Beyond Smart Cities: It’s Really All About the People
Imagine a colony of ants busily going about their lives. Unorganized, chaotic and without central control. However, each ant has an agenda and things end up getting done, not because of a grand plan, but because of small acts that benefit the whole. This is the vision that was presented at “Beyond Smart Cities” at BBVA’s Innovation Center a few days ago by three renowned experts in the field of city planning.
Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware: The Dawn of Ubiquitous Computing opened the talk by giving two examples of a city: one by designer Le Corbusier, which was organized from the top down with management in mind and the other by Jane Jacobs, author of The Life and Death of Great American Cities. Her vision was that of “spontaneous organization from below.” In other words, people will, in the end, do what is best for a city through their individual actions.
Brasilia, a city planned from the top down, has great names for streets from the standpoint of a city planner such as ‘Residential Access Road B2,’ but people do not really operate that way.
Greenfield explained that in the 20th century Optimum Control Theory became the way people planned cities: one ideal answer for a problem. He was critical of the Smart City solutions offered by tech giants such as IBM and Siemens saying that they were essentially Orwellian concepts whose fulfilled visions “constantly exist in the future.”
“The real problem with the Smart City is that most of us don’t live there,” he said in reference to planned Smart Cities such as Korea’s Songdo with some 34,000 inhabitants, a mere drop in the bucket when compared to the planet’s 7 billion inhabitants.
Overall, Greenfield believes Smart Cities should be built from below, not from above. He summed up his talk by saying Smart Cities “should (be designed) in a way that opens up our chance to participate.”
Next, Nicolas Nova of Near Future Laboratory, began by showing a series of images that came up when he googled the term “Smart Cities.”
“What is interesting is that when you see the pictures they are green, have lots of buildings and, what is shocking, is that there are no humans,” he said.
As Nova explained, the concept of the Smart City that we have now is that of an oligoptogram, or a system that allows you to see bits of the word. He contrasts this with Plato in that instead of struggling to get out of the cave, we are going back into the dark control centers to measure the shadows dancing on the wall—shadows that are glimpses of reality from sensors and cameras.
As such, these systems can be problematic in three ways, Nova explained. One, the data can be faulty. Two, understanding data often leads people to think, falsely, that they can make predictions from it. Three, cities are just complex and small variables that go unaccounted for can have a huge impact.“SimCity in NOT a City,” Nova said to sum this all up.
Instead, Nova is a proponent of ethno-mining.’ That is, combining traditional data mining and analysis with qualitative data generated by real humans.
“We shouldn’t stop using these data models, they have their uses,” he said in reference to standard practices, but “the city is smart already… and the street finds its own solutions.”
Kevin Slavin, who is founder of Area Code, began with a pictorial history of Wall Street before is was “hollowed out by electronic trading” and was a place where people went for information.
“Wall Street was one of the Smart City models of the 18th century world,” Slavin said.
Wall Street was a bustling hive of activity. Fist fights, impromptu celebrations and, of course, the trade of physical goods ruled the day. “Cities have always been smart when they knew how to listen,” he said.
Now, Slavin illustrated, cities have gone stealth in the way planning is conducted; information is hidden from us.
“The idea of a Smart City (currently) is that you are in the way,” he said.
Slavin illustrated this by going back to Wall Street and the way trading is conducted now. In the past, loud voices and, at times, fisticuffs made the deal. Now, complex computer algorithms designed to trade nearly instantly and stealthily rule our finances. This is known as “black box trading.”
Slavin used flocks of birds to demonstrate hidden, unpredictable bits of data:
The problem with these kinds of systems is that no one person or even group of people can listen to and comprehend what is going on, let alone assert any control over them. Slavin used the example of the Flash Crash of 2:43; no one knew what it was, what was happening and the only option that existed was to push the big red stop button. In fact, the property around the Carrier Hotel is some of the most expensive property in Manhattan as the hotel is where the trans-Atlantic cables exit. Servers inhabit the surrounding building and milliseconds rule the day.
This is obviously a problem that needs serious consideration. Who is in charge and where is the common sense?
All three speakers believe that the current paradigm of Smart Cities must change focus back to the people who inhabit a city. In the end, cities must be for the people, by the people. As Slavin put it, “It’s the ability to listen that’s important”– not ergonomically-designed, sensor-embedded crosswalks.