Smart cities in present tense
Back in 2008, when the smart city movement was taking its first steps, Robert G. Hollands asked for ‘the real smart city to stand up’ . Since then, there has been an intense and ongoing debate around this subject, as well as a number of projects selfproclaiming their ‘smartness’. Great steps have been taken in some leading cities to explore how we turn digital innovation into public service improvements. But we still face the same question: how do we get citizens involved as active agents of this digital urban revolution? Let us first consider how cities are described in presentations and commercial brochures. Often, the same common perspective is used — the view from above. When an urban system is viewed in this way, only infrastructures and urban form are visible — these renders do not depict people (and the complexity of social interactions) — smart cities, therefore, become a matter of managing infrastructures, designing cities from scratch and building an illusory feeling that everything can be under control. A city seems to be just a layout of streets, whilst what happens there remains hidden. This focus is sensible, useful and feasible, but only for certain urban issues concerning infrastructure and utility. In a networked society, citizens demand to play a more active and meaningful role. Scale and perspective determine what you see and how you see it. From the street level, the intersection of urban life and technology raises issues, fields of knowledge, possibilities and consequences. All of this seems to be irrelevant in the smart city visions dominating the current landscape. They are unable to address meaning in terms of citizenship, politics, conflict, public space, etc, — permanent elements of collective life that remain beyond technological sophistication. Pursuing a future of cities based on the aspiration to predict a whole city will, at some point, need to confront the unexpected — the thing that makes life amazing and is part of the real cities we are living in today.
The best thing about digital technologies and their intersection with urban life is that great movements are already happening and there is no need to wait for others (companies or governments) to build new solutions. It is hard to see them from those top-down visions, as they evolve on a distributed basis. It is hard to see them because they are emerging thanks largely to the gathering of activists, technologists and people concerned with the problems of daily life; sometimes out of the spotlight of the current spectacularisation of smart cities. It is happening in places like Medialab Prado in Madrid, a collective innovation laboratory. It takes the form of people coding for social good in platforms such as Code for America, hackathons and other kind of collective action processes that are boosted by digital technologies. It emerges in collaborative processes between local government departments and citizens to improve public services to deliver beta version innovation. The smart city becomes real when people can deal with open technologies to build their own public infrastructure for environmental monitoring or share a community network of wireless connections. The smart city promises make sense only when citizens become makers and crowdsource manufacturing for the needs of their neighbourhood. Hundreds of cities are making public data open; making it possible for developers, civic hackers and activists to reuse it and thus, broaden public information with new transparency tools. The smart city becomes an arena for smart citizens when we understand the ways people are engaging using available, locally provided, digital tools. Smart cities are what happens in the intersection of urbanism and art exploration through digital media facades and other kind of critical thinking interventions in public space in which citizens engage, build, organise, create and share a common platform — our cities. All these examples illustrate what the renders can not: a growing number of people working in real places, with real problems, to build real solutions, with the technologies we have in our hands. The transformative power of this opportunity is still in its infancy. The way we engage citizens in the development of smart cities starts by acknowledging what is already going on. There is too much focus on yet-to-come promises based on infrastructures and solutions, oriented to solve only government efficiency needs. However, the rules have changed in the digital era: thanks to open technologies, people can make real things together. But to do so in our cities, community engagement and strong physical connections are still relevant and the mix of digital knowledge and activism is needed more than ever, as is evidenced in the aforementioned examples. The good thing is that this is already happening, just not in the way mainstream visions predict. This essay is part of Smart citizens, a book published by Future Everything and edited by Drew Hemment and Anthony Townsend.
Originally published at www.ciudadesaescalahumana.org.