On Friday, I participated in one of the most engaging debates that I have witnessed so far on the theme of “Smart Cities”. Organised by EDGE, and supported by the Italian & Danish Embassies in London, and hosted by Buro Happold, the assembled group of circa 80 people managed to quickly move the debate beyond techno-utopias/dystopias of Big Brother type surveillance under-pinned by ubiquitous sensors and data. Yes, such an Orwellian possibility exists, but allowing the definition of Smart to be hi-jacked by corporate interests looking to monetise this domain, would be to capitulate at the first obstacle.
Re appropriating the much appropriated term, which Wikipedia helpfully defines as unlocking the “social and intellectual capital” of our cities, seems an essential first step in this task. Understanding smart cities as an opportunity for us to radically transform the “intelligence” that we as citizens and society at large can utilize to progress towards the ultimate goals that underpin aspirations such as the ubiquitous sustainability e.g. social justice, human knowledge, biodiversity, resource efficacy, etc.
Sensors, data, computing, are essential underpinnings of this greater “awareness” and create new abilities for micro-coordination in our actions - although I note we already have over 9 billion of the worlds most advanced sensors already distributed across the surface of our planet, and developed speech over 40,000 years ago (I wander whether the first thing uttered was a fear that someone could now report on your behaviour?) . That said, rather than the narrow technological potentials of the Smart City in , it is its ability to change our values and behaviours that seems most profound e.g. if we are can be aware of the provenance of everything we consumer, no longer we will be able to claim ignorance of socially or environmentally unjust acts; will new platforms provide us with new forms of (mediated) trust to share and cooperate in radically new ways. The potential in this respect seems even more enormous, and relevant to today’s challenges than a fridge that tells me when to buy milk.
However, after a day of genuinely thought provoking presentations and intense discussion – all anchored to a programmatic reality (there was a high proportion of engineers in the room) , the inevitable question of what shall we do arise. Compared to the genuine energy of early sessions, a relative silence fell over the room; a telling silence.
In the past two decades it seems that intelligent professionals, and I use this term uncritically, have become accustomed to expecting leadership to come from outside; to wait to be asked and to act as consultants to those who initiate or lead. We have become a source of answers, on a pay as you go basis. We have not needed to ask deep questions, make the fundamental propositions, or take the real risk of attempting something radically new.
As Wikipedia helpfully pointed out, Smart Cities are about unlocking our “social and intellectual capital”. Perhaps that starts by considering how we are selves are doing things.