The emergence of smart citizens for a new urbanism

Excerpted from Dan Hill:

There are weak signals that, as institutional frameworks continue to crumble, citizens are increasingly actively engaged in decision-making about their city. Again, at its most viscerally obvious, we can see it in Tahrir Square, Occupy Everywhere, Croydon, Athens, or the underreported protests in urban China. But beyond those flashpoints, we can also see numerous examples of a more systemic change: urban activism becoming urban activity. All these phenomena rely on the dynamics, modes and functionality of social media. They enable the heroic efforts of urban activists of the past—those who produced New York’s High Line, London’s Coin Street, or Renew Newcastle in Australia, say—to be shared, copied, translated and scaled.

Through the lens of democratising urban planning, we see examples like “Sub-Plan” in the UK and “Tallinna Planeeringute Juhend” in Tallinn: simple, user-centred guidebooks explaining how to exploit loopholes in urban planning legislation to more creatively and proactively rework your city. We can see movements like Friends of Arnold Circus in London, where the community has brokered a deal with its cash-strapped municipal government such that local maintenance is a shared responsibility. The outcome is that what used to be a dilapidated, syringe-strewn, rusty Victorian bandstand is now an active and well-tended community garden. Similarly, in Berlin, we see the residents of Schöneberg creating and maintaining their own planter boxes outside their apartment blocks, sometimes asking the city government for permission, sometimes not. As each apartment block is different, the streets become patterned with a playful expression of Berlin’s rich diversity. It’s an entirely informal urbanism, taking root in the cracks left by urban planning, city governance and market forces. But does it scale beyond the window-dressing of tactical planter boxes?

In Helsinki, Ravintolapäivä (Restaurant Day) started in 2011 and now runs every few months, with hundreds of diverse pop-up restaurants peppering the streets, effortlessly circumventing the city government by exploiting legal grey areas or simply relying on strength in numbers, common sense, and clear public demand (as discussed previously.) Created in response to overly repressive, cumbersome and outdated legislation, the festival was devised and organised by a small group of friends, in emergent fashion, coordinated via Facebook and Twitter. The resulting “Ravintolapäivä” was essentially a set of instructions, and you can’t arrest a set of instructions. You can’t arrest code. There is no there, there. It would be like trying to arrest smoke, and consequently the City, the biggest bureaucracy in the country, was sidestepped easier than the Maginot Line. The streets are suddenly full on Restaurant Days, a vivid expression of how fast Helsinki is diversifying, with people you don’t usually see enjoying a diverse range of food you can’t usually eat—empenadas cooked by Argentinians, crepes by French, lasagna by Italians, as well as smoked reindeer from the Finns. To locals, it must feel like a new Helsinki emerging from within the hardened shell of the old.

But interestingly, while such events are a kind of slow-release capsule in changing the culture of the city, changing the stories that the city tells about itself, such pop-ups do not strategically create systemic change, just as Occupy, Arab Spring and UK Riots have not projected any kind of suggestion for a new, resilient decision-making culture. Though it has spread throughout Finland and worldwide—a major marketing success the municipality can barely mention, as Ravintolapäivä still hovers in Helsinki’s legal grey areas—Restaurant Day is largely a phenomenon enjoyed by urban hipsters, and is here today, gone tomorrow. The only problem with Restaurant Day is the Day After Restaurant Day. There, the city snaps back to its previous shape, with no diverse food offering, little creative use of the street, and the hardening chrysalis of the old city visible again.

Events can change the city, clearly—hence the vast investments in Olympics and Expos as well as bottom-up riots—but their effects are slow, unpredictable and spotty.

Yet what these new tools suggest, due to the platform characteristics of social media, is a more rapid, even, and sustained change might be possible. The tools could be used to create a new interface on the city that could, potentially, alter the way that most citizens interact with it.

Moreover, behavioural psychology tells us of the importance of people actually doing things, when attempting to engender significant behaviour change.

It turns out that changing behaviour is a way to subsequently change attitudes; this is entirely counter the thinking behind many smart systems, which are predicated on feedback loops delivering information to people, whose attitudes then change, and who then choose to change their behaviour accordingly. Instead, behaviour change happens through changing behaviour, and then attitudes.

It is not enough to simply “make the invisible, visible”, to use the already well-worn phrase in urban informatics. But change might happen through creating convenient, accessible ways to try something different, and then multiplying that through social proof and network effects, reinforcing through feedback. (This means all those smart meters are a complete waste of time and money, and will eventually have to be uninstalled.)

Active learning—say, by trying out that idea for a pop-up café, without having to commit to it—also enables social proof. Others take part in it. And this, in turn, encourages further activity. This drive towards enabling activity—physical activity in streets, embedded within digital activity, at one and the same time—is also the future of communications concerned with meaningful change: it is no longer enough to convey the image; you have to convey the tools too.”

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