Category Archives: Smart city

NEOM or the glow of a Saoudi-Arabian spring?

During a recent meeting of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyad the 32 year old crown prince of Saoudi-Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, announced the building of a 25.000 km2 smart city from scatch, 30 times the size of New York. The required investment – $500 billion – will be financed by selling 5% of the shares of the national oil company Aramco. Klaus Kleinfeld, former chief executive of Siemens AG and Alcoa Inc. will lead the project. I will discuss the plans first, after which I will comment on them.

The rational behind the plan is to decrease Saoudi-Arabian dependency on oil. In addition, the volume of money leaking out of the country will be diminished by expanding local investment options. At the same time the plan hints at fundamental changes in the Saoudi-Arabian society.

Boost for the economy

new city wil become the trigger of the diversification of the economy. It will be powered by renewable energy, applying advanced energy storage and produce its own water supply. The core industries will be biotechnology, food technology, advanced manifacturing, creative industries and the development of digital content. Universities will focus on artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. The contribution to the Kingdom’s GDP is projected to reach at least $100 billion by 2030.

Smart city

The city will be CO2 neutral. The personal transport will rely on autonomous cars. The city will be serving as a laboratory for innovative construction techniques and materials. Internet will be free, other forms of connectivity will be state-of-the-art. Land use will be mixed, allowing people to reach their destinations by walking to encourage a healthier lifestyle. Government services will be fully automated and easily accessible to all residents.

Liveable city

The city is located in a rich natural environment, offering a shoreline of 450 km. Its center will be a marvelous park. In every aspect human beïngs will be top priority. Its cultural life, healthcare and its educational institutions will measure with the best of the world. NEOM is meant to grow into an aspirational society with an idyllic lifestyle. It will become a community founded on modern architecture, green space, high quality of life, safety, and technology in the service of humanity paired with excellent economic opportunities. The city will offer a multicultural environment in wich a proactive and diverse community will thrive and living by world class social norms. These conditions will attrack the best scientists and entrepreneurs of the world, especially the younger ones.

Automomous status

NEOM will be granted the status of an autonomous economic zone and be will be independent of the Kingdom’s existing governmental framework, excluding sovereignity laws. This status enables the industry to manufacture and provide goods and services at globally competitive prices and also to be a place of freedom.

A cultural turn

A visionary Mohammed bin Salman said This project is not a place for any conventional investor … This is a place for dreamers who want to do something in the world He added that young Saudis and the promotion of moderate Islam are the key to his modernizing dream for his country: We are only going back to how we were: to the tolerant, moderate Islam that is open to the world, to all the religions and traditions of its people.

At this point, I strongly recomment to watch the video that is part of the glossy presentation of NEOM.

The information above has already acknowledged you with the facts. Now focus at the subtext of this presentation and its subtle suggestions of a cultural turn. You are watching a modern country, with happy young men and women, mostly unveiled. Girls are dancing. The crown prince wil have understood that a cultural change like this requires NEOM to be an autonomous entity with Saoudi-Arabia. But it is evident that he aims it to become a role model for the country as a whole.

Realizing NEOM’s infrastructure, attracting new industries and having competent scientist and entrepreneurs migrated from abroad will be a huge operation. Taking into account the availability of large resources and the power of bin Salman, the project is not a mission impossible. However it wil take time. When asked about the number of citizens of NEOM, bin Salman said – rightly – that the population has to grown organically. But the same applies to the city as a whole which makes any estimation of its contribution to Saoudi-Arabian GDP in vain.

cultural turn will be even more demanding, but it is a necessary requirement for the success of the project. Probably bin Salman’s intention to liberalize the country, the Islam included, will be supported by the younger generation, women in the first place. However the resistance from the traditional establishment will be tough. Only to-day the King put in jail sixteen of bin Salman’s opponents. Bin Salman might take as example the almighty and popular current Chinese president and leader of the communist party Xi Jinping. However Xi is standing at the shoulders of mighty predecessors like Deng Xiaoping and does not need taking into account conservative religious leaders[1].

NEOM is not just another smart city, it is a focal point for radical cultural and social change in Saoudi-Arabia and possibly the Arab world as a whole. Mohammed bin Salman is realizing the scale of his mission when he is saying: This is a double-edged sword. If they (young Saudis) work and go the right way, with all their force they will create another country, something completely different … and if they go the wrong direction it will be the destruction of this country.

[1] Referring at Chinese leaders is not by chance: My next article deals with another new mega city, Xiongan. This city, 100 km from Beïng has to relieve the capital’s growth and the subsequent pressure on trafic, air quality and housing. The city will cover three times the surface of New York; the sum to invest $250 billion.

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Are smart cities also sharing cities?

Aside from smart and resilient, a growing number of cities is wielding the adjectieve sharing. Seoul was in 2013 the first self-appointed Sharing City in the world. In 2015 Amsterdam claimed to be the first one in Europe. 

San Francisco

However, the most eyecatching initiatives with respect to sharing originate from one city in particular – San Francisco – the hometown of sharing-oriented start-ups like Twitter, Dropbox, Lyft and Airbnb. A sharing aptitide is characterizing the life style of many of its millennial population: co-working, co-living (also due to sky-rocketing rents), eschewing car-ownership and a preference for living in the city center.

sharing cities San Francisco brand of ‘sharing’ is commercial in the first place and has beside winners also many losers, for instance the drivers of companies like Uber and Lyft and those in other taxi-companies. The unprecedented influx of tourists in cities like Amsterdam and Barcelona due to the succes of one of the sharing economy icons, Airbnb, also will not contribute to its popularity.

For this reason Duncan McLaren & Julian Agyeman plea for a brand of real sharing cities, based on just sustainabilities. In their seminal book Sharing cities’ (MIT Press, 2015) they elaborate examples from Seoul, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Medellin to clarify a more inclusive communal sharing paradigmthat goes beyond commercial motives. Real sharing cities relate questions with respect to social needs and welfare – economic opportunity included – to social justice and environmental limits imposed by supporting ecosystems.

Summing up, sharing means that more persons use the same product or service without owning it. This can apply to the (re)use of bikes, cars, appartments of books. But the sharing paradigm includes also includes recycling, common facilities for water and energy, credit unions and cooperative banks. Sharing might be motivated by cost reduction by social justice or by decreasing our ecological footprint.

Seoul

Communal sharing is connected with the sources of wellbeing: Fresh air, water, energy, education, cure and care, socializing, inclusion and liveable space. The city of Seoul offers many examples in this respect. The concept of jeong plays a key role. People believe that being kind and cooperative will benefit all in the long term. More specific, the administration of the city is promoting and supporting collaboration and caretaking in the densely populated apartment blocks. At the same time mayor and eldermen value listening to the inhabitants. People can easily utter complaints and requests talking in the ‘listening ear’ in front of the town hall (photo below).

sharing cities

The city administration also plays an intermediate role in the economic development. Start-ups are supported by the ‘Dreambank’, a pooled facility of 20 banks.

Medellin

sharing citiesOther cities offer additional insight in the intermediate role of city government to enhance the ‘sharing potential’ of their towns. An striking example is Medellin, the second town in Colombia and the former center of drug trafficking, also known as ‘murder capita’ of the world. After that military shot the infamous gangleader Pablo Escobar, the city government started to repair the ruined social fabric of the town. It invested large sums in education and communal facilities, often in iconic buildings like the Biblioteca de Espagna in the middle of poor areas, to enable their inhabitants regaining some feeling of proudness.

At the same time all isolated parts of the town were connected by a new public transport system of metrolines, gondolas and escalators. Participatory budgetting was introduced an instrument to increase citizen involvement.

Copenhagen and Amsterdam

McLaren & Agyeman also feature Copenhagen and Amsterdam as examples of ‘social urbanism’, because these city’s sharing policies are community motivated in the first place. Copenhagen has improved the liveabllity of its city center with an infrastructure based on the use of bicycles. Amsterdam did the same with its dense public transport network and creating bikelanes as well. In addition Amsterdam’s social housing policy has accomplished more integration of its immigrant population than many other cities. The city also facilitates a huge number of ‘commoning’ activities.

sharing cities

Reflecting upon the cases above, a couple of concepts demand clarification.

Collaboration

Collaboration is used often as an equivalent for sharing. This is not necessary true. Collaboration refers to collective action to get things done; sharing usually involves individual action. Collaboration happens in the economic domain – for instance cooperative work, self-managed companies and community currences and in the social domain as well, for instance commoning activities like gardening, cooking, the exploitation of collective housing, community shops and even swimming pools and transport. Apart from the direct benefits of collaboration, its value is also the growth of social capital. As a consequence, collaboration is a necessary extension of the concept of sharing.

Connectivity

Commercial sharing depends heavily from the availability of IT-platforms, think of Airbnb and Uber. But connectivity is also critical for certain social forms ‘sharing’, for instance instaneous mapping of damagein case of earthquakes or flooding in order to support rescuing activities.

Sharing versus smart

Sharing and smart are not equivalents; however accentuating its sharing capacity, might be a way to for smart cities to be more specific about its characteristics. My description of Smart City 3.0 includes many characteristics of the sharing city that are described above.

Amsterdam is profiling itself for some years as a smart city. Recently, the city also embraced the adjectives ‘sharing’ and ‘collaborative’. I doubt the wisdom of this policy. The content of the missions of Amsterdam Smart City and Amsterdam Sharing city do not differ that much. Therefore applying two adjectives is confusing, given that most citizens still have to become acquaintant with the benefits and challenges of living in a smart city. From a communication viewpoint, I would have chosen to clarify being smart with a small number of key words. Sharing might be one of these. My choice of the other ones would have been: citizen-based, inclusive, entrepreneurial, collaborative, sustainable and IT-enabled. Maybe my advise is still useful.

This is an episode in a series that elaborates aspects of smart cities. This article has already been published in Smart City Hub.

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Are smart cities also sharing cities?

Aside from smart and resilient, a growing number of cities is wielding the adjectieve sharing. Seoul was in 2013 the first self-appointed Sharing City in the world. In 2015 Amsterdam claimed to be the first one in Europe. 

San Francisco

However, the most eyecatching initiatives with respect to sharing originate from one city in particular – San Francisco – the hometown of sharing-oriented start-ups like Twitter, Dropbox, Lyft and Airbnb. A sharing aptitide is characterizing the life style of many of its millennial population: co-working, co-living (also due to sky-rocketing rents), eschewing car-ownership and a preference for living in the city center.

sharing cities San Francisco brand of ‘sharing’ is commercial in the first place and has beside winners also many losers, for instance the drivers of companies like Uber and Lyft and those in other taxi-companies. The unprecedented influx of tourists in cities like Amsterdam and Barcelona due to the succes of one of the sharing economy icons, Airbnb, also will not contribute to its popularity.

For this reason Duncan McLaren & Julian Agyeman plea for a brand of real sharing cities, based on just sustainabilities. In their seminal book Sharing cities’ (MIT Press, 2015) they elaborate examples from Seoul, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Medellin to clarify a more inclusive communal sharing paradigmthat goes beyond commercial motives. Real sharing cities relate questions with respect to social needs and welfare – economic opportunity included – to social justice and environmental limits imposed by supporting ecosystems.

Summing up, sharing means that more persons use the same product or service without owning it. This can apply to the (re)use of bikes, cars, appartments of books. But the sharing paradigm includes also includes recycling, common facilities for water and energy, credit unions and cooperative banks. Sharing might be motivated by cost reduction by social justice or by decreasing our ecological footprint.

Seoul

Communal sharing is connected with the sources of wellbeing: Fresh air, water, energy, education, cure and care, socializing, inclusion and liveable space. The city of Seoul offers many examples in this respect. The concept of jeong plays a key role. People believe that being kind and cooperative will benefit all in the long term. More specific, the administration of the city is promoting and supporting collaboration and caretaking in the densely populated apartment blocks. At the same time mayor and eldermen value listening to the inhabitants. People can easily utter complaints and requests talking in the ‘listening ear’ in front of the town hall (photo below).

sharing cities

The city administration also plays an intermediate role in the economic development. Start-ups are supported by the ‘Dreambank’, a pooled facility of 20 banks.

Medellin

sharing citiesOther cities offer additional insight in the intermediate role of city government to enhance the ‘sharing potential’ of their towns. An striking example is Medellin, the second town in Colombia and the former center of drug trafficking, also known as ‘murder capita’ of the world. After that military shot the infamous gangleader Pablo Escobar, the city government started to repair the ruined social fabric of the town. It invested large sums in education and communal facilities, often in iconic buildings like the Biblioteca de Espagna in the middle of poor areas, to enable their inhabitants regaining some feeling of proudness.

At the same time all isolated parts of the town were connected by a new public transport system of metrolines, gondolas and escalators. Participatory budgetting was introduced an instrument to increase citizen involvement.

Copenhagen and Amsterdam

McLaren & Agyeman also feature Copenhagen and Amsterdam as examples of ‘social urbanism’, because these city’s sharing policies are community motivated in the first place. Copenhagen has improved the liveabllity of its city center with an infrastructure based on the use of bicycles. Amsterdam did the same with its dense public transport network and creating bikelanes as well. In addition Amsterdam’s social housing policy has accomplished more integration of its immigrant population than many other cities. The city also facilitates a huge number of ‘commoning’ activities.

sharing cities

Reflecting upon the cases above, a couple of concepts demand clarification.

Collaboration

Collaboration is used often as an equivalent for sharing. This is not necessary true. Collaboration refers to collective action to get things done; sharing usually involves individual action. Collaboration happens in the economic domain – for instance cooperative work, self-managed companies and community currences and in the social domain as well, for instance commoning activities like gardening, cooking, the exploitation of collective housing, community shops and even swimming pools and transport. Apart from the direct benefits of collaboration, its value is also the growth of social capital. As a consequence, collaboration is a necessary extension of the concept of sharing.

Connectivity

Commercial sharing depends heavily from the availability of IT-platforms, think of Airbnb and Uber. But connectivity is also critical for certain social forms ‘sharing’, for instance instaneous mapping of damagein case of earthquakes or flooding in order to support rescuing activities.

Sharing versus smart

Sharing and smart are not equivalents; however accentuating its sharing capacity, might be a way to for smart cities to be more specific about its characteristics. My description of Smart City 3.0 includes many characteristics of the sharing city that are described above.

Amsterdam is profiling itself for some years as a smart city. Recently, the city also embraced the adjectives ‘sharing’ and ‘collaborative’. I doubt the wisdom of this policy. The content of the missions of Amsterdam Smart City and Amsterdam Sharing city do not differ that much. Therefore applying two adjectives is confusing, given that most citizens still have to become acquaintant with the benefits and challenges of living in a smart city. From a communication viewpoint, I would have chosen to clarify being smart with a small number of key words. Sharing might be one of these. My choice of the other ones would have been: citizen-based, inclusive, entrepreneurial, collaborative, sustainable and IT-enabled. Maybe my advise is still useful.

This article was published before in the Smart City Hub

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Smart cities or resilient cities. Does it make any difference?

Resilient city

Worldwide 55 percent of all people is living in cities. They cover 4 percent of the landsurface, use 67 percent of all energy that is produced and are responsible for 70 percent of the emission of greenhouse gasses. Cities are not only the most important economic centres of the world, their political power is also increasing. Observers believe that growing sustainability will result in the first place from policies issued by the world’s largest cities instead of by national governments.

In order to express their intentions, many cities showcase themselves with adjectives such as ‘smart’, resilient’, sustainable’, ‘sharing’ and the like. These predicates refer to results that already have been accomplished, however small, but they express their mission for the future in the first place.

An inventory of current literature (1) resulted in more then 30 definitions of smart city. Most cited (348 times) is the definition of Caragliu (2009): ‘We believe a city to be smart when investments in human and social capital and and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory governance.’

Rotterdam

The first appearance of the concept resilience in connection with urban policy dates back to  2002. However, only in 2012 the frequency of searches in Google for resilient city started to boom.

In contrast with smart city, the number of definitions of resilient city is limited. Cities who call themselves resilient, like Rotterdam and The Hague in The Netherlands, claim to build capacity within individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.

Chronic stresses weaken the fabric of a city on a daily or cyclical basis. Examples include: high unemployment, overcrowded or inefficient public transportation systems, endemic violence and chronic food and water shortages. Acute shocks are sudden, sharp events that threaten a city. Examples include earthquakes, floods, disease outbreaks and terrorist attacks.

The concepts smart and resilient city have different roots. Large technology companies, like Cisco, IBM, Siemens, Philips started promoting to become a smart city expert ten years ago during the economic crisis as part of their strategy to find new markers and to attract new customers.

The use of the concept resilient city is promoted by international organizations and associations of cities in order to improve city’s capabilities to deal with hazards like the hurricanes Katarina in the New Orleans region (2005) and Sandy along the eastcoast of North America (2012).

As evidenced in the definition mentioned above, the concept hazard has been broadened to include external pressures in general, varying from climate change and environmental degradation to poverty and traffic congestion.

The concept smart city has also evolved. In another article I made a distinction between smart city 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0. These descriptions mark the evolution from the mere accentuation of the deployment of ICT as a key tool to fuel economic growth and competitiveness, to a multi-objective and participatory strategy capable to tackle problems of environmental deterioration, social equity and inclusion and building social capital. 

The Resilient City Movement has been boosted in 2014 when the Rockefeller Foundation invested $100 million in the 100 Resilient Cities Challenge. Partly because its institutionalization, the policies of the cities partnering in the 100 Resilient City Challenge have more in common than those of the self appointed smart cities. The so-called City Resilience Framework, plays a key role in each of the participating city’s strategy.

The city Resilience framework

Based upon this framework, an index has been developed. Cities can calculate an indicator of their resilience with respect to the topics mentioned above and subsequently develop a strategy to improve weak points. The result of the analysis made in Rotterdam is indicated below. At this time 30 cities have published strategy reports to increase their resilience in the next decade. Among them are Rotterdam and Athens, a city that came with a brilliantly elaborated action report. A brand new report, Cities taking Action, written on occasion of the World Summit in July 2017, offers an anthology of what has been reached during the recent past within a selection of the 100 participating cities.

An analysis of definitions of smart and resilient cities and of characteristics attributed to each of these concepts is revealing a very broad overlap as is demonstrated in the box below.

As a consequence, some publications consider resilience as a characteristic of smart cities. Others believe that resilience will replace smart. I am not in favor of the assimilation of one of these terms by the other. Both concept have there own roots and are on their way to become meaningful for citizens. Therefore, they better can be treated as comparable, as is understood well by one of the platforms. Otherwise, the City Resilience Framework is an extremely useful policy making tool for smart cities because of its high level of elaboration.

Taking into account the convergence of definitions, both smart and resilient cities are building capabilities to deal with and prevent chronic stress and acute shocks, deploying a broad range of technologies. They enable individuals, communities, institutions and businesses to participate in the definition and execution of policies. They invest in the growth of human and social capital by education, meaningful work, communing, and sharing, and including all of its citizens to live in a decent way.

This is the 5th episode in a series of 6 articles about smart cities and the like. This article has already been publicised in the Smart City Hub

 

[1] Resilient cities: A systematic approach for developing cross-sectoral strategies in the face of climate change: Rocco Papa. Adrina Galderisi, Maria Christina Vigo Majello, Erica Saretta. in: TeMA Journal of Land Use Mobility and Environment 1 (2015)

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How Google connects with the smart city movement

Whatever we do, we know the world doesn’t need another plan that falls into the same trap as previous ones: treating the city as a high-tech island rather than a place that reflects the personality of its local population’.
These words are from Daniel Doctoroff. In 2016 Larry Page (Google) invited him to be chairman/CEO of a new Alphabet enterprise, Sidewalks Labs. This company aims contributing to the transformation of urban environments through technologies that can drive efficiency, raise accountability, and foster a deeper sense of community. In others words, connecting Google’s expertise to the Smart City movement.
 

Choosing Doctoroff as obvious. He was deputy mayor for city development in the Bloomberg administration. He is deeply concerned with the problems of American cities and at the same time he believes in the power of science and technology to solve them. In his view the Fourth Technological Revolution will integrate five core technologies:

  • ubiquitous connectivism
  • sensing
  • social networks
  • computer power
  • robotics.

Deployed together, these technologies will significantly decrease mobility costs for citizens and for the community at large as well, personalize services and improve safety.

Technologists and urbanists

The ultimate aim is improving the quality of life in cities and not the deployment of technology as such. Therefore Doctoroff carefully staffed Sidewalks Labs with technologists and urbanists. In his words, the first group is in general insensitive to the complexities of cities. The second group does not understand technology: Protecting the social fabric of cities comes first. Both groups talk different languages and do not communicate. Doctoroff believes that their successful collaboration can make the difference between Sidewalk Labs and technology-driven Smart City initiatives. 

Shortening decision making

It is too early to judge whether Sidewalk Labs will fulfill these promises. The published research so far (a couple of titles is shown in this article) shows a great deal of involvement in the problems of the American cities, like the crumbling infrastructure, the lack of accessible health care, and the unaffordability of housing. The modeling of these problems, taking into account realistic population data, enables fast simulations of the impact of solutions and thus shortening of length of the decision making process. This research has revealed ingenious redesign of the public transport network, new models of integrated heath care and proposals that might significantly lower construction costs.

The implementation of solutions

Labs does not limit itself to figuring out solutions; the company is also taking care of their implementation by creating start-ups. For instance, Flow is mapping traffic and (public) transport pattern to optimize networks and thus meaningfully increasing mobility. Link NYC is replacing the 7000 payphones with super-fast free Wi-Fi hubs, paid by advertising on the large hub displays.

In its health care research Sidewalk Labs made clear that most medical problems have social and environmental roots, for instance bad food habits and air pollution. At the same time health care in the US is more expensive than in any other OECD country and its quality, accessibility in particular, is unsatisfying. When it comes to solutions, Sidewalk Labs is focusing on e-health, for instance monitoring patients and consulting physicians at distance.

Mismatch between definition of problems and that of solutions?

At  this point I became aware of a growing feeling of discomfort with the strategy of Sidewalk Labs. 
Labs is brilliant in the realm of defining and modeling problems, freed from any reductionist bias. However, its search for solutions is technology-focused, for instance apps that offer real time affordable solutions for renting apartments or apps that shows vacant parking lots. Not to mention the free Wi-Fi facilities in New York. Flaws in the Smart City approach result partly from a technological bias in the definition of problems. Sidewalk Labs definitely cannot be blamed in this respect. But it fails to integrate technical and non-technical approaches in the the solution of problems. Exactly this is corresponding with distinction between Smart City 2.0 and Smart City 3.0 that I made recently.

I assume that the focus on technological solutions in inherent in Sidewalks Lab’s connection with Alphabet. The ultimate ambition of Sidewalks Labs is to reimagine cities from the Internet up. That is why Alphabet has created the company. In the end, Sidewalks Labs’ mission is paving the way for new services to develop or to deliver by Google.
However, cities, their administrators and inhabitants are yearning comprehensive solutions for their problems. These solutions demand an integrated approach deploying high-tech, low-tech and also no-tech solutions. Here Sidewalks Labs falls short, in spite of Daniel Doctoroff inspiring citation above. Probably ongoing discussion between the technologists and the urbanists will enable this integration in the end.

This is the 4th episode in a series of 6 posts dealing with the ambiguities in smart city development. They were published earlier in smart city hub

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How stupid can ‘smart cities’ be ?

home for every new yorker
Demonstration for affordable housing – Photo: Getty Images

Smart cities intent deploying big data, information and communication technology to become more sustainable and livable. At best, they proceed not only in favour of their citizens but together with them in the first place. In addition, they enable citizens to develop initiatives of their own. So far so good.

Who is invited to the party?

The question is arising: who are those citizens? Or using Suketu Mehta’s words: Who is invited to the party? After all, making a living in big cities becomes unattainable for many. Buying an apartment in New York City is virtually beyond reach even for double-income couples. Not to speak about renting one. A mattress in a room in Chinatown NYC during an eight hours timeslot a day, costs you $ 200 a month.

Chinatown

Chinatown apartments – Photo: Getty Immages

Already now 50 percent of households in NYC spend more then 30 percent of their income at housing. Thirty percent of all households spend more than half of their income. As a consequence, 14 million households in the USA have already moved out of urban areas during the last decade. In the same period in Chicago only, the number of school children decreased by 145,000. We are in the middle of a large-scaled process of de-urbanization.

The real estate revolution

Saskia Sassen has been studying real estate in world cities since the eighties. Throughout this period, the size of speculative investments has increased annually. Over the past five years, rise has been spectacular. In 2015, it went up to $ 1 trillion, compared with ‘only’ $ 600 billion in 2014. More striking is that nowadays real estate transactions often include whole territories, for instance old industrial areas or railway yards. The purpose of these investments is demolishing existing structures and erecting fancy offices and expensive apartments. A recent example is the acquisition of Atlantic Yards in NYC for $ 5 billion. Currently a territory with small industries and homes. They will be replaced by fifteen giant apartment complexes.

Atlantic Yards

Atlantic Yards, NYC – Photo AP

A similar phenomenon can be observed in London. The sale of entire areas – for instance the area of the Battersea Power Station –  is accompanied by the privatization of public space. Granary Square near Kings Cross station is one of the biggest London ‘pops’ (private-owned public spaces) with its own rules and guards.

Granary Square, Kings Cross London – Photo: John Sturrock (the Gardian)

Booming housing costs: A global phenomenon

Booming housing costs are a global phenomenon. Even a sharp rise in rentals (sometimes 300%) indicates the beginning of gentrification in the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, which have become safer places due to pacification programs. The next next step will be large scale housing in cheap high-rise apartment buildings, as happened happening in many Asian cities. Leaving a lot of empty space for prestigous destinations.

The tragic human cost of smartification

In Africa, the process of smartification also took off. A number of smart cities are being built from ‘scratch’, for instance Eko-Atlantic City in Lagos (Nigeria). Bulldozers and police force are mighty tools in the process of their creation. Recently, the High Council of Nigeria has stopped the demolition of Mpape, a neighborhood of at least 300,000 inhabitants adjacent to the capital city of Abuja, because of the absence of any prospect of rehousing of the expelled residents.

The abolition of Otodo Gbame, Lagos (Nigeria) – Photo: Common Edge

In the end, the result of unbridled speculation might be that only the rich will benefit from smartification. Amsterdam too must be vigilant. During 2013 – 2014, property sales to investors increased by 248%. In 2016, the average price for housing increased by almost 23% compared with 2015 . Affordable rental is virtually non-existant.

Because of the exclusion of a large group of citizens, the process of smartifcation is at risk turning into a proces of foolification. Foolish cities are sterile cities, inhabited by a rich cosmopolitans. Without young people socializing at in the squares, craftsmen in their workshops, middle classes people in their shops and a diverse and plural group of inhabitants, they will become dead cities, in spite of all smart technology.

This is the second of a sequence of six reviewing aspects of the smartification of cities. Fiction or reality, mission or marketing, progress or illusion. This article has already been posted in The Smart City Hub.

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If smart cities are the solution, what was the problem?

Looking for an answer to this question[1] I found the proceedings of the symposion Beware of Smart People! Redefining the Smart City Paradigm towards Inclusive Urbanism held in Berlin on 19 – June 20, 2015[2]. This post is partly based on this report, in which I recognize many ongoing discussions.

The world’s population is growing and concentrating in cities. Needless to say that this causes major problems, especially in emerging countries. At the same time, business also concentrates in urban areas. Consequently, cities compete at world level and – inspite of all problems – position themselves as global, affluent, mundane, and smart.

The concept of a smart city refers at a loosely connected set of confluences between data, digital and other technologies, and urban proceses. The promise is of the digitally-enabled data-driven, continually sensed, responsive and integrated urban environment and a manageable entity[3]

Whether this promise will be kept is questionable: What remains to be seen, is the extend to which the smart city agenda is anything else than another instantiation of corporate power grabs, entrenching surveillance, private control over urban management and repacking neoliberalism in the dressing of seductive technologies and reimagined municipalities and citizens[4]. The modern city is a battleground of market forces, an icon of consumerism, and it is characterized by growing inequality, alienation and intolerance. Digital technologies are associated with control and power.

Naamloos3

Control center in Rio de Janeiro

Opposite to the technology-dominated image of smart cities is the concept of commoning: Citizens share, shape and maintain their living space together based on principles of share-economics and direct democracy more than on the basis of technology. Residents’ initiatives to enforce an alternative land-use at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin are a frequently cited exemple.

Naamloos 2

Commoning at the former Berlin airport Tempelhof

Another way to frame the smart city is the perspective of urban utopia. Examples are Songdo (South Korea), Mazdar (UAE), Dholera (India) and PlanIT Valley in Portugal, who are all developed from scratch. Investors value these cities as assets in global competition, because of attractive living conditions, full-featured office space, outstanding connectivity and accessibility and high environmental standards. Residents are considered as benificiaries but in a lesser degree as active participants. In spite of the huge investments, these smart utopias rarely are a successful. In some cases they turned intp ghost cities, like Ordos in China. Songdo (South Korea) is sucessfully attracting residents from the adjacent overcrowded town of Seoul but the number of international companies remains far behind expectations. Trafic on the $ 1.4 billion,12 km long six-lane suspension bridge connecting the city to the airport is low while a fast rail link with Seoul is seriously missed.

Naamloos 5

An artists’ view of Songdo

One might wonder whether these different approaches of smart city are compatible.

I believe that the the answer is confirmatory. However, four questions must be answered in advance:

  1. What is the most desirable use of urban space, seen from a multi-actor and multi-stakeholder perspective?
  2. How can all residents maximize their participation in urban life?
  3. What mix of companies generate the most diversified sustainable employment?
  4. What is the best way to involve as many citizens as possible in decision making at all levels?

The role of data, digital facilities and other technologies must be considered in conjunction with answering these four questions. The ‘real’ smart city needs to start with the city and its attendant social problems, rather than looking immediately to smart technology for answers[5]. Proceeding this way prevents narrow technologal thinking and opens the road to low-tech or no-tech solutions. Consequently, a city can claim to be ‘really’ smart if “… investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory government.[6]

A special contribution during the symposium came from Gautam Bahm from India. In his opinion, the smart city does not exist; placeless concepts have no meaning. A smart city in India is something completely else than a German one. In Indian cities commoning is the norm: Big parts of cities are auto-constructed, deploying another logic than planners and architects do. However, there is a great need for a basic infrastructure: About 17% of the ground is covered with ramshackeled pipelines for water supply and sewerage. The same goes for the wires for electricity and telephone. Here is an tremendeous challenge for urban planning, which is willing to adapt the existing fabric of local communities, rather than destroying it, as is happened in China and many other places.

Naamloos 1

Commoning is the hard of many cities in India

The concept of ‘smart city’ might become an icon of a new digitally facilitated form of living in urban space. This requires a view of the city as a place that is inclusive, shared and negociated and that considers residents as active producers and contributors because of their thorough local knowledge, expertise, creativity, networking skills and entrepreneurship

This post has already been published in the Smart City Hub

[1] Free paraphrased expression of Cedric Price, architect (1933 – 2003) who wrote: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?

[2] Find the report at https://goo.gl/cgDemx.

[3] This and the following quote are from Colin McFarlane’s contribution (p.89)

[4] Smart cities are strongly pushed by IT-companies. These companies are the main investors behing PlanIT Valley in Portugal.

[5] Robert Hollands: Critical Interventions into the Corporate Smart City Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society. Vol 8 (1) 2015, p. 61.

[6] Andrea Caragliu, Chiara del Bo en Peter Nijkamp: Smart Cities in Europe, Journal of Urban Technology, Vol 18(2), p. 652011, 70).

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