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Unreal Cities? | The Nation

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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.

When wireless is perfectly applied,” declared the radio pioneer Nikola Tesla in Collier’s in 1926, “the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain.” To an avowed techno-skeptic and inveterate late adopter like me, this is a provocative statement. That anything wrought by the human mind could ever be applied “perfectly” to “the whole earth” is pure fantasy belied by the evidence of history. One need only consider that ongoing nuclear brinkmanship and global warming are but two outcomes of the human mind’s overweening ambitions. That the majesty of the world can be reduced to the material workings of a “huge brain” is Enlightenment-addled dystopianism of the first order. One could charitably dismiss Tesla’s conceit as an expression of his era’s awe at the emerging gadget-ridden mass consumer economy. Or one could interpret it, as Anthony M. Townsend does in Smart Cities, as an oracular vision of “the world into which we are now moving,” what he praises as “the untethered age.”

Those who enjoy the convenience of social media, smartphones and GPS but are uneasy about being data-tracked—and perhaps are befuddled by what’s at stake in the apparent war between Silicon Valley titans and hipster hacker heroes—could do worse than turn to Townsend for guidance. Townsend has a secure foothold in the various domains he covers in Smart Cities. With MA and PhD degrees in urban and regional planning, he advises corporate, finance and government leaders across the world on high-tech ventures from his “intellectual home,” as he calls it, at the Silicon Valley–based Institute for the Future. He also co-founded, in 2001, the nonprofit NYCwireless, an early effort to “hack”—that is, digitally create—free public Wi-Fi “hotspots” at a time when investors were determined to protect their post-dot-com-crash profits in fee-based Internet services. Townsend, who identifies with the “progressive left,” knows a lot about high-tech designs on cities and efforts to bend their wizardry to democratic purposes. And he has written a generous book in clean prose, one that will engage both advanced geeks and cyber-dolts—willful and otherwise—who merely tolerate terms like “open source” and are only dimly aware of how the Internet works.

Townsend does ask readers to accept some big assumptions, such as that current population trends will continue and that, by 2100, the population might be double what it was in 1990, or around 10 billion people. Or further, that in the age of global warming, the only way to accommodate such growth without social upheaval will be to expedite the ongoing historic migration from rural areas to megacities—and, particularly in the developing world, to do so in ways that “support a middle-class urban existence with only the carbon footprint of a villager.” He also believes, less obviously, that the constant thrum of “ubiquitous digital technology” will invariably lead to greater civic participation, sociability and inclusion. The Internet of Things, in which big-data-sorting devices talk to one another more than people do, ideally for the common good, “will be an immanent force that pervades and sustains our urban world.”

Townsend’s argument harmonizes with prevailing market opinion: as he himself explains, investors are poised to spend some $100 billion on urban automation, or “smart” IT infrastructure, over the next ten years. Cisco Systems has already invested $47 million on Songdo, a satellite city forty miles southwest of Seoul, South Korea, built from scratch on landfill beginning in 2004. This “test bed” features the three layers of digital technology on which multinational corporations—mainly Cisco, IBM and Siemans—are modeling their smart-city designs: an embedded sensor grid, with or without broadband, measuring all manner of conditions and movements (“instrumentation”); data-crunching computation capable of detecting patterns in everything from weather and water use to consumer choice (“urban informatics”); and management protocols for making efficient, predictive use of it all (“urban information architecture”). And while Townsend senses a whiff of Orwell in plans to trick out every dwelling—stacked in looming residential communities with names like “Worldstate”—with sensor-laden two-way video screens, he anticipates that everyday life in such a world will be “delightful.”

Imagine a late summer afternoon in Songdo a few years from now. Instead of thousands of individuals opening shades and adjusting thermostats, the entire city reacts to the setting sun in synchrony. Like desert plants, which open their stomata only at night to minimize water loss, Songdo’s smart buildings might order millions of remotely controlled motors to open windows and blinds to catch the evening sea breeze. Air conditioners and lighting are throttled back. Fresh air and the golden rays of the fading sun fill the city’s chambers.

I searched in vain for evidence that these words were written with tongue in cheek. 

* * *

According to Townsend, the trouble with having big corporate systems-engineering firms run urban automation projects is that the firms are ill suited to accommodating the swift adaptation and citizen participation that smart cities require and, above all, enable. These lumbering, top-down “technocratic” behemoths are preoccupied more than anything else with finding structural efficiencies and scaling up to replicable “cookie-cutter” models. They’ve done it brilliantly with air-transportation logistics over the past twenty years, and Townsend acknowledges that cities will need their expertise in engineering the complex embedded infrastructure of the digital age. What they can’t control, and what Townsend argues holds great democratic promise, are the innumerable ways users armed with mobile phones—and thus untethered to any one wired-in location—can hack out civic spaces and social experiments in real time, as was the case during the 2011 uprisings in Egypt. Indeed, in much of the developing world, where expensive stationary broadband is uncommon, that horse has already left the barn: 80 percent of the world’s mobile subscribers are in developing countries, including their massive slum dwellings.

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.

* * *

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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