Public Infrastructure, from Limn
Limn Vol 7: Public Infrastructures / Infrastructural Publics
Editors: Stephen J. Collier, James Christopher Mizes, Antina von Schnitzler
From “Crafting a Digital Republic”
Smart city projects integrate information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructures into the provision of civic services. Their core implication is that mobile, digital technologies hold the potential to provide novel solutions to longstanding social and economic issues. Such an approach assumes that new technologies can effect change quickly, more efficiently, and for a lower price than a low-tech, “dumb” policy strategy. These efforts harness the ubiquitous connectivity and data-gathering potential of digital infrastructures: the internet and wireless mobile communication, smartphones and other computing gadgets, and also software, algorithms, and machine-sorted data in widespread use today. These networks and devices are built and maintained by massive, trans-national ICT corporations, not least Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), AT&T, Cisco, Microsoft, and Oracle (Dullforce 2015). The complexity of digital systems — hardware, software, and data — leads to a unique set of experts and private institutions attached to the provision and maintenance of the infrastructure underpinning smart city policies and projects. This is a markedly different situation from other, more state-centric forms of public services such as the provision of water or transportation.
At issue is the expectation of smart city experts both that the digital solution is best, and that users will adopt said solution in the fashion the experts planned for. Here I present Philadelphia’s experience partnering with IBM to harness digital infrastructure and residents’ smartphones to provide a workforce education app that would both train residents with skills relevant for jobs in emerging industries and also connect residents to potential employers. With this case study, I focus on the inability of experts to foresee the sort of pitfalls that emerge when new technologies are deployed into the public sphere too quickly and without the knowledge resources on hand to adapt a prototype into a more complex “real-world” situation.