WRITTEN BY DIETMAR OFFENHUBER
– SPEAKER AT PRIX BLOXHUB INTERACTIVE SYMPOSIUM 21-22 MAY 2019 – LINK

How can we make cities more liveable using digital technology? This question raises more fundamental questions. First, who is meant by the word we? City governments, the people, urban designers, various decision-makers? To what extent can each of these groups introduce and shape new technologies?

Addressing certain urban challenges requires system-wide interventions that involve capital and political power usually only found in city governments. But I suspect such top-down approaches are not necessarily the center of interest in the Prix Bloxhub Interactive initiative. Urban infrastructures are not just technical systems, they are also tightly interwoven with social and cultural practices. All urban technologies require civic imagination and are to some extent also its product. Civic imagination is inclusive, it involves everyone who lives, works, and travels in cities.

Civic imagination manifests itself in everyday activities such as repair and maintenance—when people take care of issues in environments they feel responsible for. In smart city presentations, I am often confronted with neat and abstract system diagrams. In reality, systems never work like that. They quickly become much more complex and messy; never work or are used exactly as their planners anticipated. Urban technologies co-evolve with their users; become sites of human and cultural exchange. They depend on creative appropriations, improvisations, quick fixes, ad-hoc repair and maintenance as ingredients of a creative process.

The second fundamental question: livable for whom? Everyone has an idea of what a livable environment should be like, and a few cities were successful in providing such environments. Yet, cities struggle with a seemingly unsolvable dilemma: each success contains the seed of failure in form of gentrification. Livable, affordable, connected — you can only choose two. A new transit line connecting a disadvantaged neighborhood might perversely end up displacing exactly those populations it intended to serve. As a result, livability cannot be separated from questions of justice that defy any simple solution.

Finally, what is the role of technology? Digital media makes it easier to conduct a civic conversation many-to-many. Technology informalizes what was formal: to get in touch with city hall, one doesn’t have to traverse hierarchies. But at the same time, technology also formalizes what was informal, by creating a persistent record of each interaction. As public space grows into the digital realm, we should not forget what constitutes public space: the exposure to diversity. You cannot choose, who you might run into. This can, of course, be dangerous, but I think it is also the source of creative energy, serendipity, and collective civic imagination.