A tale of three cities, or: The smart city as will and category error

The following short piece is my contribution to Imminent Commons, the catalogue accompanying the 2017 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. I hope you enjoy it.

Humanity is now, we are so often told, an urban species. Though there are real questions as to what the numbers actually mean, the statistics on planetary urbanization are so often bruited about that they have become something of a cliché. What’s more, popular discourse on the subject appears to have internalized the notion that the great cities of Earth aren’t merely significant for their concentration of habitation, but for the beneficial effects that habitation gives rise to. Disproportionately generators of economic vitality, technical innovation and cultural dynamism, our cities may even be able to function as lifeboats capable of sustaining us through the ecological reckoning that is now bearing down on our civilization.

If it is an urban age, though, it is also a networked one. Between the comprehensive instrumentation of the built environment, and the smartphones that so many of us now carry through every moment of the waking day — simultaneously sensor platform, aperture onto the global network, and remote control for the connected systems and services all around us — the colonization of everyday urban life by information processing is virtually complete.

And finally, we appear to have entered an age in which the more-or-less stable neoliberal consensus that held global sway for the past four decades has started to erode. Thus far, the most notable and distressing result of this erosion has been a turn toward authoritarian and xenophobic ethnonationalisms of one stripe or another, its traces evident in the Brexit referendum, the 2016 US presidential election, and a long list of autocracies in the ascendant, from Russia to Turkey to the Philippines. But more hopefully, the eclipse of neoliberal hegemony has opened up a space in which some dare to imagine an entirely new way of organizing the productive processes of life: a commons beyond state and market both, in which networked collaboration, distributed material and energetic production, and horizontal forms of governance give rise to striking new possibilities for a just, equitable and fructifying urbanism.

By leveraging the decentralizing tendencies that appear to be implicit in our networked technologies, and the configurations of power they in principle give rise to, we can even begin to imagine what a networked urban commons would look like, and how it might work, at global scale — as a desirable end in itself, an antidote to the anomie and widespread sense of powerlessness that underlie the turn toward xenophobic authoritarianism, and a means of restoring some semblance of ecological balance.

Those of us who are interested in bringing such a state of affairs into being, though, might find that our hopes are dashed at the outset by a lack of clarity about how the technologies involved actually work, naiveté about those parties who currently wield them most effectively, or confusion about what a true commons would require of us. At present, we can see networked technology being layered onto urban place along three basic trajectories: one based largely on the needs of multinational technology vendors; one with roots in the Silicon Valley startup and venture-capital complex; and one — the subtlest yet most promising of all — as yet indistinct. By examining each of them in turn, we can learn more about what is at stake in the advent of networked urbanism, and perhaps chart a course through the Scylla and Charybdis of unwise choices toward a more fruitful future for all.

§ Avatar I: Songdo

In his public appearances, the presidential candidate Moon Jae-in is fond of invoking a comprehensive vision of heavily technologized everyday life that involves “smart house, smart road, smart city” — indeed, an entire “Smart Korea.” There may be no place on Earth closer to concrete fulfillment of Moon’s objective than New Songdo City, a municipality of 90,000 souls built on some 53 square kilometers of tidal flats recovered from the Yellow Sea. In Songdo, both domestic spaces and the entire built fabric have been instrumented, allowing the city’s controllers to monitor and adjust traffic flow and energy utilization in real time.

As ambitious as this sounds, it’s an only slightly more elaborate version of a conception of networked urbanism that is common to municipal administrators and technology enthusiasts the world over. In its raw outlines, this conception seeks to harness the CCTV cameras and networked sensors installed throughout the urban milieu, as well as the torrential streams of data flowing off of our personal devices, to realize greater efficiency and enhance that ever-elusive property known as “quality of life.” By submitting these flows of data to advanced analytic techniques based on machine learning, all kinds of benefits can be obtained: the nominal “optimization” of material and energetic flows, the streamlined delivery of municipal services, even the preemption of undesirable conditions (whether traffic jams or criminal offenses).

This, anyway, is the theory of smart urbanism. In practice, however, a number of issues conspire to ensure that what gets delivered invariably turns out to be rather less than the sum of its parts. The first is that, in looking to a rising technology sector to achieve this ambition, municipal-scale actors leave themselves at the mercy of powerful vendors —
globally, multinationals like Siemens, IBM, Hitachi or Microsoft; in Korea the infrastructure, systems-integration and real estate development arms of the familiar chaebol. Because they generally lack the organic technical competence to determine what kinds of hardware and software might best serve their needs, city governments entering this market are perforce compelled to buy what these vendors have to sell, whether or not the problems those systems are designed to solve bear any particular resemblance to the issues perceived by their constituents. This was certainly the case in Songdo, where the expensive and elaborate Cisco “telepresence” hardware planned for each apartment unit in the city was rendered obsolete even before it was deployed, outmoded instantly by free smartphone- and tablet-based video chat applications like Kakao Talk and FaceTime.

The second problem follows on from this. By its very nature, the municipal procurement process involves one set of centralized, hierarchical actors (i.e. technology vendors) interacting with another (local bureaucracies). As a result, the multispectral awareness that might in principle be derived from large-scale analysis of data is generally retained for the exclusive use of municipal administrators, habitually and instinctively — and not, in other words, made available to the public who generated the data in the first place. What is offered to us wreathed in the ostensible glamor of technological futurity, then, is here revealed to be something that’s actually rather dowdy and retrograde: old-style technocratic management from the top down. Not by any stretch of the imagination something consonant with the will to collective self-determination, it cannot be reconciled with the commons without contortions that verge on intellectual dishonesty, however well-intentioned they may be.

And there is a final issue: daily life in Songdo, at least, appears to be rather soulless and dull. NPR quotes a young resident who describes it as a nonplace and a “prison,” and compares her escape into Seoul and all its nightlife at the end of the workweek to a jailbreak. This is admittedly a single data point, but it hardly makes a compelling argument for quality of life in the well-tuned city.

In its current form, then, the smart city as delivered by vendors is not merely ill-advised, nor merely unlikely to support the kind of vivid experiences we associate with big-city life, but actively detrimental to the achievement of an urbanism consistent with the values of the commons. A case in point can be found in the recent Korean experience of mass public demonstrations, which illustrate like relatively few other moments in history the power that an aggrieved citizenry claims for itself when it takes to the streets in protest of an order that has become intolerable. As it happens, the technologies bound together under the banner of the smart city have no way of accounting for this kind of active practice of democracy. Far from recognizing mass demonstrations as the signal of public sentiment they surely are, the smart city can only interpret such protests as a disruption to business as usual: first as an anomaly to be detected, then as an inefficiency to be contained, minimized, neutralized or eliminated.

§ Avatar II: San Francisco

It’s worth unpacking just what business as usual looks like to the architects of the smart city, what conceptions of the normal and the ordinary they may hold in mind when designing the algorithms responsible for detecting imminent departures from normalcy and triggering preemptive action.

And here we need to address the fact that even in software development, there is such a thing as fashion. Once something practiced by a self-consciously professional cohort given to horn-rim glasses, crisp short-sleeve shirts and pocket protectors — call it the Mission Control look — software engineering is, in its Northern Californian and Pacific Northwest fastnesses, dominated by a young, privileged and remarkably homogeneous technical elite. At present, you cannot walk down the streets of San Francisco — a city whose name was once synonymous with the radical, the queer, the experimental and the frankly marginal — without running headfirst into a mostly male scrum of software engineers in their mid-twenties, in their universal uniform of fitted hoodies and $400 sneakers, talking unit tests and code sprints. To a surprisingly great extent, it is their tastes, predilections, priorities and values that urban technology is increasingly designed around.

If the multinational vendor, in all its centralization, conservatism and ponderous lack of agility, represents one of the two predominant modes in which information technology is now applied to the life of cities, the other is typified by the proverbial Bay Area tech startup, with its addiction to venture capital and its imperative to “move fast and break things.” Thus the emphasis on convenience and immediate gratification we see in offerings like Airbnb, Tinder, TaskRabbit and above all Uber: services whose socially corrosive effects were self-evident virtually from the outset, though they are only recently becoming matters of widespread controversy.

It is now beyond dispute that Airbnb has undermined the market for affordable rental housing in city after city, just as Uber’s massive, outsourced fleet has drastically increased traffic in cities around the world, even as it drained custom and resources from public transit. What these services offer is nothing less than a shared reality platform for everyone wealthy enough, and sufficiently comfortable with technology, to use them fluently — a platform that privatizes benefits and sheds costs on the public so nakedly indeed that we no longer hear much talk of a putative “sharing economy.” Though these effects can be noted in every market where these services operate, they’re felt particularly acutely in the Bay Area, where life for those who most closely resemble software developers demographically and psychographically often does seem to consist of near-effortless algorithmically-streamlined ease, albeit at the cost of a slowly decaying public realm for everyone else.

It is telling, in this withdrawal from any pretense at convivial urbanity, that we don’t even discuss progress anymore, only “innovation.” In doing so, we preemptively surrender the terrain of the social imagination to the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, if not still more impoverished souls like Travis Kalanick or Peter Thiel. If the urban condition that results from their everted imaginings is not quite the brutal reality of first-generation smart cities like Masdar City, in the United Arab Emirates — where Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Filipino guest workers labor long, thanklessly and at great personal risk to keep the city turning over, and end their days in metal shipping containers arrayed behind razor wire under the broiling desert sun — neither does it have much to do with how cities have traditionally generated meaning and value for their inhabitants. Thus far, at least, everyday life in this capsular, app-mediated city appears to be defined by its exclusions.

§ Avatar III: Seoul

By contrast, the Greek architect and activist Stavros Stavrides, in his recent book on practices of spatial commoning, emphasizes the profoundly invitational aspect of any true commons, its quality of radical openness and porosity. If neither the multinational nor the startup way of doing networked cities quite works to produce such conditions on the ground, where can we go looking for a model that might do so?

Perhaps the greatest irony of all, in the present context, is that certain aspects of vernacular Korean urbanism already work quite well in this regard. Without fetishizing them, or sugarcoating their less felicitous aspects, Korean cities even now reliably generate an informality and canniness in the use of space that comes much closer to achieving the vision of a life in common than anything on offer from either wing of the tech industry. Not so much the newly-built, gated apartment complexes, of course, with their Ballardian full-service towerblocks rising in endless numbered ranks, but in older city cores throughout the country. Here the ajeossi play an impromptu game of baduk in a doorway, seated on torn cardboard box covers; there a sudden chicken-and-beer stand has popped up on an unused concrete forecourt; above, tucked into the fifth floor of an otherwise anonymous office building, is the jjimjilbang with beauty salon and restaurant and game parlor attached, pulsing with life and activity through 24 hours of the day. These things may not read that way to a globalized elite smitten with enticingly glossy corporate visions of the future, but to a certain kind of Western visitor, these feel like signals of the way life in the networked city could be: spontaneous, mobile, flexible, convivial, and above all open.

Could we design networked platforms and systems that generated this kind of urban experience, not merely for a few, but for everyone? The answer is almost certainly yes — but successfully doing so would require that we learn to wield networked technology quite differently than we do at present.

It would be necessary, first, to step back and ask what we are actually trying to achieve by deploying networked systems in the urban frame. We would have to test and iterate and test again, and discard for good that which is seen not to work. This, of course, runs almost directly counter to several aspects of the way we do things now: the headlong pace of technical innovation most obviously, but also its ahistoricity.

It would be necessary to press for specifics, whenever we are offered hype, buzzwords and promises. We would have to ask hard questions about how technologies actually function when used by real people in real environments, and not simply be seduced by lovingly-crafted renderings or animated flythroughs.

It would be necessary to nurture more space outside the market in particular. If “the commons” is to mean anything at all, it can only refer to a milieu where neither the values of the state nor those of the market prevail, leaving room for mutuality, solidarity and positive-sum collaboration — the diametric opposite, in other words, of the condition that broadly obtains in the West now, where the market sets the ground conditions of everyday life, and the state is increasingly figured as something that exists solely to guarantee the operating conditions for private enterprise. It remains to be seen how this model might apply to a place like Korea, where the dynamics of the developmental state retain a powerful hold on the national psyche, but it would clearly be an uphill battle.

Finally, regardless of the particular set of political commitments we hope to see observed in the design of urban technologies, it would be necessary for us to consider with the greatest care what kind of subjectivity our use of these systems give rise to. We would have to ask who we become in their presence and through their use, and be prepared to redesign everything if we don’t much care for the answers.

The examples I’ve offered here ought to make it clear if what we seek to achieve is a life in common, the whole quest for technological “smart” is something akin to a category error, where it isn’t simply intellectually bankrupt. We know in any event that any city deserving of the name is always already smart, and that its intelligence resides in the people who live in it and give it life. The task that remains before us is to design technical systems that are respectful of that intelligence, and allow it to speak itself. In the final analysis, this task cannot be outsourced. It cannot be optimized. It cannot be automated. It will require of us profound investments of time, energy and care. But the reward would be considerable: a place, or a meshwork of places, where everyday life is spontaneous and convivial, where the conditions of equity, justice and ecological balance are finally realized, where our quest to be human in full might find at last a natural home and ground.

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