Unreal Cities? | The Nation


Unreal Cities?

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The Prager Zeile in Dresden, inspired by Le Corbusier's "unités d'habitation."

The Prager Zeile in Dresden, inspired by Le Corbusier's "unités d'habitation."

Smart Cities
Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia.
By Anthony M. Townsend.
Buy this book.

If Songdo (and Rio de Janeiro, working with IBM) offers important examples of the corporate model’s limitations, Townsend claims that Zaragoza—a Spanish city of 750,000 located midway between Madrid and Barcelona—is the “one to beat in the emerging world of smart cities.” With economic stimulus funds and assistance from MIT urban design professors, Zaragoza has been designed to become an “open-source city” on the assumption that free public Wi-Fi with accessible software code, stretched along a major thoroughfare dubbed the Digital Mile, would spur ”bottom-up innovations” and thus stimulate job creation. To hasten the process, the city has constructed “a trio of sleek new buildings clad in frosted white glass,” one housing a business incubator and the two largest reserved for a Center for Art and Technology. Here, “artists, technologists, and citizens” will “explore the possibilities of smart technologies to reshape the city.” Meanwhile, the city has issued “citizen cards” that can be used for everything from participating in the public bike-share program and bus service to checking out library books and getting discounts at local shops. Not incidentally, the card also “generates a lot of data on [users’] activities, and is a powerful tool for planning,” a digital project manager tells Townsend. Neither is much concerned about the “Big Brother aspect” of the citizen-card program, concluding that, in comparison with private corporations and nation-states, municipalities can be responsible custodians of their citizens’ privacy. 

Why? Townsend doesn’t say. Instead, he argues that the antidote to too much digital transparency is yet more digital transparency, accomplished through free access and open-source software. In this scenario, hackers mash up available data to create Internet and smartphone apps for new uses. In a pioneering effort in 2008 soon replicated elsewhere, for example, Washington, DC, posted hundreds of government data sets and held a contest called “Apps for Democracy” with a divisible $50,000 prize purse. Within thirty days, “citizen-programmers” had submitted forty-seven apps, with purposes ranging from providing real-time alerts on crime and building permits to customizable tourist itineraries using mashed-up Google maps, Wikipedia entries and Flickr photos—altogether providing in-kind services worth $2 million. The trouble with the apps contests, though—and part of the reason their winners rarely attracted venture-capital funding—was that they allowed a self-selecting group of geeky programmers, rather than citizens or even government, to identify which needs were pressing.

Townsend argues that another, later approach, developed by the nonprofit Code for America, shows more promise. This Johnny Appleseed of civic app development, modeled on Teach for America and the federal-government-as-platform approach developed by tech maven Tim O’Reilly, contracts three modestly paid fellows with cities’ IT staffs to work for a year on small software projects—such as a web-based mapping project in Boston to help parents navigate public school assignments faster, better and more cheaply than would be possible through the unwieldy municipal IT procurement process. What’s more, many of these innovations can be customized for other cities. The trouble is that the model works only in cities with the municipal capacity to support a sizable, well-funded IT crew—in other words, large, relatively prosperous cities. Moreover, Code for America is using part of a huge 2012 grant from Google “to incubate startups that disrupt the marketplace for government software,” potentially trading one set of vendors for another—rather like, it’s worth noting, Teach for America has been used in recent years to “disrupt” public school unions.

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In Townsend’s ideal world, “techies, artists, and activists” would work with government to crowd-source gaps in urban cyber-brain synapses and collaborate on bridging them—much as they did in an “epic civic hackathon” in San Francisco in 2011 called the Summer of Smart, which substituted the “wonders of information technology” for its hippie forebears’ mind-blowing adventures with communal love and LSD. The thought bubble of Peter Hirshberg (“Silicon Valley executive, entrepreneur, and marketing specialist,” according to—yes—his TedX profile), the Summer of Smart devoted 10,000 hours of volunteer time to hacking out twenty-three interactive apps (based on functions that the city, rather than the geeks, defined as critical: community development and public art; sustainability, energy and transportation; public health, food and nutrition) using government records and locational sensors. Townsend applauds the ethos and the results: one app, Good Buildings, mashed up city records on available commercial properties with web-based information such as walkability scores to guide buyers to neighborhoods with sustainability potential. Market Guardians, another app, used gaming methods to map access to healthy, decently priced food in underserved urban neighborhoods, “awarding virtual points and badges to the most active participants.” The city’s director of innovation was especially enthusiastic about all these efforts because his staff had shrunk from twelve people to two in just five years, owing to municipal budget cutbacks.

In most ways that count, Townsend’s pared-down vision is not so different from that of the efficiency-seeking corporate technocrats he derides. For all his comparisons to the spirit of Tocqueville’s Northern antebellum voluntary associations, the saving remnant (or “add-on”) of civic hacking and crowd-sourcing depends on displacing paid labor with free or low-paid work, and further advances—exuberantly—the steady march toward privatization. Moreover, “smart”—which Townsend frequently uses as a noun—is no substitute for the rich local sociability prized by Tocqueville. The next time someone stumbles into you on the sidewalk, looking up speechless and hollow-eyed from their smartphone ramblings, imagine what Miss Dorothea Dix would have thought of their manners and morals.

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The economics of “smart” have far more in common with the ramped-up market rationalization carried out by finance monopoly since the Civil War, culminating in a minimally civic world fit only for what Michael Sandel has called the unencumbered self. If you have any doubts, look at its aesthetic. Townsend marvels at Zaragoza’s Center for Art and Technology, the “spitting image” of MIT’s Media Lab. I found myself in this Cambridge Cathedral of St. Smart recently for an event celebrating the life and death of the great alt-weekly Boston Phoenix, which after forty-seven years closed shop because it could no longer compete with the Internet, where “information wants to be free.” Oh, the irony. There I stood, untethered, in an enormous white cuboid (even the carpeting was an impractical white), an environment congenial only to cyber-artists, technologists and citizens-in-the-abstract, and inhospitable to anyone who gets their feet dirty actually making or repairing things—not the Internet of Things.

Townsend lays claim to the sociological eco-regionalist planning tradition launched by Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford in the early twentieth century, and later embraced by the Jane Jacobs–enamored New Urbanists. For all this parsing of urban theory, however, he neglects the one figure whose aesthetic is most like that of his smart cities: the mid-twentieth-century high modernist Le Corbusier. Where Jacobs scoffed at Le Corbusier’s dehumanizing “towers in the park,” Townsend holds out hope that digitizing these proliferating design monoliths will somehow bring them to life. But it will take a lot more than civic-minded “add-ons” to secure a culture of human agency—much less a democratic one—in the hulking Corbusian mega-projects fast profaning the landscape from New York and Vancouver to Shanghai.

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