Why "smart cities" should be an Internet of People, not Things

Adam Greenfield proves again that he's one of the best writers and thinkers on "smart cities," explaining how the top-down, expensive, tech-centered approach produces unlivable corporate dystopias in which people are just another "thing" to be shuffled around — and showing that there's an alternative, low-tech, high-touch, human-centered version of the smart city that makes resilient, thriving communities.

Greenfield is really talking about capitalism, here. City governments are responsive to IBM and Siemens and Microsoft when they pitch their seamless, airtight version of the city of tomorrow, because that version of tomorrow's cities involves procurement processes, lots of money changing hands, and cushy jobs for civil servants who go through the revolving door into the private sector they've just been playing fairy godmother for.

Meanwhile, the kind of community-driven, low-tech, cheap and effective version of intelligent cities produces no gold ribbon-cuttings, no tourist-brochure photos, and no opportunities for pork and kickbacks — just good governance.

We live in an era in which the only political initiatives that succeed must have business-models to pay for their lobbyists. Sometimes you can get good government that's also profitable for its lobbyists (for example, Google and other big tech companies lobbying for Net Neutrality), but it profoundly sucks that our politics are just a bidding war between selfish transhuman corporations that view humans as their gut flora.

A close reading leaves little room for doubt that vendors like Microsoft, IBM, Siemens, Cisco and Hitachi construct the resident of the smart city as someone without agency; merely a passive consumer of municipal services – at best, perhaps, a generator of data that can later be aggregated, mined for relevant inference, and acted upon. Should he or she attempt to practise democracy in any form that spills on to the public way, the smart city has no way of accounting for this activity other than interpreting it as an untoward disruption to the orderly flow of circulation. (This is explicit in Palava's marketing materials, as well.) All in all, it's a brutally reductive conception of civic life, and one with little to offer those of us whose notions of citizenhood are more robust…

Organised by veterans of Occupy Wall Street, the citizen relief group known as Occupy Sandy emerged in response to the unprecedented damage done to New York City by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its lineage, OS was organised along strong principles of leaderlessness, horizontality and consensus. What may be more surprising is that this group of amateurs – unequipped with budgetary resources or any significant prior experience of logistics management, and assembled at a few hours' notice – is universally acknowledged as having outstripped traditional, hierarchical and abundantly resourced groups like the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross in delivering relief to the hardest-hit communities.

Occupy Sandy's volunteers were unquestionably able to do this because they used networked technology to coordinate and maintain real-time situational awareness over their activities. Crucially, though, the systems they used were neither particularly elaborate, nor the ones many theorists of networked urbanism might have envisioned. They certainly didn't have anything to do with the high-spec, high-margin instrumentation that IT multinationals would have municipal governments invest in.

The smartest cities rely on citizen cunning and unglamorous technology [Adam Greenfield/The Guardian]

(Image: occupy sandy wayfinding, Daniel Latorre, CC-BY)