Cities aren’t smart, people are

The idea is very seductive – linking public infrastructure together to make best use of resources from road space to health care, from power and water to policing, creating a self-regulating, self-optimising system.

Everything controlled by artificial intelligence that learns how to achieve the reset outcomes. This is the seductive, siren song of smart cities; computers make objective rational decisions to make optimum use of resources.

Conversely, it transfers responsibility and authority for making choices to a profit-driven company rather than a democratically accountable public body. Rather than locally accountable politicians making decisions through their officials choices are made based on ‘objective’ evidence.

The experience of developing smart city networks in many, if not most, cases so far has been led by technology and driven by a desire for control. Technology plus authoritarianism is a familiar thought.

A smart city control centre is a very visual investment, urban managers in front of screens and consoles, more Star Trek than Mean Streets. Massive investment is required to create the ‘cognitive learning platform’ the networks of sensors and the algorithms that make decisions. Smart cities rely on the collection and management of data, data provided freely by citizens going about their daily lives. This data is then held by a private corporation and used by that corporation.

Inevitably there is a push to collect more, to know more, justified by making better use of the investment and improve decision making. Only the technologists and their cognitive learning platforms can possibly assimilate and manipulate the volumes of data. This shifts into a dystopia, a Truman Show, where citizens are just data producers.

Creating ‘a city of smart people’

There is an alternative approach, using open data and encouraging citizen led initiatives. Delivering myriad incremental benefits by solving local problems by local effort.

In the 1960s there was an emphasis on how places operate through thousands of small interactions, accidents of time and space, rather than centrally planning. There are examples of good practice, where there is clear political leaders hip and a commitment to local bottom up initiatives.

Combining a technocratic model with an autocratic, heavily centralised political system is a worrying trend. Democratising data, making all data open, subject to clear rules on privacy and confidentiality, and asking for ideas on how to deliver changes that make places better for people supports an open society.

Combining the ‘massive small’ approach of small scale citizen-led actions that identify and solve problems in neighbourhoods and communities with open data makes for a city of smart people. Cities are not machines, designed to operate on rational, pre-programmed rules.

As Christopher Alexander says, a city is not a mathematical model, but a messy series of small interactions that create opportunities and chance interactions from which arise innovation and enchantment.

Tony Hutchinson

Tony Hutchinson

Housing consultant

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