‘Nother interview

For a French magazine.

You harshly criticize the top-down controlled, ubiquitous, smart city, designed by big operators for their own interests. But can cities tackle all the challenges without those big companies? Don’t you throw out the baby with the bathwater?

There are things, certainly, that industrial-scale vendors of infrastructural services and systems are very good at delivering to cities. Whether it’s wastewater treatment or the deployment and maintenance of street lighting or managing clean and safe demolition, that’s their competence, their domain of expertise, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that those of us without that experience know their job better than they do. The difference that arises with the “smart city” is that now some subset of these vendors have made an unwonted conceptual leap between whatever specific competence they’ve developed and the ambition to furnish municipal governments with a kind of general decision-support utility, without any particular understanding of or sensitivity to the unique complications of the terrain on which they propose to operate. And latent within almost all of these notions is some conception of municipal administration as an essentially rational and objective pursuit.

Well, of course, it’s anything but rational. It’s a fundamentally political pursuit, sweaty and unpretty and utterly lacking in closure. You can’t automate the complication out of it — or, for that matter, the accountability for having made a decision that necessarily deprived some one or party of access to some resource they regarded as rightfully theirs. I simply don’t believe that the process of governing is something that can be reduced to key performance indicators on a dashboard and optimized and made clean. And so far at least, that’s all the big IT vendors are offering.

No: Let them provide what they are so good at providing. There may not be much glamor in providing “dumb pipe,” but there’s honor aplenty. That ought to be enough.

Do many local governments share your vision? Do they have the intellectual and technical background to understand the ins and outs?

In my experience municipal administrators are not in the slightest degree stupid people, but by and large of course they don’t understand the intricacies of networked informatics or data, which is why some of them can from time to time find the superficially confident blandishments of solution integrators and management consultants so appealing. Fortunately, what they do tend to have a deep and intimate understanding of is the local social, institutional and political environment, and this very often gives them a firm platform from which to push back against some of the more foolish claims that are made for the promise of “smart cities.” It has nothing to do with whether or not they share my “vision.”

Are you afraid of the rise of a new kind of technocrats, that we could name “datacrats”?

Every new configuration of technical capability will tend to generate a stratum of people who are differentially skilled and confident in the use and practical application of that technology. As I see it, though, the point isn’t merely to trade one superficially hipper and trendier priesthood for another, it’s to prevent the emergence of such priesthoods in the first place.

Could you detail a few inspiring examples of cities which are dealing with their challenges with lucid, relevant solutions?

Dublin is doing some very interesting things, with their city council’s Beta Projects initiative. I’m impressed with Madrid’s administration that they had the maturity and wisdom to let the citizen-driven Campo de Cebada process unfold. And I know there are thousands upon thousands of people in local government around the world, generally but not exclusively younger, who understand the multiplex value proposition of efforts like these and would let them proceed if only they could. A big part of my job is to provide those people with resources that support their intuition, so they can make the internal case against the smart-city vendors and in favor of more fruitful directions.

What suggestions would you give to a mayor who is engaged in such a smart city program? To a mayor who has not yet chosen what to do?

To the former, I’d argue that so-called smart initiatives be subjected to the most rigorous oversight and accounting, in a effort to establish precisely who has benefitted from their introduction, and to what degree, and whether or not this observed distribution of benefits aligns with the claims that were made at project inception.

To the latter, I’d suggest that whatever it is they think they will achieve by engaging the incumbent vendors to deliver some smart city “solution,” there may be far better returns on investment to be realized economically, socially and strategically from smaller-scale, more locally-grounded and more thoughtful alternatives. And, of course, whatever promises they are made by those vendors, they should make sure to get it in writing.

Some problems raised by the smart city are linked to the huge amount of (personal) data they use for their tools: privacy, resilience, and blind technosolutionism in general. Do you think it’s time to “uncomputerize” our cities?

No, not at all. I think it’s time for the people living in each place on Earth to think carefully, collectively and consciously about what they want this class of technologies to do for them, and whether or not they think it’s capable of delivering on those expectations. And it’s the responsibility of any of us who do have some grounding in what networked digital information technology can and cannot do to explain and contextualize that technology for everyone else, so they’re more readily able to make those determinations.

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