Who owns a smart city’s intelligence?

7 Dec


Thanks to architect and urban economist Isabel Carreras-Baquer (who participated in the inaugural Anam Rurban Design Workshop), we presented Anam City at the 2011 Smart City Expo in Barcelona, Spain.

The Expo had an incredible line-up of speakers plus exhibition of a host of cutting-edge technologies for intelligent systems at the urban scale.

It also highlights the birth of an emerging business/cult of the ‘smart city,’ with real implications on the future balance of human freedom vis-à-vis the ever-extending reach of corporate power.

The Expo, an industry-driven technological showcase, sought to cross-fertilize the ideas and professional expertise of business leaders, tech researchers and urban policy-makers with the strategic impulse of global technology enterprises hungry for more: more wired cities mean a new market for the hardware and software required to render cities as computational machines.

City as Computer

Who controls these systems? [i.e. operating systems for smart cities]

Control shifts to the firms that sell these systems – some of the functions of local governments pass to the firms that developed these intelligent systems

The interaction between technical systems and the buildings they inhabit: the more complex and all encompassing the system, the more the probability that when the tech becomes obsolete, the buildings lose enormous value and become second-class buildings, and even simply obsolete and are torn down. (Obsolescence cycle is becoming shorter).

– Text of slide from Saskia Sassen’s APC11 keynote at Siège de la région du grand Casablanca

In her keynote at the African Perspectives Conference 2011 in Casablanca, Morocco (where we also presented Anam City), Saskia Sassen proposed that there is a fundamental distinction between “hacking the city” and “the city as hacker.” Sassen argues that while “many non-urban processes now have an urban moment in their trajectories,” the city—which is an incomplete and complex open-source architecture—must be understood as a “knowledge partner.” She labels as “coders” the authors of the city as an intelligent system and equates them to engineers, who prescibe the working mechanism of the urban machine and thereby draw power from (local) governments as they control the systems of control. Ultimately, Sassen locates the space of interactive open-source urbanism in-between this top-down “logic of the engineer” and the bottom-up “logic of the user.” (Francesc Santacana offered a similar assessment during our City Case Study session at the Expo.)

What this means, at a point in time exemplified by the actualization of the urban panopticon – pdf (one CCTV camera for every 12 UK citizens), when mobile phones and credit cards now track users across borders, and as private companies increasingly usurp public authority through the technology-assisted private provision of public services, is that citizens need to be far more aggressively proactive in demanding that they retain the capacity to “hack the city.” The city, fast-approaching self-awareness and always a system unto itself, will continue regardless to hack the society in which it is grounded.

In short, we are hurtling toward science fiction. Within the lifetime of the young people who are leading the #occupy protests world-wide, cities will become vastly more structured urban machines, with operating systems that command huge storage, computational and surveillance data infrastructure. The degree to which corporations control this physical counter-landscape of technology, as well as the expertise to manage it, will determine the extent to which the city remains public. And hackable. (See: #whOWNSpace)

Social Technology

Presenting Anam City at the Expo was particularly interesting because Anam as a project is both related to and also a breed apart from the high tech smart city championed by corporate initiatives like IBM’s Smarter City Challenge. What is new about Anam City is not new technology per se. Rather it is the proposition that combining the myriad intermediate and appropriate technologies already proven over the past half-century—but which remain largely absent across Africa today—together with Nigeria’s mobile web, offers a powerful opportunity to build better, smarter communities. The only way what is in theory eminently viable becomes feasible is by embedding this array of technology in a cultural wrapper that “makes it work.” Anam’s innovation is the socially-embedded simultaneous convergence of the not-new, the iterative process of a community collectively hacking itself.


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