If you live in, work in, or occasionally visit a city, any city, but especially one in England’s North, please set aside half an hour or so some time soon to watch and read two powerful critiques of the prevailing techno-determinist vision of the so-called “smart city”.
All 11,000 words of Dan Hill’s post on his City of Sound blog repay an extended reading, but the title also says it all: “On the smart city; Or, a ‘manifesto’ for smart citizens instead“.
Dan asks: “Can a city be ‘smart’ and inefficient at the same time? Perhaps this is a fundamental question, un-voiced by smart city advocates.”
Then there’s Adam Greenfield’s more clinical dissection of the smart city missions of leading enterprises moving in on the space, such as Siemens’ somewhat sinister “the goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”
Watch Adam’s talk now, it’s only 10 minutes long.
Adam speaks of : “All that messy history caused by an infinity of small acts… It’s not just any city, it’s this city, wherever this city happens to be with all its texture, all of its history, all of its people…”
Mess, texture, history… all things Leeds, Bradford and their northern neighbours have in abundance. No more so than in the city districts that have been home to successive waves of immigration, making new dishes out of past occupants’ leftovers, as in Caribbean/Jewish Chapeltown or South Asian/Jewish Manningham.
When I look back over the glinting shards that Andrew, Imran and I have collected on our New Idea of the North Tumblr, one of the themes I see crop up repeatedly is that of the messy city, the celebration of small acts, randomness, spontaneity, lack of control.
I see it in the positive, creative activities like Emma Bearman’s Playful Leeds events…
Take this intervention from the Scott Burnham Urban Mischief playshop last year…
A pair of sticky tape legs, appear to have dived just this second from a half-finished shopping centre walkway and into the tarmac below. A beautiful piece of trash in the middle of a street that has itself been trashed by piecemeal development for as long as I can remember.
The smart city could not tolerate this. Development would be too well coordinated, the flow of pedestrian traffic too precious to permit even a temporary perturbation. Only in the messy city can such creativity flourish.
Of course the messy city has its dark side too. Don’t miss Radio 4’s upcoming re-staging of Tony Robinson’s ‘V’, the powerful and profane poem written at the time of the Miners’ Strike. The city that gave the world practical steam locomotion also grew the terrorists who bombed London’s underground railway.
But in contrast to the sterile efficiency of the mythical smart city, the messy city is real, and there’s always hope. To understand how the smart and messy cities see things differently, consider responses to the summer riots of 2011.
Exhibit A, the most egregious example at a recent smart city “social” sciences demo event at Leeds City Museum. The “Riot Sim” seeks to gamify law and order. Participants take the role of police commissioner, moving cute Lego officers across a projected city map to quell computer-generated outbreaks of violence.
In the movie world of the Matrix, the authorities are software agents, but here in the smart city, the computer assumes the role of the citizens. It’s tidier that way; even the riots are tidier. Riots are presented as inevitable, an apolitical phenomenon to be modelled and controlled. Tellingly, the high score is a financial one – how many thousand pounds of damage to property could the user/police chief/god-like viewer mitigate?
Meanwhile in the messy city, real people were determined to change the narrative. In London they rejected the myth that Blackberry Messenger caused the riots and organised on Twitter to start the clean-up.
And in Chapeltown, there’s another story, one that the Riot Sim is incapable of imagining. In this story the police, community leaders and rioters are all humans, who look each other in the eyes and refuse to conform to stereotypes and computer models. After a gang-related shooting at the height of the ferment, police agreed to hold back while youth workers went round to calm tensions and call on parents to enforce an informal curfew. Because, not in spite, of the district’s troubled history the people of Chapeltown chose a different August 2011.