies it is one of consumption, convenience, and security for all. But in the brick-and-mortar world, it is almost consumption, convenience, and security for a few – a permanent state of exception for everybody else. So. whenever the general public is presented with images that suggest that everybody gets to share equally in the benefits of a smart city, people should remember that in places like the smart city of Masdar in Abu-Dhabi, UAE, 79.6% of the population and around 90% of the labor force are not included in that vision. Just have a look at the people who built Masdar. While the lovely high-tech settlement has all those umbrellas that magically open when the sun comes up to shield the plazas beneath from the harsh rays of the desert sun and moderate the climate beneath them, before later folding up, there is more to how the people actually live themselves. In fact, their everyday habitat is uninsulated metal shipping containers under the desert sun behind the fence with razor wire on top, guarded by privatized security guards and automatic weapons; their passports are retained from and upon arrival; and they are subject to a very kind of social, ecological, and sexual abuse.

The Community Garden

An obvious idea is to take these technologies of fabrication, the city center on-demand fabrication, and serve them to needs at multiple scales, such as turning abandoned places into places that are productive, bringing direct economic benefit to cities, serving actual needs and other officially propagated desires, individual and collective capacity building, and surfacing among us an active community. It will bring back the sense of each other that people have missed in the past 20 to 50 years of our civilization. We can use these technologies to make a place of democracy and to decide among ourselves on the vision of the future people would like to see realized.

Very interestingly, however, when productive capabilities are organized in this way, historically, it has had political implications. They have given rise to a kind of feistiness and rebelliousness among the people who build these production technologies, and unwillingness to be ruled. This makes for a very appealing federation of local powers. It is a very attractive way to think of going back to a bright future. In fact, there is another kind of city where we could use the same modernist technologies to make things for real use and tangible benefits to communities without disrupting their lives: a city that is always evolving. A city that is a community garden.

However, we all have to remember that cities that are community gardens are messy. They are contentious and they save multiple arguments among the their people who make them and make use of them. They are unfinished, and never to be finished. They also are places where things are growing. These places have utility, value, and worth. And they are very often places where beautiful things are going. If we want to have this, we can’t think in terms of potential, we must think in terms of the work that will take us together to them.

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