Two recent interviews
Two recent interviews, neither of which will appear in their original English when published. I apologize if they’re slightly redundant, either between the two presented here or between these and other recent interviews I’ve given. (A guy gets tired of answering the same questions all the time, you know?) I hope you enjoy them nonetheless.
Where is the world now in terms of developing smart cities? Is it at the start of a long journey? What’s the level of investment now?
Well, as you probably know, I don’t use the terminology “smart cities” at all. As a matter of fact, that term itself is sort of a dead giveaway that we’re just beginning to discover the potential that waits for us at the intersection of networked information technology and everyday urban experience.
What I see so far, just about everywhere, is partial, tactical, disarticulated propositions, very much inflected by existing institutional practices and the perspectives and investment priorities of incumbents. This city has RFID-mediated transit payment, that one has dynamic pricing markets for parking, still another has a robust and useful open municipal data platform — but very, very few places on Earth have yet quite grasped the potential that arises when all of these things exist all at once, in a conscious informational ecosystem, and each element is able to feed on the data produced by every other.
In a perverse way, though, we may be benefiting from precisely this sense of disarticulation and disconnection. What we wind up with, when every object and surface and transaction in the city is made visible to the network, is an extraordinarily detailed picture of our movements, our behaviors and our patterns of association. There’s obviously an enormous amount of value locked up in that picture, value that will yield quite readily to the application of advanced analytics — but I’m not sure any of us as individuals, let alone any human society, is quite ready to face up to total transparency, or will quite like what we see in the mirror these technologies hold up to us.
What are the benefits, to individuals and society?
At present, these technologies are generally sold to municipalities with a set of fairly predictable claims about enhanced efficiency, convenience, security and sustainability, but quite frankly I think those are red herrings. The real benefits we stand to realize from the introduction of networked informatics into our cities are the increased sense of control we achieve over the circumstances of our own lives, the enhancement of our competence as citydwellers, and the potential they hold to underwrite new and more responsive patterns of land use, mobility and urban governance.
How viable is it to convert existing infrastructures into smarter set-ups?
I think that very much depends on the kind of infrastructure we’re talking about. As far as heavy urban infrastructure is concerned, it’s straightforward enough to retrofit existing sewerage systems or electric grids with flow meters and so forth. But the cleverest interventions of all rely solely on the networked sensor package, identity credential and interface device 96 out of every 100 adults on the planet already carry around on their person at all times: the mobile phone. Solutions that leverage this set of capabilities can be deployed almost immediately, and at comparatively negligible expense.
What sectors stand to benefit as these ideas gather more investment?
I think it’s fair to say that in the medium term, every sector will find some operational efficiency to be gleaned from the deployment of this class of technologies. But as we collectively get more fluent with them, as we begin to unfold the fuller potential that’s bound up in them, our societies (and our business practices along with them) will necessarily undergo a profoundly disruptive series of transformations, and these may well result in a set of institutions someone approaching them from the vantage point of the twenty-teens would barely recognize. Clay Shirky famously said that institutions tend to conserve the problem to which they are the solution. This may be a reasonably clever strategy in the short term, but it leaves organizations and even entire sectors dead as the dinosaurs when the problem they’re designed to solve evaporates. What too many enterprises are doing right now amounts to perfecting the horseshoe at the very moment the automobile has started to arrive on the streets and roads of the land. The advantage under conditions of rapid and far-reaching change, therefore, goes to those actors who are able to transform their processes, their value proposition, their structure and even their very form to account for the terrain on which they now operate. The city, as a terrain of business operations, is evolving furiously at our moment in time, and it’s by no means certain that each and every one of our incumbent institutions and ways of doing things will survive.
What do you mean by smart cities: are you referring only to the three sites you’ve described in your book or more generally to existing cities upgraded with technologies?
Well, as I explain in the pamphlet, we need to understand that the phrase “smart city” only refers to the most limited and impoverished conception of the networked urban environment. It’s a particular discourse, in other words, and that discourse really only implies three things: the deployment of a centralized apparatus of data capture and analysis by existing enterprise-scale IT vendors; the wholesale abstraction and quantification of urban processes to render them transparent to that apparatus, and tractable by it; and the development of managerial techniques useful to an administrative authority so equipped.
The three places on Earth I examine in the pamphlet are of interest primarily as sites where this discourse finds its purest expression. In and of themselves, they’re trivial footnotes in the history of human habitation, not anything like “cities” by any reasonable definition of the word. Their sole significance is that they are staging grounds for the techniques a particular class of institutional actors badly wants to deploy across all conurbations in the years to come.
You’re writing about IT companies taking over cities. Could you explain how? What’s the goal?
“Taking over” may be a bit strong, but IT companies and their products “coming to play an outsized and inappropriate role in the management of” cities is probably about right.
From their perspective, the goal is clearly to find new markets for their existing products and services, or minor variations thereupon. IBM’s Intelligent Operations Center product, for example, is merely a zeitgeisty repackaging of a set of rules governing the execution of preset, stereotyped procedures any time the distributed mesh of sensing devices detects that some threshold value of a given metric has been breached. But for the claim that the software suite develops a full enough picture of what’s happening in the city on a minute-by-minute basis that it can help administrators predict and preempt emergent conditions, what it does is very little more elaborate than the rules you might set up to manage spam filters for your email client’s inbox. It’s something one might use to manage the operations of any large organization. There’s virtually nothing about it that’s inherently or specifically urban.
You’re describing cities subjecting citizens to the logic of algorithms. Could you elaborate?
In order to transform some body of data you’ve gathered into something an administrator might find meaningful and actionable, you first need to perform some sorting operation on it, right? That’s all an algorithm is, in this sense: a kind of numeric sieve. You toss an utterly opaque and unwieldy urban complexity into the hopper at one end, you apply some set of filters to it, and out the other end comes actionable clarity. That, at is most essential, is the core logic of the smart city: given everything we know about traffic, or the places that garbage accumulates, or the distribution of emergency-room admissions for acute asthma, here is the optimal strategy for dealing with that state of affairs. And we see this rhetoric of optimization throughout the smart city discourse.
This way of thinking may be superficially appealing, but the problems with it are legion. For one thing, famously, correlation isn’t causation, but that’s a nicety that may be lost on a mayor or a municipal administration that wants to be seen as vigorously proactive. If fires disproportionately seem to break out in neighborhoods where lots of poor people live, hey, why not simply clear the poor people out and take credit for doing something about fire? After all, the city dashboard you’ve just invested tens of millions of dollars in made it very clear that neighborhoods that had the one invariably had the other. But maybe there was some underlying, unaddressed factor that generated both fires and the concentration of poverty. (If this example strikes you as a tendentious fabulation, or a case of reductio ad absurdum, trust me: the literature of operations research is replete with highly consequential decisions made on grounds just this shoddy.)
More pointedly, such algorithmically-derived recommendations pretend to be apolitical, when they are anything but. Data analysis might help determine the optimal site for a wind turbine or a rape-crisis center, but in anything that resembles a democracy, believing that those are worthwhile investments to make in the first place deposits us firmly and unavoidably in the realm of politics. At best you can use analytics to make the case that we the public should collectively invest in those facilities, on those locations, for whatever set of reasons the data seems to suggest. But there will always be parties that contest the picture of reality you’re painting, parties that think there are other and better uses of the available resources, and there’s no way of satisfying all the city’s constituencies at once. Not even in principle. There’s simply no such thing as optimizing a city.
Finally, there’s always a politics that inheres in the algorithm to begin with, which tends to be suppressed or elided when any second-order operation whatsoever is performed on the results of its application. Someone — some known historical actor — wrote that algorithm, decided which values to weight and which to discard. Someone decided that “innovation” was an interesting or a useful quantity to measure, but that it was too difficult to measure directly, and so numbers of patent applications would be used as a proxy index for innovation. And then articles appear saying, for example, that San Diego is across-the-board “more innovative” than New York or San Francisco. And people act on those articles! They invest capital, or they move their families halfway across the country, in pursuit of everything that’s implied by that kind of framing. Well, all due respect to San Diego, but anyone who’s thought about the matter for two seconds knows that urban innovation — I’m talking about genuine, materially productive novelty, with real and significant economic value even beyond the generation of cultural capital — doesn’t work that way. It simply cannot be reduced to patent applications. Chicago may not generate much in the way of patents by comparison with, say, Eindhoven, but which one gave the world house music? How much value do you think would have been left on the floor, worldwide, over the past thirty years if Frankie Knuckles had never entered the DJ booth at The Warehouse? How many second- or third-order developments in audio technology, fashion or visual culture would never have come into existence? And where do you think he shows up in that innovation algorithm? Nowhere at all.
The bottom line is that what gets reified in an algorithm like this is driven by what you choose to pay attention to, and what you choose to pay attention to is a function of what you value. There’s not a single neutral thing about it.
Would you say living in smart cities could be a nightmare?
I’m less interested in whether or not living in a so-called smart city could be a nightmare — although I’m certain that it would be for many, and perhaps even statistically most — than in the kinds of subjects and subjectivities that tend to be reproduced by the act of living in such a place.
I think we have a pretty clear sense of what that would look like, at least at the limit. Consider that “optimized” urban management, as a sorting process, tends to create epistemic and experiential bubbles, and it does so in two ways. First, it acts to eliminate the daily frictions that force us to confront the other, and acknowledge the validity of that other’s claims to the city. And secondly, it gives us a set of tools that we can use to manage our own exposure to difference. (I saw a data-analytics company give a presentation a few years ago, where both the headline on their PowerPoint deck and the value proposition they were claiming for their product was literally and in so many words “Find People Like Me.”)
But that’s not how cities work. That’s not, even remotely, what cities are for. You want to be surrounded by People Like You, fine — go live in the suburbs. Cities are, by definition, sites for the practice of cosmopolitanism, and anyone who makes the choice to live in one had better expect that along with the economic opportunity comes the unavoidable necessity of negotiating with people who are different, who hold values and prerogatives that diverge from those you hold yourself. This is a good thing, by the way, a very good thing, because it’s that constant exposure to difference that generates the worldly, tolerant, resilient, feisty personality we associate with big cities around the world and throughout human history.
So to me, it’s not so much that living in a smart city would be a nightmare. It’s that the residents of any city that had been rendered “smart” in the way contemporary discourse suggests would themselves be nightmares to encounter and deal with: touchy, needy, self-absorbed, and above all incapable of negotiating the shared use of resources, whether those resources be spatial, budgetary or attentional.
What would be an alternative to smart cities? Open cities, also connected? What does it mean for inhabitants? For the entire society?
I think we are barely beginning to discover what potentials this class of networked informatic technologies may hold for us.
I like to tell a story about a management consultant I once saw give a talk about technology and the future of civic governance. During the Q&A after his very conventional, bullet-pointy presentation, he was asked if he thought the basic forms of democratic municipal government — elected mayors, city councils and so on — were still relevant, and would remain so. And very surprisingly to me, he said no, that there was a decent chance that due to the decentralizing and distributing effects of networked information technologies, more power would come to reside with citizens themselves, organized in something resembling a federation of autonomous local collectives. I mean, this was a very conservative, very buttoned-down guy, who worked for the most prominent name in his industry, and whether he quite knew it or not, what he was describing would have been immediately familiar to, say, the members of the anarchosyndicalist CNT union who ran the Barcelona Telephone Exchange during the first part of the Spanish Civil War. I found it both fascinating that his understanding of contemporary political dynamics would lead him to any such belief, and profoundly hopeful and encouraging.
And that actually is what I believe — that if there’s a tendency to universal surveillance and control latent in the design of these tools, which there unquestionably is, there’s at the same time an equally strong tendency in them to the decentralization and distribution of knowledge of the world, which we can grasp hold of, reinforce and make use of if we choose to. We can use the technics of data collection, representation and actuation to reinforce the best qualities of our cities, and all the things about them that make us stronger and wiser and more capable. And that’s a pretty exciting set of circumstances.
In your view, what are the 3 best cities in the world? And why?
The “best” cities? Best for what, precisely? And for whom?