Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Bruce Sterling ruins my day

One of my least favorite science fiction writers wrote a thing on "smart cities."

Sterling seems like a smart man, despite being a boring writer. But I've spent several years now working voluntarily with coalitions and cities in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming on transparency standards and "smart city" ideas to engage and understand residents. So, a little defensive at his dismissive tone as I read.

But he's right, the bastard.

If you look at where the money goes (always a good idea), it’s not clear that the “smart city” is really about digitizing cities. Smart cities are a generational civil war within an urban world that’s already digitized. It’s the process of the new big-money, post-internet crowd, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft et al., disrupting your uncle’s industrial computer companies, the old-school machinery guys who ran the city infrastructures, Honeywell, IBM, General Electric. It’s a land grab for the command and control systems that were mostly already there.
If smart cities don't exist -at least not in the "ground up" and "citizen driven" way they're talked about in transparency, open gov, and city planning circles- what happens to all this energy and increasing interest in being "smart" sprouting in small to mid-size cities of the west?
The GAFAM crowd isn’t all that well suited to the urban task at hand, either. Running cities is not a good business fit for them because they always give up too easily. America’s already littered with the remnants of abandoned Google Moonshots. Amazon kills towns by crushing retail streets and moving all the clerks backstage into blind big-box shipping centers. The idea of these post-internet majors muscling up for some 30-year urban megaproject—a subway system, aqueducts, the sewers—seems goofy.  
These Big Tech players have certainly got enough cash to build a new, utopian town from scratch, entirely on their own software principles—a one-company Detroit for the Digital Initiative. But they won’t do that because they’re American. The United States hasn’t incorporated a major new city in almost 70 years.
Sterling barely touches on the philosophy or ideology of "smart city" agendas except to brush them off, but he's right about the futility and cynicism of "ground up" mythology built around such agendas. If "smart cities" are to actually be grassroots oriented and citizen driven it has to be, paradoxically, somewhat severed from "tech." Not technology itself, but the world of "tech" as most of us understand it via GAFAM.

Really smart cities won't be built around Silicon Valleys or Slopes, tech hubs, innovation corridors or Amazon warehouses, but, as Sterling is trying to say in too many words, very few "smart" cities are making the distinction. The danger for cities now is becoming yet another data funnel rather than savvy data consumer, the declared goal of a "smart city."

[Another take on the matter via the Guardian. Interesting, but always read Poole skeptically.]

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