Against the Smart City: The counter-example of the La Latina neighborhood in Madrid

“There are two types of smart city. The P2P smart city, which enables citizens to exchange information directly with each other. Then there’s the panoptic smart city, in which data is centralised, manipulated, and then used to control city functions.” – David Week, FB 30/9/2014

Excerpted from Adam Greenfield:

“I think it’s vital to point out that “the smart city” is not the only way of bringing advanced information technology to bear on these questions of urban life. It’s but one selection from a sheaf of available possibilities, and not anywhere near the most responsive, equitable or fructifying among them.

We can see this most easily by considering just who it is the smart city is intended for – by seeking to discover what model of urban subjectivity is inscribed in the scenarios offered by the multinational IT vendors that developed the smart city concept in the first place, and who are heavily involved in sites like Palava. When you examine their internal documentation, marketing materials and extant interventions, it becomes evident there is a pronounced way of thinking about the civic that is bound up in all of them, with rather grim implications for the politics of participation.
A close reading leaves little room for doubt that vendors like Microsoft, IBM, Siemens, Cisco and Hitachi construct the resident of the smart city as someone without agency; merely a passive consumer of municipal services – at best, perhaps, a generator of data that can later be aggregated, mined for relevant inference, and acted upon. Should he or she attempt to practise democracy in any form that spills on to the public way, the smart city has no way of accounting for this activity other than interpreting it as an untoward disruption to the orderly flow of circulation. (This is explicit in Palava’s marketing materials, as well.) All in all, it’s a brutally reductive conception of civic life, and one with little to offer those of us whose notions of citizenhood are more robust.

Given how impoverished this vision is, a casual onlooker could hardly be faulted for concluding that networked information technology is something that will never furnish contemporary city-dwellers with the architecture of participation they deserve. But while this is certainly a more defensible position than breathless technophilia, or the blithe stories of triumphally self-regulating urban ecosystems the vendors themselves peddle, I happen to believe this is not the case. I remain convinced that ordinary city-dwellers can use networked informatics beneficially, to support them in their aims of group coordination, collective decision-making and deliberative self-determination. The following two case studies might help put some flesh on the bones of this assertion.

In both these cases (Occupy Sandy and the La Latina Neighborhood in Madrid), ordinary people used technologies of connection to help them steer their own affairs, not merely managing complex domains to a minimal threshold of competence, but outperforming the official bodies formally entrusted with their stewardship. This presents us with the intriguing prospect that more of the circumstances of everyday urban life might be managed this way, on a participatory basis, by autonomous neighbourhood groups networked with one another in something amounting to a city-wide federation.

In order to understand how we might get there from here, we need to invoke a notion drawn from the study of dynamic systems. Metastability is the idea that there are multiple stable configurations a system can assume within a larger possibility space; the shape that system takes at the moment may simply be one among many that are potentially available to it. Seen in this light, it’s clear that all the paraphernalia we regard as the sign and substance of government may in fact merely constitute what a dynamicist would think of as a “local maximum”. There remain available to us other possible states, in which we might connect to one another in different ways, giving rise to different implications, different conceptions of urban citizenship, and profoundly different outcomes.

The sociologist Bruno Latour warns us not to speak airily of “potential”, reminding us that we have to actually do the work of bringing some state of affairs into being before we can know whether it was indeed a possible future state of the system – and also that work is never accomplished without some cost. I nevertheless believe, given the very substantial benefits we know people and communities enjoy when afforded real control over the conditions of their being, that whatever the cost incurred in this exploration, it would be one well worth bearing.

The evidence before us strongly suggests that investment in the unglamorous technologies, frameworks and infrastructures that are already known to underwrite citizen participation would result in better outcomes for tens of millions of ordinary Indians – and would shoulder the state with far-less onerous a financial burden – than investment in the high-tech chimeras of centralised control. The wisest course would be to plan technological interventions to come on the understanding that the true intelligence of the Indian city will continue to reside where it always has: in the people who live and work in it, who animate it and give it a voice.”

* The (Counter-)Example of the La Latina Neighborhood in Madrid

Adam Greenfield continues:

“The La Latina neighbourhood of Madrid was once home to a thriving market hall, and later a well-used community sporting facility, demolished in August 2009 to make way for planned improvements. But with Spain in the grips of the 2008 economic downturn, the money earmarked for the improvements failed to materialise, and the site remained vacant, cordoned off from the rest of the city by a chainlink fence. As such sacrifice zones will tend to, this site, el Campo de Cebada, increasingly began to attract graffiti, illegal dumping and still-less salutary behavior. Alerted to the deteriorating situation by neighbours, city authorities claimed they were powerless to intervene, apparently in the belief that they had no right to intercede on land belonging to private developers.

Exasperated with this state of affairs, a group of community activists, including architects of the Zuloark collective, cut through the fence and immediately began recuperating the site for citizen use. Following a cleanup, the activists used salvaged material to build benches, mobile sunshades and other elements of an ingenious, rapidly reconfigurable parliament – and the first question they put before this parliament was how to manage the site itself.

This self-stewardship was successful enough for long enough for the collective to eventually obtain quasi-official sanction from the municipal administration. Some three years on, in its various roles as recreation ground, youth centre and assembly hall, el Campo has become a vital community resource. If it has problems now, they are of the sort that attend unanticipated success: on holiday weekends especially, the site attracts overflow crowds.

Where’s the technology in all of this? Beyond canny use of Twitter and Facebook, and an online calendar of activities, there isn’t much. That’s the point. The benches and platforms of el Campo aren’t festooned with sensors, don’t have IPv6 addresses, don’t comply with some ISO wireless-networking standard. The art walls aren’t high- resolution interactive touch surfaces, and the young people painting on them certainly haven’t been issued with Palava-style, all- in-one smartcards. Nevertheless, it would be a profound mistake to not understand el Campo as the heavily networked place it is, just as Occupy Sandy’s distribution centres were.

These are intensely technologised sites, places where the shape of action and possibility are profoundly conditioned by what I call the “dark weather” of the network – that layer of information that swirls around the physical environment, intangible to the unaided human sensorium but possessing terrific potency. It’s simply that in both these cases, the sustaining interactivity was for the most part founded on the use of mature technologies, long deglamorised and long settled into what the technology-consulting practice Gartner refers to as the “trough of disillusionment”.

The true enablers of participation turn out to be nothing more exciting than cheap commodity devices, reliable access to sufficiently high- bandwidth connectivity, and generic cloud services. These implications should be carefully mulled over by developers, those responsible for crafting municipal and national policy, and funding bodies in the philanthropic sector.”

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