The Rockefeller Foundation on “the future of crowdsourced cities”

Crossposted on Urbanscale.

I had the pleasure of spending Thursday and Friday of week before last immersed in a conversation on “the future of the crowdsourced city” convened by the Rockefeller Foundation, and ably moderated by Carol C. Coletta of CEOs For Cities and the Foundation’s Associate Director for Urban Development, Benjamin de la Peña.

As I understand it, the Foundation is contemplating funding and supporting projects in the urban informatics space, considered broadly — but only as long as such interventions would further their goals of enhanced inclusion and social equity. This two-day session, featuring contributions from a mix of invited experts, was intended to help them get a better sense of both upside potential and the inevitable complications. (Urban Omnibus’s Cassim Shepard has an excellent round-up of the first day’s presentations here.)

In my own thinking and writing, I tend not to use the phrase “crowdsourced”; it’s one of those jargony terms that seems to create more perplexity than light. In this case, however, participants agreed that we were consciously using it as shorthand for some technosocial regime that hadn’t quite yet clarified, but that probably had one or more of the following characteristics:

  • The use of data visualization by municipal government to refine the delivery of services, more precisely target interventions, and otherwise realize latent efficiencies;
  • The use of data visualization to deepen the collective understanding of the spatial distribution of issues and resources in cities;
  • The use of networked informatics to connect citizens directly with municipal government;
  • The use of networked informatics to support initiatives in deliberative democracy, and other forms of collaborative problem-solving;
  • Most excitingly to me: citizens using networked informatics to coordinate their own activities, and supplant the inadequate measures of underfunded or entirely absent government.

This is already quite a laundry list, and understanding how all these pieces may or may not relate to one another is no easy task — especially when you take into account the riotous diversity of individual and institutional actors implied, each with their own agenda and cherished set of priorities. Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that in trying to wrap our heads around the implications of networked urbanism, many of us instinctively retreat to the safe, familiar binary of Jane Jacobs-style, bottom-up activism vs. Robert Moses-style command-and-control development, as I certainly have in the past, and as Greg Lindsay does in this otherwise-excellent piece for Fast Company. But if we’re collectively going to develop any meaningful or usefully actionable insight on the issues raised in the course of the two days, I think we’re going to have to take a deeper cut.

For starters, I’m not sure that the Jacobs/Moses schema necessarily makes much sense anymore, either sheds enough light or does enough work to justify its continued deployment. For one thing, Metcalfe’s law suggests that the real benefits of certain technologies are only likely to become apparent at scale, or when a significant percentage of a population is connected to a given network. (The emergent utility of Facebook, when something approaching ten percent of humanity has an account there, is a perfect illustration.) Since, the example of Facebook aside, it tends to be difficult for local, purely bottom-up initiatives to achieve the kind of consistency required of infrastructure, there’s an argument to be made for certain types of centralized planning.

Further, some interventions in the urban fabric that are later widely acknowledged as public goods would clearly never have been approved had they been subjected to the full rigors of democratic process; as the Institute for the Future’s Anthony Townsend points out, it might now take three hours to get from Manhattan to JFK had Robert Moses not rammed through at least some of his planned expressways, with all that implies for the region’s ability to function and compete.

There are also some inherent issues with any foregrounding of a technologized vox populi.

The most obvious is that recourse to “crowdsourcing” dovetails all-too-neatly with the neoliberal retreat from governance, in a process that Laura Forlano forthrightly calls “offloading” (a more felicitous term for what I’ve previously called “responsibilization”). There may well be a thousand points of light in the naked city, but there are a great many worthwhile ends in municipal management that neither the market nor even the best-coordinated activity of voluntary actors can provide for.

As well, even the best of the current generation of bottom-up citizen intelligence engines — SeeClickFix, for example — are still subject to incoherent rants and the airing of petty or noxious grievances. Here’s an example from this morning:

I am sick and tired of these youth, who I understand may have not had the best upbringing but enough is enough already with these pitiful sentences handed out to them. I am sure they must think that going away for only a few months is just a “holiday”. I lost a cousin to the “Boxing Day Killer” in Regina coming on 4 years and now the machete wielding 14 year old who attacked the cab driver (who I happen to know) when will the judges in this country wake up and hand down a harsher sentence?

This — with all due respect to the poster, and however blessedly purgative it may have felt to share it — is nothing but noise in the system. And yet, as things stand now, it still enjoys the same weight as reports of broken water mains and errant herbicide sprayings.

Of course, everyone who’s ever attended a school- or community-board meeting is familiar with the figure of the gadfly (who may even be correct on the merits of their claim), who, whether through loneliness, frank instability or an exaggerated sense of their own entitlement, hijacks the deliberative process. Such individuals typically see themselves as principled champions of an underappreciated viewpoint, speaking truth to power; everyone else regards them as a nuisance, and an obstacle to getting anything of consequence done in the time allotted.

This is why we have rules of order, and it suggests a parallel requirement for some buffering mechanism in our technological frameworks for citizen responsiveness. Not — never – to suppress the expression of minority viewpoints, but simply to ensure that the crank tickets don’t take up the bandwidth (literal, institutional and psychic) required to address legitimate issues.

Finally, as the recent WikiLeaks drama should have made abundantly clear to everyone, transparency cuts not merely both, but all ways. Total transparency is something none of our institutions yet seem capable of encompassing. If you have any doubts as to just how small and ugly people can be, treat yourself to a leisurely trawl through the comments on the Web site of just about any local newspaper or television station. This unseemly flow can of course be moderated — has to be, especially, if public entities want to avoid any color of endorsing the opinions expressed via the accomodations they provide — but moderation requires staffing and care. And this is precisely the kind of expensive human intervention many institutions figure they’ll be able to cut out of the loop by embracing crowdsourced innovation.

The broader question of what we do with the social facts exposed by this new transparency is posed by the work of invited speakers Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams at Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab. Their justly-celebrated essay in critical cartography, Million Dollar Blocks, is built on nothing “networked” or “digital” per se, merely open access to civic data. And yet it stands as an implicit rebuke to an idea widely prevalent in the more techno-utopian discussions around data visualization: that merely bringing a pattern of fact to light will somehow cause communities of interest capable of effective action to crystallize around it.

This may well happen on occasion, but there’s no guarantee that it will always…or ever. As crusading investigatory journalists learned decades ago, however transcendent the call to justice, it will still need motivated, motivating individuals to act as its agents in the world. If it’s the clear hope of a great many people, myself very much to be numbered among them, that carefully-crafted, well-designed information visualizations may in time furnish our communities with just precisely that kind of motivating call to action, there’s still an uncomfortable amount of daylight between that hope and any evidence of its realization. (For that matter, there’s not enough space on the Internet to detail all the many ways advocacy visualizations can be cooked, just as maps and statistics were before them. Sliders and knobs, pans and zooms: these things ought never to imply that one is in the presence of Truth.)

These are some of the easily-foreseeable problems with purely bottom-up approaches to urban informatics. None of this is to denigrate the legacy of Jane Jacobs, of course, who remains a personal hero and a primary touchstone for my work. And none of it is to argue that there oughn’t be a central role for the democratic voice in the development of policy, the management of place and the delivery of services. It’s just to signal that things might not be as straightforward as we might wish — especially those of us who have historically been energized by the presence of a clear (and clearly demonizable) opponent.

If I’ve spent my space here calling attention to the pitfalls of bottom-up approaches, I hope it’s obvious that it’s because I think the promise is so self-evident. (I’d hardly have built a practice around designing these systems otherwise.) Personally, I was delighted to hear Anthony Townsend’s prognostication of/call for a “planet of civic laboratories,” in which getting to scale immediately is less important than a robust search of the possibility space around these new technologies, and how citydwellers around the world will use them in their making of place. It’s a moment I’m both honored and terribly excited to be a part of, in even the smallest way.

Thanks to Carol and the Rockefeller Foundation for inviting me to the table, for framing the conversation so productively, and for hosting such a stimulating group of people. Judging from what I heard, I can’t imagine better guides to meaningful action if and when you do choose to make interventions in this space.

And with that, I think the time has come to thank you for your readership and let you know that I’m shutting Speedbird down. I posted here for just a touch over four years, and while it was a great platform and home to some wonderful conversations, I feel like my contributions are going to be taking different forms from here on in. (You may, as ever, put that word in quotes if you feel so inclined.)

There are way too many of you to thank by name, so forgive me if I do so collectively. You’ve challenged, supported, goaded, helped and taught me hugely, and you’ve been exceedingly patient as regards The City Is Here For You To Use — a book which, I will ask you to believe, is not merely a million times better for the delay, but forthcoming in the not-ridiculous future. If I have a parting wish, it’s that all of your ventures will feel as rewarding as Speedbird has and does for me. Be seeing you.

4 responses to “The Rockefeller Foundation on “the future of crowdsourced cities””

  1. Sean P Murphy says :

    Nice and smooth, Adam. Keep kicking.

  2. Gene Becker says :

    Great stuff, and more than a bit sad to see this door closing. Godspeed, Bird.

  3. Fred Scharmen says :

    A good run, Adam. I predict you’ll be back, here, or elsewhere!

  4. AG says :

    Y’all may not have very long to wait. : . )

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