COMING TO TERMS WITH DIGITALLY-ENABLED CITIES
The advent of digitally connected cities presents a change unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. We say this from a systemic perspective – the space that exists above governance – somewhere in the ether of the “social contract” and the concept of society. In this space, we’ve historically had human actors that are provided power to govern, manage and create, and human actors that serve and deliver on the objectives that are agreed on.
Digitally connected cities represent a new systemic model of the world. In the past, technology was inserted into this model as a means to assist in these objectives – making things faster or more efficient. “Smart” technologies change this model fundamentally, not only because they ask us to accept another form of new technology, but because their incorporation actually require us to fundamentally redesign our mostly manual society. “Smart” technologies are new agents – both human and machine – that we must accommodate, in a space that affects the everyday lives of many – the city. This systemic model builds in new power relationships and, crucially, a new currency – data – that not only allows for very fine grain details of human behaviour, but, like many currencies, will determine how these power relationships play out.
This sets the stage for systemic tension. This is already evident in the advent of the “techlash” and public opposition to specific “smart” urban projects. But the core issue is that society is struggling to figure out where these new agents belong, how to manage this new currency and which of these new power relationships are acceptable. And unless we can have a productive dialogue about how this is all structured, the tension will only continue to build up and be released at specific reactionary touch points.
What underlies this?
The advent of these trends is not new, it’s been years in the making. The ongoing permanent austerity on the part of government has led to years of contracting out and a public culture that believes government is too slow and can’t get things done. (Indeed, a more democratic and fair society does require government to stop and think more often – which isn’t a bad thing.)
A consequence of these sentiments is to drive a culture where it is believed that private actors know best and are best able to deliver. While this is true in some cases, issues arise when government comes to rely on them. Government loses out on critical technical knowledge and an ability to understand how changing technologies work.
Enter the age of digital technology and online services. Government has so far been unable to deliver meaningful technological solutions demanded by the public and goes back to contracting out. This might work for specific technological solutions, but at the scale of the city with its myriad complexities, identities and needs, private entities are not designed to handle this level of complexity and this model starts to fall apart or delivers outputs that are don’t “feel 100% natural”.
At the same time, technology development has been driven by specifically defined problems leading to specific solutions. Tools and tactics are driven by tight timelines, developing “good enough” solutions that meet the majority of user needs (but not necessarily all) and a mentality of “move fast and break things.” Couple this with a hyper-capitalistic model where investment desires to minimize risk and maximize profit and we begin to see technology companies that seek to dominate sectors, game the system in their favour and commit ethical lapses. All of this, of course, is being made easier with the new currency of data – which are being stockpiled in large quantities – leading to new power dynamics and new forms of agency for those who can build it up the fastest.
Merging these two worlds together at the scale of a city will very obviously cause tension because objectives differ, and will be exacerbated because the current delivery actors (government and technology companies) are not well equipped to answer the fundamental questions that underlie these tensions. As a result, both sides resort to tried and true tactics – sloganeering, attempting to manage outcomes or public relations blitzes. The rest of society is left in the middle trying to grapple with the fundamental re-design of this system, yet the tension and inherent conflicts continue to simmer.
What can be done?
It doesn’t help that civil society also does not have a strong handle on these dynamics – many people are content to be users of technology and are unaware of how it works or what the issues and trade-offs are. Our view has been that the first step is the need for stronger digital literacy – and not a few lectures in the classroom kind – but deep, experiential learning and feedback.
Our quick solution to this has been the Smart City Playground – a pop-up experiential space to discuss and experience these issues/tensions and discuss them at length. But much more work is needed. There is a need to get co- ordinated across the country and around the world because society needs to learn about this fast enough in order to get to the second need – having an informed discussion about the core systemic issue.
Only when there is a general understanding of the issues and trade-offs can we begin to have a real discussion about where the new actors, currencies and power relationships should belong. Without this, we run the risk of these new agents coming in by force, or risk systems defaulting with a host of unforeseen consequences.
These are some of the fundamental questions we pose as part of the Playground. We hope that everybody thinks carefully about:
• Can governments and technology companies in their current form deliver on the urban challenges we face?
• Is the technology sector equipped to deal with large urban issues?
• If data is a new currency, what do the “capital” controls look like?
• What do you need to know about in order to have a more informed discussion?
• When new agents, especially virtual ones, are in the picture, does this change the fundamental vibe and raison d’etre of a city?