Saturday, January 10, 2015

Review of "Smart Cities" by Anthony Townsend

When I picked up Smart Cities by Anthony Townsend, I was expecting to learn more about "best practices" on using ICT for urban management. Something to add on to my list of inspirational stories that I could share with city leaders in Southeast Asia. After all, the author works at Silicon Valley's Institute for the Future and directs urban research at NYU.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Smart City offers something much more fundamental than a collection of urban ICT best practices. In fact, it is a call to view ICT for what it is: a tool which should be used consciously and critically to improve the lives of citizens. At the base of that call, is a reminder on the importance of good civic governance.

If anyone did any counting, Smart Cities probably lists down more "bad practices" than "best practices". Many of us are well aware of the bus-rapid-transit and bike-sharing systems which have spread throughout the world. Fewer, however, are probably aware of the failed cases and much arrogance associated with these futile attempts. Townsend explained why they failed: simplistic viewpoints, overly technocratic approach, narrow interests, and elitist ways.

The latest ICT and smart apps are tools, just like the telegraph, the car, and the road. They can improve lives if we designed them to work for our benefit, but they could also worsen our lives if we do not curb the negative impacts. An ICT-based land management system could curb corruption at the village level, but it could also facilitate the centralization of corruption for those who have more money. Even cars: "In the 1920s the automobile plowed through city crowds like juggernauts. The vast majority of deaths in the early days of motorization were urban pedestrians".

I particularly liked this quote:

"If we don't think critically now about the technology we put in place for the next century of cities, we can only look forward to all the unpleasant surprises they hold in store for us... We need to question the confidence of tech industry giant, and organize the local innovation that's blossoming at the grass roots into a truly global movement. Most importantly, we need to take the wheel back from the engineers, and let people and communities decide where we should steer." (page 14)

Townsend argued that, "smart cities" are prone to be "buggy" (often having errors), "brittle" (fragile to disasters), and "bugged" (used to monitor citizens without their knowledge or against their will).

But coming from Silicon Valley himself, Townsend is no luddite. He argued that we sould embrace the idea of smart cities, but asks, "are we too eager to ask engineers to solve every urban problem?" He identified narrow private interests and argued that we should "build a web" instead of an operating system, and that city governments and communities should "roll out (their) own network", and think long term.

In his concluding chapter, he called for "a new civics for a smart century", where "putting the needs of citizens first isn't only a more just way to build cities. It is also a way to craft better technology, and do so faster and more frugally."

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