WRITTEN BY MARA BALESTRINI
– SPEAKER AT PRIX BLOXHUB INTERACTIVE SYMPOSIUM 21-22 MAY 2019 – LINK

A Google search of the term “smart cities” retrieves pictures of toy-like, pristine cities, packed with shiny sensors and actuators, and probably what’s more intriguing, with no trace of human activity. As Dawn Nafus, an anthropologist working at Intel, recently said at the last edition of the SFAA in Portland: “According to our socio-technical imaginaries, a smart city is a toy city that can be controlled by a white man wearing a suit”. Her phrase masterfully articulates current concerns around the dominant notions of the smart city, which tend to be strongly technology-centred and corporation-driven. They advertise ubiquitous technologies and data infrastructures as the key to improve citizens’ quality of life by making the city manageable and controllable from the top-down, with a focus on efficiency and environmental sustainability.

More recently, researchers, activists and commentators have begun to point out the drawbacks of this vision focused on the technology-driven smart city. For example, the focus on urban computing infrastructure that seeks to deliver efficiency and control has been criticised because it overlooks a wider range of urban community activities and behaviours. There have also been critiques that examined the role of citizens and the ownership of public assets and data. In this regard, pressing issues regarding privacy, security and autonomy have emerged, questioning the convenience and legality of large-scale data collection and processing, especially in the hands of companies and governments that use black-box artificial intelligence and lack transparency protocols.

Faced with these challenges, we need to question the dominant socio-technical imaginaries and redefine the type of smartness that we want for our cities: Whose concerns and perspectives are being addressed? Who gets to shape our future cities? Who should own, control and audit the technologies and resulting data,especially when they are of public interest? What new rights can empower citizens to actually thrive in this technology-mediated urban context?

There is growing understanding that new forms of governance and citizen engagement are needed, because traditional methods for managing the complex interplay of technology, politics and city management are not sufficient. For the past decade, at Ideas for Change we have been collaborating with public institutions, community groups and private organisations to materialise new ways in which citizens can harness the potential of smart technologies to advance their agendas, expand their rights, and shape the cities they live in.

Through our work, we aim to contribute alternative models where citizens are not mere users of city services and resources but rather creative and autonomous agents who hold a significant contributive power. At the core of what we do lays the assumption that more horizontal and open models can lead to new forms of citizen empowerment and democratic participation, and that citizen-led innovation in the production and governance of the city and its infrastructures can lead to more effectiveness in tackling urban challenges. I look forward to sharing ideas and learning about the cities we want to live and thrive in at the next PRIX BLOXHUB INTERACTIVE in Copenhagen. See you soon!