How to plan & govern a smart city?

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Taking the publication of Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan plan for the smart city development at Toronto’s waterfront (“Toronto Tomorrow”) as an occasion to think out loud about smart cities in general, and smart city governance in particular, I took to Twitter the other day.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing there, here’s the gist: I did a close reading of a tiny (!) section of this giant data dump that is the 4 volume, 1.500+ page Sidewalk Labs plan. The section I picked was the one that John Lorinc highlighted in this excellent article — a couple of tables on page 222 of the last of these 4 volumes, in the section “Supplemental Tables”. This is the section that gets no love from the developers; it’s also the section that deals very explicitly with governance of this proposed development. So it’s pretty interesting. This, by the way, is also roughly my area of research of my Edgeryders fellowship.

On a personal note: It’s fascinating to me how prescient our speakers at Cognitive Cities Conference were back in 2011 – eight years is a long time in this space, and it feels like we invited exactly the right folks back then!

Smart cities & governance: A thorny relationship

In this close reading I focused on exactly that: What does governance mean in a so-called smart city context. What is it that’s being governed and how, and maybe most importantly, by whom?

Rather than re-hash the thread here, just a quick example to illustrate the kind of issues. Where this plan speaks of publicly accessible spaces and decision-making taking into account community input, I argue that we need public spaces and full citizens rights. Defaults matter, and in cities we need the default to be public space and citizens to wield the final decision-making power over their environment. Not even the most benign or innovative company or other non-public entity is an adequate replacement for a democratically elected administration/government, and any but the worst governments — cumbersome as a government might be in some cases — is better than the alternatives.

My arguments didn’t go unnoticed, either. Canadian newspaper The Star picked up my thread on the thorny issue of governance and put it in context of other experts critical of privatizing the urban space; the few others I know from the thread make me think I’m in good company there.

What’s a smart city, anyway?

As a quick, but worthwhile diversion I highly recommend the paper Smart cities as corporate storytelling (Ola Söderström, Till Paasche, Francisco Klauser, published in City vol. 18 (2014) issue 3). In it, the authors trace not just the origin of the term smart cities but also the deliberate framing of the term that serves mostly the vendors of technologies and services in this space, in efficient and highly predictable ways. They base their analysis on IBM’s Smarter City campaign (highlights mine):

”this story is to a large extent propelled by attempts to create an ‘obligatory passage point’ (…) in the transformation of cities into ‘smart’ ones. In other words it is conceived to channel urban development strategies through the technological solutions of IT companies.

These stories are important and powerful:

Stories are important because they provide actors involved in planning with an understanding of what the problem they have to solve is (…). More specifically, they play a central role in planning because they “can be powerful agents or aids in the service of change, as shapers of a new imagination of alternatives.” (….) stories are the very stuff of planning, which, fundamentally, is persuasive and constitutive storytelling about the future.” (…)

The underlying logic is that of a purely data-driven, almost mechanical model of urban management that is overly simplistic and neither political, nor does it require expert matters. This logic is inherently faulty. Essentially, it disposes with the messiness that humans and all their pesky complex socio-cultural issues.

In this approach, cities are no longer made of different – and to a large extent incommensurable – socio-technical worlds (education, business, safety and the like) but as data within systemic processes. (…) As a result, the analysis of these ‘urban themes’ no longer seem to require thematic experts familiar with the specifics of a ‘field’ but only data- mining, data interconnectedness and software-based analysis.

So: Governance poor, underlying logic poor. What could possibly go wrong.

A better way to approach smart city planning

In order to think better, more productively about how to approach smart cities, we need to step back and look at the bigger picture.

If you follow my tweets or my newsletter, you’ll have encountered the Vision for a Shared Digital Europe before. It’s a proposed alternative for anything digital in the EU that would, if adopted, replace the EU’s Digital Single Market (DSM). Where the EU thinks about the internet, it’s through this lens of the DSM — the lens of markets first and foremost. the Vision for a Shared Digital Europe (SDE) however proposes to replace this logic of market first through 4 alternative pillars:

  • Cultivate the Commons
  • Decentralize infrastructure
  • Enable self-determination
  • Empower public institutions

Image: Vision for a Shared Digital Europe (shared-digital.eu)

I think these 4 pillars should hold up pretty well in the smart city planning context. Please note just how different this vision is from what Sidewalk Labs (and the many other smart city vendors) propose:

  • Instead of publicly available spaces we would see true commons, including but not limited to space.
  • Instead of centralized data collection, we might see decentralization, meaning a broader, deeper ecosystem of offerings and more resilience (as opposed to just more efficiency).
  • Instead of being solicited for “community input”, citizens would actively shape and decide over their future.
  • And finally, instead of working around (or with, to a degree) public administrations, a smart city after this school of thought would double down on public institutions and give them a strong mandate, sufficient funding, an in-house capacity to match the industry’s.

It would make for a better, more democratic and more resilient city.

So I just want to put this out there. And if you’d like to explore this further together, please don’t hesitate to ping me.

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