Are Smart Cities For Citizens Or Consumers?

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I’m at a conference where tech companies are showcasing their tools to make streetlights, buildings, and energy grids “smarter.”

Where are the people?

Don’t get me wrong, the show seems well attended by reps from civic government who are looking for ways to exploit big data, and there are lots of thoughtful presenters and exhibitors who’re happy to show them how.

But the whole shebang seems oddly impersonal, almost as if the cities they’re contemplating don’t have any people in them.

Well, they do, but those people aren’t citizens as much as consumers who, according to the host, want to trade personal interactions with government for virtual/digital transactions. The goal of all those smarter artifacts of urban living on display today is to make them happier.

It’s a truly frightening vision for urban development.

Cities are an organic phenomenon, founded by people driven by need and opportunity, and then grown in defiance of any thoughtful planning deference to it. Sure, roads and sewers get planned, at least sometimes, but the lives of successful cities were (and are) determined by their citizens’ successes, often accomplished in spite of the expectations or rules of city fathers.

Such dynamism yields inconsistencies, shortcomings, imperfections, disappointments, and outright conflicts, but it is a textbook example of what a free market can accomplish. The best city “planning” has amounted to providing a platform upon which citizens could clash and collaborate, not manage them.

Happiness is something a visitor to Disneyland expects, or maybe a resident of Celebration. Or Stepford.

Seeing smart city tech as a consumer product avoids any consideration of the psychological, sociological, and even economic and political implications of building consistently efficient urban systems.

I’m not one to confuse artifacts of experience with necessary components: Great art doesn’t emerge because artists suffer, and entrepreneurs don’t have to starve before they do what’s necessary to invent new businesses.

There is, however, an element of chance…or call it happenstance, or serendipity, or simply the magic of diverse, changing circumstances…from which come not only novel insights and actions, but often better ones.

Starting up a conversation with a seat mate on a delayed commuter train. Missing a meeting because of traffic, and then finding an unexpected opportunity in a revised day’s schedule. Failing to get details on a real estate purchase that later turns out to have been worth avoiding. Citizens banding together to effect change in their communities because government couldn’t, or shouldn’t take the lead.

I’d say the greatest innovations in urban living come from citizens inspired by change, not cities or technology that aspire to erase it.

People don’t consume cities, citizens create them.

Of course, maybe algorithms can be written to insert chance into the computers managing smart cities, kind of like Neo’s “anomaly” in The Matrix. Maybe there’s data science that can pinpoint those intersections of experience that are most likely to yield novel outcomes, and then slow the arrival of elevators, or speed up a traffic intersection, or whatever.

As Tom Tomorrow once said, “The future won’t be much fun, but it sure will be efficient.”

The idea of seeing the challenge of urban development as configuring one giant Facebook interface for consumers, with the commensurate gathering and use of data, is not just wrong, but scary.

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