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Medialab Katowice interview

The following is a short but rather chewy interview with me, conducted by Karol Piekarski for Medialab Katowice. I hope you enjoy it.

KP: It seems you’ve become quite pessimistic about the prospects of the public in the networked society (your weekly Dispatch, number 27), pointing out to the fact that for some reason we are not so willing to use creatively available data processing technologies. What if we look at this problem from a broader perspective? It took hundreds years for the basic literacy (writing and reading) to spread around the society. Although we may feel that invention of the World Wide Web was ages ago, in fact it’s just a beginning of the “new medium.” Maybe we “simply” need time to learn how to use, as a society, digital technologies?

AG: Well, I think we need to consider how rapidly we as consumers and users of technical systems can develop the critical literacy you’re talking about, versus the headway that those who are not concerned with such matters can make in the meantime.

I don’t even mean necessarily that the designers of emerging interactive products and services are consciously acting out of any set of values I might disagree with. I simply mean that portable, modular code can be recombined by some third party into really pernicious systems, readily and rapidly, either out of ignorance or what I would regard as malicious intent. By the time we figure out how to use these systems wisely, or come to a collective determination that we reject their use, the damage will have been done.

And even that’s assuming that we are more or less static, as subjects and users. The truth is that we are acted on by these technologies, as individuals and as societies both.

So the relative power of a particular kind of personality type or learning style may come into the ascendance, and reinforce the conditions of its own vitality, while making it very difficult for anyone else to even sustain themselves. For example, introverts have never had it easy, but now, in our world of continuous mandatory self-performance, they run the risk of being more marginalized and overlooked than ever. We know that success under the new dispensation requires more than the occasional schmoozing that might have seen you through in the past. It requires not merely that you make yourself continuously available, not merely that you have the energy — the psychic and the financial wherewithal — to socialize and network, but that you are seen to socialize and network and to be the kind of person who enjoys doing so. And that’s in large part a consequence of the way we’ve chosen to integrate always-on social networking technologies into our everyday lives.

Consider that I recently read an admiring description of “what a great 21st century mathematician looks like”: someone who is “part of a network, always communicating, always connecting what he is doing with what other people are doing.” And, you know, that’s great. But let’s be clear that success in such a world selects for a certain kind of highly social, highly outgoing personality type.

You could argue, with some justice, that the world has always selected for some personality types over others — that there’s nothing fundamentally new here, it’s just that the place where our culture has decided the grandeur ought to live is shifting. But I’ve always thought that the point of our work was to imagine futures that were more just and equitable, not merely a new and different unequal distribution of power.

KP: Smart cities vs. smart citizens, government or corporation vs. people – we still tend to build these clear oppositions. Do you think that juxtaposing “centralized” against “distributed” can really help explain the mechanisms of power in the networked society? Or maybe we need a bit more sophisticated approach to understand what is actually going on (thinking here about the “society of control” or the work of Alexander Galloway)?

AG: It strikes me that there are a few different concerns bundled up in this question, and that we might benefit from unpacking them and considering them separately.

First, there’s the question of what we mean when we refer to something as a network. The dominant political tenor of the early mass Internet was a kind of structural determinism we associate with folks like John Perry Barlow. The idea was that the network principle of structuration itself, as supposedly immanent in the distributed topology of the World Wide Web, wasn’t merely inherently morally superior to organizational schemes based on hierarchy and coercion, but was practically superior, too. It would therefore “naturally” underwrite a spontaneous mass restructuring of society along horizontal or rhizomatic lines.

We know now, of course, that that didn’t happen, and it’s reasonable to ask why that is. Alex’s great contribution, in Protocol, was to remind us that the Internet as we know it has never been anything but a monstrous hybrid. Its functioning depends on the interaction of two very different ways of organizing the transmission and reception of information: a highly centralized and hierarchical addressing scheme called the Domain Name System, and a radically distributed messaging protocol we call TCP/IP. Only one of these “routes around failure” in the rhizomatic way so beloved of the early net theorists, while the other remains radically vulnerable to (say) State efforts to interdict the free flow of information. So, far from spontaneously giving rise to some antiauthoritarian, horizontalist utopia, while it’s fair to say that the Internet does tend to destabilize certain existing power relations, just as often it reproduces the selfsame dynamics of power that existed beforehand.

And that leads to our closely-related second question, which is how we should consider the relationship between structure and agency. The fundamental mistake that network determinists very often make is to treat people like Internet switches, or the consensing bees Thomas Seeley depicts so beautifully in his book Honeybee Democracy. They assume that, given a certain topology of organization and the logics of informational flow that attend it, certain macro-scale political outcomes will necessarily follow.

I think there is a broadly observable trend toward networked structures showing up in places we might not historically have expected them to — in the large-scale capitalist commercial enterprise, for example. But just because an organization’s practical, day-to-day decision-making is nominally organized horizontally doesn’t mean the workers who use it on the job carry that logic into the other spheres of their life. And it certainly doesn’t mean that those workers can’t be fired just like people who work for more consciously and avowedly hierarchical organizations. Ask all the liberated, Holocratic non-managers Tony Hsieh just let go from Zappos where they think power lies.

So we’re forced to conclude one of two things: either the apparent structure of power in organizations like this isn’t the actual structure of power — which is certainly possible — or people have much more latitude to bend nominally flat network topologies toward all the usual, all-too-human ends of power than the determinists would have us believe. You can’t have it both ways.

Finally, there’s the question of how we model the relationship between openness and power. We know by now that it’s a terrible error to assume that there’s a necessary connection between radical openness and a liberatory or emancipatory politics. If anything, you could be forgiven for concluding just the opposite: that there’s been a fair amount of what Marcuse would call repressive desublimation, Gamergate being the preeminent case in point.

In fact, we have to ask if openness and mobility and the apparent freedom to act aren’t qualities that can easily be leveraged by parties acting in ways that are contrary to our own understanding of our interests. This is what I take Deleuze to be arguing in the “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” and it’s at the heart of governmentality theory.

So if neither distributed organizational topologies nor horizontal decision-making nor radical transparency and openness necessarily buy you equity and justice, it’s appropriate to ask: what would? And the only answer I have is that you have to fight directly for equity and for justice. You have to believe in and want those things first, and the tools that support them will follow, will be discovered or invented. But you can’t first build the tool and suppose that progressive values and organizing logics will flow outward from it — certainly not in any straightforward or uncomplicated way.

I should point out that this is something I’ve had to learn the hard way my ownself.

KP: Living in a globalised world, we tend to universalise the discourse around digital technologies, especially their relationship to society. It’s visible in your work that you try to put more attention to those less privileged in order to figure out whether any of our networked/digital solutions could actually make their life better. Poland is an interesting example: behind the western world, but way ahead the most economically deprived countries. You’ve spent some time in Poland recently, if you were to advise Polish government, universities or companies, what you would suggest to spend the money on in terms of innovation and development?

AG: I guess I would start by asking what ends and goals you’re trying to work toward. You know I completely reject the point of view that says Poland or anyone else necessarily needs to do what everyone else is doing, needs to accept anyone else’s definitions of “advanced” or “innovative” or “highly developed.”

It’s a phrase which has sadly taken on a fairly bourgeois coloration, but I still think there’s something to be said for “quality of life.” And I don’t think there’s any inherent correlation — and I should be very clear: neither a direct nor an inverse correlation — between economic development in the abstract and quality of life. Tokyo is certainly one of the safest, most “advanced,” most efficient and highly-developed cities on the planet, but the regnant xenophobia and gender politics you find there make it a place I can’t imagine wanting to return to, except as a visitor. The “quality of life” there mostly resolves to a continually refined, absolutely state-of-the-art consumerism. By contrast, most everyone can think of places that are maybe a little run-down, maybe even a little sketchy at times, but where more of your time is your own, you aren’t quite as hemmed in by the pressures of conforming to some model of appearance and self-presentation, and in general life is more spacious. So the first part of my advice to Poles would be to weigh with the most exceeding care what already works about the way you live, and not be in any particular hurry to overwrite it with modes of being someone living a million miles away who’s never once set foot in your culture assures you is the new hotness.

The flipside of this, of course, is not clinging to things that clearly aren’t working, just because they’re the ways in which things have always been done. Racism, sexism and homophobia — like ageism and ableism and hierarchical orderings in general — sure are traditional, just about everywhere. But that doesn’t for one hot second mean I think they’re worth respecting and holding onto. And this goes for organizational and technical matters as well. The bottom line is that you’ve got to keep your eye firmly fixed on what kind of frame for living you’re trying to bring into being, and absolutely refuse to let yourself get distracted, whether by notional hipness and the fetishism of emergent technology, or by appeals to stability and tradition for their own sake.

Bartlettizing, 25 November

Hey hey — just a very quick heads-up that I’ll be giving a talk at the Bartlett School of Architecture here in London on the 25th of November, in which I plan to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Mishima Yukio’s ritual suicide share my latest thinking around the idea of “commoning systems.”

Come along for the ride, and who knows, by the end of the night I might even have some other Bartlett-related news to share with you. Things ought to kick off right around 18.30, and I think we’re planning on going out for drinks after — stay tuned for the exact location and registration details. Hope to see you there!

Getting (and staying) in touch, S/S 2015

A quick note, prompted by my having logged into Facebook the other day for the first time in a few months and finding a pile of messages I hadn’t known were waiting for me.

This is just a reminder that I cannot be reached via Twitter or Facebook, at least in anything resembling real time; I just don’t see those messages. As ever, e-mail is the best way to get in touch with me if you need to.

Or, if you’re more interested in simply keeping a channel open, do feel free to sign up for my weekly e-mail dispatches, which go out every Sunday. See you around!

This year’s model

Happy new year, everyone! I wish you the very best 2015 imaginable — a year that is safe from fear, strife and want, generous to a fault, and above all that finds you surrounded by love and support.

So, listen: I decided to try my hand at one of those newsletters all the kool kids are doing nowadays. Should you be so inclined, you can sign up here. And don’t worry that I’ll forget about posting here; however this newsletter thing works out, you may be sure that I’ll continue to do so. In the meantime, I thought you might dig this piece I had in the Guardian last week.

Lots more soon. Until then, be well.

Four ways of funding an urban intervention

Four ways of funding an urban intervention

This two-by-two matrix describes the basic strategies available for organizing the financial support of proposed undertakings in the built environment. Each will have implications for the likelihood that necessary levels of funding can be maintained over the medium to long term; for the scalability and repeatability of the proposed intervention; for the absolute level of financing achievable (as well as for the timeframe in which this financing can be assembled); and for perceptions of the proposition’s legitimacy.

“Venture capital” should here be understood to include all speculative operations with private financing, i.e. the ordinary practice of commercial real-estate development, while combined approaches (so-called “public-private partnerships”) are occasionally possible. Virtually all contemporary investment in the built environment takes place in the upper two quadrants of this matrix.

More questions on the smart city

There continues to be strong interest in the question of the smart city from all quarters — though perhaps, if my sense of things can be trusted, the tide is beginning to turn toward more grounded considerations, if not outright skepticism as to the ostensible benefits. One of the things I construct as a sign of this tidal shift is the slow but gathering interest more mainstream media outlets have in presenting alternate perspectives on the subject. Here we see no less august a newspaper than the Economist looking to do just that. I hope you enjoy this record of our brief conversation.

What, in a nutshell, is your primary objection or critique to the current discourse surrounding “smart cities” and Big Data related to urban planning and service delivery?

My main beef with the discourse of the smart city is that it was generated, and has almost exclusively been developed, by organizations and individuals that have no particular understanding of cities or their dynamics. They have zero — and I mean zero — familiarity with the canonical works of urbanist literature, and very little in the way of considered practical experience that might help them correct for this deficit of book knowledge.

I remember being a little stunned to learn that a very senior member of Cisco’s connected cities team, who was proposing to intervene in the dynamics of urban neighborhoods, had never even heard of Jane Jacobs. I watched slack-jawed as he carefully took down the name of Death and Life of Great American Cities, like a dutiful if rather grindy student, prepping for finals. I mean, good for him — he wanted to learn. I wager, though, that you’d feel a trifle uneasy in the presence of someone preparing to undertake surgery without having gone to medical school, especially if they were asking you to admire the handle on the kitchen knife that constituted their only equipment for the task.

There’s a mildly amusing Dunning-Kruger aspect to it, but then you remember that these organizations are playing with peoples’ homes and livelihoods and lives. If that kind of arrogant self-assurance coupled with cluelessness isn’t disqualifying, then I don’t know what would be.

Is it possible for developers in “new” cities like Masdar or Palava in India to be able to comprehensively map out how the city will work and anticipate its problems, or does a city need to already exist in order to properly understand how to deploy smart city technology?

What saddens me is that we’ve been down this road before — time and time again, in fact, in the latter part of the twentieth century. We know how this story ends, and it isn’t pretty. There’s a reason why Corbusian total planning is thoroughly discredited.

Understanding why top-down total planning doesn’t, and can’t, produce vital human communities from scratch is something that smart-city enthusiasts might have gleaned from even a cursory review of the urbanist canon. Having apparently forgotten our own (recent!) history, however, we’re now perforce condemned to repeat it.

Does Big Data have any productive role to play in urban planning or service delivery?

Sure it does. But whatever its functional utility, [that use] cannot be had without cost. The task of determining the precise nature of the trade-offs involved, and of deciding whether or not the community wants to shoulder that cost in return for benefits now or in the future — as I’m always saying, these are things that can only be decided in a specific locale, and with reference to a specific set of circumstances. Like any other technology that’s brought to bear on public life, the deployment of analytics founded in so-called Big Data needs to be subject to processes of democratic accountability. And I don’t see that happening in very many places at the moment.

Quick advice for event organizers

Despite the regular prognostications of futurists over what is now a forty-year period — and, no doubt, the most cherished hopes of the vendors of telepresence systems — the physical, in-person, face-to-face gathering remains a primary mode of knowledge production and circulation in our culture. Whether it’s pitched as festival, conference, colloquium or (god help us) summit, the basic paradigm of flying a comparatively small group of people a long way so they can present to a relatively much larger group of people seems to retain a great deal of appeal and prestige.

Whether or not we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns on this way of doing things isn’t really my subject here, though it certainly would be interesting to discuss. What I want to get into is that while there’s an art to running such events well — and NB, it is not always about carefully-rehearsed timings, television-grade MCs, buttery transitions or the other appurtenances of high-production-value stagecraft — the elements of that art are by no means universally understood.

This becomes ever clearer, now that everybody wants to get into the act. With more, and more kinds of, organizations than ever before deciding that hosting a public or quasi-public event of some sort is somehow key to the accomplishment of their mission, the insight necessary to curate and manage such gatherings successfully feels to me like it’s getting a trifle thinner on the ground. Please accept, then, this little bit of advice, from someone who’s experienced it from both sides over the course of the twelve years I’ve been doing public speaking and organizing speaking events.

It’s simple, actually. If there is an art to successful event planning, that artfulness begins with the care you take for your presenters — and, in turn, that care begins with the invitation itself, with its very wording and the sincerity that can be discerned in it.

Lookit: I get several speaking invitations a week. Of course those who are interested in having me present have varying levels of capacity — and I do mean varying. Some are commercial enterprises that I expect to pay my full commercial fee, plus all the bells and whistles — business-class airfare; as many nights’ accommodation as I think necessary, at a similar standard; and all transfers, meals and incidentals. Other organizations are academic, non-profit or voluntary in nature, and they don’t have access to the kind of budget these things require, or anything like it. Because it is — let us never forget for a moment — an honor and a privilege to be asked to share your perspectives in this way, I do try my best to work something out with each and every one of them. With a little give and take, we’re generally able to come to some agreement. Not, certainly, all of the time, but enough to keep me on the road for a good part of the year.

However. I seem to be getting a class of requests lately that I’m afraid I have very little choice but to turn down, and it’s these that I want to warn you against should you be contemplating convening an event of your own. These are invitations for me to speak at an event — generally across an ocean, and many time-zones away — that don’t acknowledge the significant cost of that participation to me. Some of them only offer to pay for economy-class airfare, and one or at most two nights in a hotel, but no honorarium. Some don’t include any offer at all, but imply that I should cover my own travel and accommodation for the sheer privilege of doing so. I frankly don’t know what the point is of asking someone to present at an event if you’re only going to turn around and say to them, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have the budget to support your participation.” I mean, that’s not really much of an invitation, is it? You got in touch with me! You took the effort to reach out! Obviously you think it would be useful to you or your audience for me to be there — I’m sincerely flattered, but shouldn’t your request reflect the worth you place on this utility?

I feel like I shouldn’t have to spell this out in so many words, but evidently I do: your speakers aren’t just giving you the time it takes to present at your event, or even the time it takes to travel to and from that event. They’re giving you all of that, and however long it takes for them to prepare and to recover, and during this entire arc they will contend with some degree of disruption to their life rhythms. Everything under the span of this arc is time they cannot fully devote to personal projects, or paying client work, or the pleasures of home and the ones they love. Shouldn’t you offer them something that acknowledges and reflects this?

There are two points that deserve emphasis here:

– I reiterate that this “something” doesn’t have to consist of money, or indeed of anything that money buys. I myself have organized international events on a shoestring budget, and the very first thing I acknowledge to those I invite is that they are the event. However much excitement you may have stoked up as an organizer, however willing to be generous an audience may be, your presenters need to know that the whole proposition will stand or fall on the quality of their contributions, and that you understand this. So I express my gratitude to them for even considering the invitation, apologize that I’m not always able to offer the class of travel or accommodation they surely deserve — and promise them that if they’re nonetheless able to attend, I will do everything I humanly can to make their effort worthwhile. Like a citation, this acknowledgment costs you precisely nothing, but is a token that you are operating in good faith, and if offered sincerely generates a great deal of good will.

– By contrast, though, don’t — I mean really do not ever — say or imply to your speakers that their compensation is “the opportunity,” or getting to meet the other fabulous people who are going to be at your event. I would humbly suggest that this is not a way of approaching speakers that’s likely to produce the results you want. It’s presumptuous and self-important, in the first place, and who wants to be that? But what’s worse is that reliance on this gambit produces a speaker cohort whose core motivation is to network. If they’re only there to instrumentalize or operationalize their participation in your event — slinging out business cards like a dealer from Macau, parsing everyone they meet into A and B and C people — they’re not likely to be genuinely interested in you, your organization, your mission or your audience in and for themselves. You will have connived at douchery, and to what end?

Since the conference game seems to be all about the takeaway these days, here’s the takeaway: You don’t need to book your presenters into seven-star hotels and feed them exquisite meals for them to feel valued. In my experience, anyway, there’s by no means a linear relationship between the budget an event has available to it and its quality; I’ve been bored silly at a good number of the most opulently-appointed conferences, while the biggest I’ve spoken at have invariably been the worst.

By contrast, there are examples to aspire to, at every scale but that of the mega-event. The Webstock folks, for example — Tash Lampard, Mike Brown and their crew — they’re brilliant at this, inarguably setting the gold standard for making speakers feel special, in word and deed. Their enthusiasm comes from the heart and it is palpable in everything they do, from the very first letter gingerly inquiring as to your availability to the public big-upping of speakers they continue to conduct long after they’ve put you on the plane for home. Speak at Webstock once, and you want to speak there again, even though for most of their speakers it means something on the order of a grueling 24-hour trip each way. Similarly, the team responsible for Ideas City at the New Museum, Karen Wong, Richard Flood and Corinne Erni, does a fantastic job of letting presenters know their voices are valued…and it always becomes before the ask. (I hate that expression, by the way: “The ask.” If ever there was one, there’s a clue as to the profoundly transactional nature of our times.)

Anyway. The essence of all of this is that acknowledging the investment of time and effort people make when they present is one of the foundations on which a successful event is built — triply so if you expect your event to be part of an ongoing series. If you can’t do it materially — and let’s face it, sometimes you can’t — be utterly goddamn sure you’re doing it in every aspect of your personal deportment when you interact with them. It is, at least, a minimal courtesy I try to observe in inviting people to the things I put together, and I hope that in the future, when extending invitations to speakers you expect to come from far away to present from your stage, for the benefit of your organization and your community, you extend it to them as well. I believe from personal experience that they will note and appreciate it, and from the bottom of my heart that your event will be the better for it.

Yet another brief interview

I recently answered a few questions for the leading Korean architectural magazine, SPACE.

First, please state in a sentence your area of interest or expertise in the field of urban computing.

“Ensuring that to the greatest degree possible a robust conception of the right to the city is designed into networked informatic systems intended or otherwise destined for urban deployment.”

Second, an example that you use to make urban computing more readily accessible to architects is of Mark Weiser‘s concept of ubiquitous computing. How do you think functionality within the city divides from novelty or ‘art works’ of urban computing architecture? And which do you think architects can relate to more?

I think we long ago collectively transcended Weiser’s specific vision of technologized everyday life; as a matter of fact, I can tell you the precise date we did so, which was June 29th, 2007, the day on which the original iPhone was launched. What architects and urban planners now have to account for — but curiously, generally do not — is that the overwhelming majority of the human beings they’re designing spaces for are equipped with a way of knowing and making use of the city that no previous population has ever had before. We call it a “smartphone.”

What does it mean for a networked body and a networked self to move through equally networked space? And what might all of this portend for the practice of architecture, for the planning and execution of the built environment? As far as I can tell, these are questions that the disciplines involved haven’t even begun to reckon with in any particularly consistent or meaningful way.

The question about art is impossible to answer without reference to specific works or pieces or artists. Architects and urban planners might do well, in fact, to pay attention to the more thoughtful artists, or people involved in the critical making community, who have begun to interrogate the uses and consequences of information technology in a way that goes far beyond pointlessly “interactive” façades and mobile sculptures. But the kind of digital “art” installation that is generally used to apply a superficial gloss of contemporaneity or futurity to some otherwise utterly conventional commercial real-estate proposition? As far as I’m concerned it’s not even properly art, because it doesn’t satisfy the threshold condition of catalyzing some psychic or emotional change in the viewer, and of course it’s not meant to.

Your representative work Urbanflow examines the limitations of interactive media booths around cities, and looks to connect these booths while making them more behaviorally approachable. What other recent works have you been working on, and how do you feel the future of urban computing has been portrayed through this piece in terms of human behavior and adaptability to technologies?

Right now the thing I’m most interested in is designing for the future of urban mobility, for what I call “transmobility.” Unlike the transportation industry, whose rather boring, heavily capital-intensive conceptions of this future all seem to center on exotic new vehicle types or heroic infrastructures, what I’m trying to articulate is a framework allowing us to make maximum use of a city’s existing heterogeneous array of vehicles, mobility modes and options. Transmobility uses locational data and information-, interface- and service design to bind these things together in a mesh capable of providing something close to on-demand, real-time, point-to-point personal mobility to every citizen. Ultimately I think it’s a wiser, lower-cost and more practical way of achieving that end.

Urban computing is defined as “the integration of computing, sensing, and actuation technologies into everyday urban settings and lifestyles.” Yet, you register your work as belonging to the field of everyware (permeating places and pursuits, social activity, shaping relationships, as a distributed phenomenon). You mentioned that it is in need of a paradigm shift in 2011, has this happened? What is your definition for each of these concepts and how are they better suited in defining your approach in comparison to the term urban computing?

I just don’t use these terms in my work anymore. In fact I’m completely uninterested in technology, except insofar as it facilitates individual and collective self-determination, the meaningful expression of solidarity and the practice of mutual aid.

Think of it this way: networked informatic technology is simply another material we now have available to us as builders and shapers of urban space. And like any other material, it has certain inherent qualities, tendencies, properties or directionalities. But you don’t learn anything useful about these qualities by considering the material as an abstraction; the grain you’ve got to contend with as a designer only reveals itself at the local level — in technological terms, at the level of a specified device, sensor, display or API. And equally, these qualities only become important in context, when you’re designing some ensemble of networked systems in a given space, for a given population of users, to achieve a given effect.

So I try to avoid thinking in jargon, or otherwise succumbing to a uselessly generic conception of the material I’m working with, and focus my inquiry instead on actual communities in specific spatial contexts, their articulated and unarticulated concerns, the envelope of requirements and other constraints within which we work, and only finally the properties of some particular technical system.

‘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.

Urban data wrapup

I realize I haven’t yet given you an account of the March 14th urban data event. By and large, I thought it went extremely well, and the conversation that evolved over the course of the day actually wildly overfulfilled my hopes. (I already knew we’d managed to gather a cohort of particularly sharp and inspiring people, but you always want an event like this to come together in a way that makes it somehow more than the sum of its component parts. And that either happens, or it doesn’t; my experience is that this kind of flowering is virtually impossible to plan for ahead of time. In this case, happily, it did.) Both at the coffee breaks and over lunch — and indeed for sometime thereafter, online and off — I saw participants chewing over the things they’d heard and seen in the most animated, passionate way. This, of course, is a sight to gladden any event organizer’s heart — a signal that whatever secret victory conditions one nurtured in one’s heart at day’s dawn, they’ve well and truly been achieved by the time all involved have scattered to the four winds.

I want to thank speakers Yaşar Adnan Adanalı, Rachel Binx, Andy Bolton, Leyla Laksari, Andy Nash, Arlindo Pereira, Alison Powell, Nithya V. Raman, Paula Z. Segal, Mona Sloane, Even Westvang and Farida Vis for their cogent contributions; Rebecca Ross for the fantastic job of moderation she did; Robin Howie for his thoughtful work on the lovely event poster; and never least Andrew Sherwood, Tessa Norton, Kiera Blakey and Emma Rees here at LSE Cities for their vital assistance in pulling the event together on such a telescoped timeline. I hope you all continue to stay in touch and inspire one another to further deeds of greatness.


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