Without going into too much detail, I had a very interesting and rather enlightening time in Madrid this week, discussing what it might mean to create or engage a smart city, what we can do with the data generated and collected in that city, and how what we learn from it can affect how we live.
At the end of a two-day workshop, BBVA's Innovation Center hosted a public event featuring talks on "Beyond the Smart City"* by Adam Greenfield, Nicolas Nova, and Kevin Slavin. What they shared was a sense that autonomous technological infrastructure alone cannot and does not make a city smart and that such a definition of the "smart city" not only excludes people, but that it may in fact be dangerous for them. Where they differed, of course, is the slight variation on how such danger may be mitigated while taking advantage of what these organized technologies have to offer.
What got me thinking, however, did not come directly from the three, but from the final audience question of the evening. A gentleman stood and asked, "Who will win, Man or Machine?," and I realized what was missing from the evening's discussion. (To be fair, the point was implied a couple times and perhaps nodded toward another couple times...and, really, I realized what it was that I would write about here.)
The thing is that there are no purely autonomous machines, infrastructures, mechanisms, nor algorithms. The automated algorithms driving our financial systems discussed by Slavin, just as the highly efficient automated systems meant to run the city of the future, are indeed inhumane but are in every way human-driven. These things are designed and exist by design. Their purposes, products, and processes are not only man-made and human-determined but exist in service to mankind(ish). It is not a question of whether Man or Machine will ultimately prevail, but a question of whether those humans with access to the technology, the funders of those machines, the creators of those algorithms, will win over those who have no such access, no such resources, and no such funds.
The responses (excluding Adam's entirely warranted non-response) spoke of the need for cities to cooperate with the information they produce, but did not directly discuss the need for citizens to cooperate with each other (again, there was a nod but nothing so explicit as what I'm about to launch into). Adam ended his talk with one of my all-time favorite and oft-cited thoughts from Lefebvre's Production of Space: that "social space is a social product." Whatever it is that we make of our cities is something we will have to make together. Sadly, I fear, the concentration of wealth -- and thus the concentration of access to information, the concentration of the control of its use, the concentration of the resources to understand it, the concentration of the ability to deploy products and systems predicated on its interpretation, and the concentration of the technology to even engage or participate in those systems -- is making that collaborative effort more and more difficult.
In a nutshell, Great Cities are great because of the quality of life they offer, with manifestations of that quality ranging from the economic opportunities present for those who seek them to the availability of a delighful Saturday afternoon. By my personal definition, Great Cities are Just Cities -- not necessarily utopias of pure equality of all kinds, but places of equity at a minimum. Further, it matters not how smart a city claims itself to be if the benefits of that intelligence are not accessible to all of its citizens. A Great City can house and feed its population and addresses additional needs through multiple means, not just those available to the users of smart phones and Twitter.
Of course, I make my living off of the information produced by cities. I feed myself based on the dual facts that data proliferates in urban environments and that I have (borrowed lots and lots of money for) the privilege to work with that data. I also teach at a graduate school of social work, because I thoroughly believe that every dataset I crunch, every conclusion drawn from that information, and every map I draw is an opportunity for intervention, an act of advocacy, and an instigation toward change. I agree that in many ways our cities are already smart, but I know that they are not just. They are not smart enough to make their intelligence transparent, nor are they smart enough to fully share the opportunities presented by that intelligence.
In the terms of economics, information is a semi-public good: It is not consumable, but undeniably excludable. If it is the use of our information that will make our cities smart, then it is the control of that information that may or may not make our cities just.