Ekim Tan

The Era of Smart Citizens

"Open up your code and let citizens make their city."

Notes on the Future Everything Summit in Manchester 2013, by Play the City Researcher Luis Veracruz

Sometimes it is simply better to elaborate a desired future, rather than loosing time to improve failing tools of the imperfect present.

Dan Hill set the tone of the conference in his keynote speech: “18th century institutions are not adapted to the 21st century problems”. “There is an institutional collapse and '5 Star Movement' in Italy is a good example of that.”

After his reflection on institutions Hill showed some good practices that mix analog and digital technology, and the question arrived early: are those examples of smart cities? From Dan's point of view, “Smart cities are about active, engaged citizens. Unfortunately, smart cities are going for another way.”

Quays Culture present Speed of Light
Quays Culture present Speed of Light - Tunafish Media

The speakers of the following inspiring session were Drew Hemment (FutureEverything), Marcos García (Medialab Prado) and Doug Ward (Tech Hub). As Lou Cordwell, who chaired the session, said, all three are "on the frontline of bottom-up initiatives” and it was really motivating see how new initiatives like these are growing little by little.

The next session features cases concerning innovative platforms. The speakers were Jeremy Boxer (Vimeo), Stephanie Pereira (Kickstarter) and Kevin Holmes (The Creators Project). Stories of the beginning of projects like Vimeo and Kickstarter are worth listening for startups like us at Play the City. Seeing how they have grown with only a few people and some good ideas is the perfect example of how the Internet is changing the world as we knew it before.

After the lunch break, the first speaker was Martijn de Waal (Urban IxD, The Mobile City). He started talking about his last travel to South Korea and compared three different cities: Songdoo, Seoul City Hall and Hongdae. While Songdoo will be one of the references for smart cities from a technologic and corporation-design point of view, Hongdae's citizens are constantly building new add-ons in their houses, which for de Wall is a new way of urban coding.

The point of the comparison was to emphasize the idea of “citizens treated as citizens and not as consumers”. For De Wall, this concern arrives to the data platforms which will be used in new smart cities as Songdoo: "Who is on this data platform?", "What if you want to reach data about something not commercial as CO2 emissions?", he asked. “Open up your code and let citizens make their city”.

The next speaker was Usman Haque and his plea for messy cities. For Haque, “a city is not a problem which can be solved”, so the notion of perfect decision (with all the data available) is an impossible idea. In his talk, Haque argued city making is always about politics and proposed a hypothetical situation in the future, when a city mayor will be able to say “it's not me, it's the data, which is objective”.

However, he considers how opening data too much can be dangerous sometimes (he remembered the cases of Bradley Manning or Aaron Schwartz, among others) and how citizens' feedback can be smaller when the data is open in order to fake this data. This situation happens, for instance, in neighborhoods where these reports have decreased in order to avoid the drop of housing prices.

He finished with an analogy with the 60s, when the solution to improve our cities seemed to be build more highways. Today, the goal seems to be having all the data we can afford; could be that a mistake as well?

Flickr Future Everything
Flickr Future Everything

Anthony Townsend delivered Friday's keynote speech, entitled “a new civics for Smart Cities”.

For Townsend, the problem is trying to adapt our cities to our institutions and companies instead of doing the opposite. As example, he chose IBM, which “tries to sell their products for smart cities without changing the people's behavior.” And Rio de Janeiro as an example, “where you can hear, 'this is Latin-Americans' biggest screen, as measuring the governance”.

He raised the issue how big companies don't care about the difference between cities. “IBM and Cisco are selling to governments products that have been sold to other markets for the last 20 years.” He also argued that “the presumption that a government works as business is not valid.” “The most important challenge for data is not open it as much as possible but to show the decision process”, he said.

After Townsend's speech came 'Coding, Commenting and Crowdsourcing'.

These talks, given by Michael Evans (New Urban Mechanics) and Jaakko Rajaniemi (CitySDK – Helsinki), focused on the birth of new city tools.

Evans talked about the launching of SeeClickFix, other tools as Street Bump and about the API Open 311. He finished his lecture by indicating that “urban data hasn't been analyzed as seriously as business data.”

Jaakko Rajaniemi explained the first steps of Helsinki in the usage of the open 311–a city service development kit. He highlighted the importance of receiving citizens' feedback with images and locations, and gave some good ideas for the launching program of like projects (example: signing collaboration agreements with local media).

Valter Ferreira, explained the running of A Minha Rua in Lisbon. For him, citizens' reports are important not only to fix a specific issue but also because they communicate the common concerns of the inhabitants of a city.

The after-lunch speaker was Natalie Jeremijenko. She jumped again and again through different examples that could make our cities healthier.

Natalie's proposals are innovative, not (just) in the sense of technology, but also in the conception of the world. For her, it is necessary “changing definition of health and paying attention to external factors”.

“There are ailments that improve the environmental health”, said Jeremijenko, putting buffalo milk as an example to avoid CO2 launched by cows, “why don't we increase the demand if buffalos are better to eat and stop the climate change?

Thanks to examples like that, Natalie's presentation was one of those that remain in your thoughts the days after the conference.

The last conference we attended was “The bespoke of Smart City” and the speakers came from different institutions: Lean Doody, from Arup; Sascha Haselmayer, from Living Labs Global-Citymart; Catherine Mulligan, from Imperial College London, and Duncan Wilson, from Intel.

All of them focused their lectures on how new technology has to be used to improve our cities through citizen engagement.

Sasha Haselmayer (living labs local) talked about the battle for the control of smart cities and compared the current technologic situation with the Victorian period, where some people were against public telephones because criminals could use that technology for their crimes.

Catherine Mulligan (Imperial college London) started her talk with a quote from Plato: “the city is what it is because our citizens are who they are” and finished with a thought: the next revolution will be digitalized but it has to be deeply human.

Definitely, a good summary for these intense two days.