Tag Archives: globalization

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.

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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.

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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.

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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 published in the Smart City Hub: https://goo.gl/7e2Wqo

[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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Own country second, world first!

Redeeming the losers of globalization

Multinational companies[1] worldwide earned gold money in the years 1980 – 2013. In 2013 their profit after tax reached $ 7200 billion, almost 10% of the gross national product of the world. Half of the 2013 profits belong to North American and West European corporations[2]. The tremendous increase in profits is a direct consequence of globalization: The expanding global trade of goods and services at ever-lower prices, made possible by global competition, automation, offshoring, and low cost of raw materials[3].

Samenleving - olifantscurve

The question is who has benefited most from the increased wealth and who least? For many years the Serbian-American economist Branco Milanovic has focused  on answering this question[4]. He divided the world population into 10 groups for 30 consecutive years: The poorest 10%, the second-poorest 10% and so on. He calculated the change in income for each of these groups within this period. The graph below depicts the outcomes. This graph is called the elephant curve because of the eye-catching similarity with the back of an elephant.

The-Elephant-Curve

Worldwide, there are two groups of winners and two groups of losers.

The winners:

  • The richest 5% of the world, the 1% richest in particular. Half of the benefits of economic growth went to this group. Fabulously wealthy people can be found in all countries. However the majority are living in North America and West Europe.
  • The middle class within Asian countries. Its income increased about 200 to 300%. Hundreds of million people are involved, but the total monetary value of this growth is relatively limited as incomes were low.

The losers:

  • The poorest 10% of the world population. This group has gained nothing in 30 or more years. In the Republic of Congo, the average real income remained unchanged in 100 years due to corruption, self-enrichment by the rulers, natural disasters and wars.
  • The middle class in the rich countries. This group has also seen no progress in 30 years. As a matter of fact, many jobs were lost due to offshoring and automation in particular. Many people who belonged to the middle class in the end of the 20th century now have to settle for a job in the lowest paid sector. Here they enter into competition with migrants, who belong to the other group of losers.

Samenleving - wrong side of capitalism

Social democracy in Western countries has failed to notice this structural change and as a consequence its voters left for the extreme right or the extreme left. In the USA, the frustrated middle class helped Donald Trump to power and in the UK it voted for Brexit.

Policy makers in Western countries can learn from the elephant curve. Among others, the following policy measures will support the revitalization of the middle class worldwide:

  • Reduction of difference in status and income between jobs
  • Redistribution of jobs through a reduction of working hours and flexible retirement, supplemented with the option of a basic-income
  • Fair tax payment by companies, among others to co-finance the external effects of automation.
  • Realistic prices for raw materials and agricultural products for the benefit of the workers in poor countries and the farmers in rich countries
  • Supporting entrepreneurship in developing countries
  • Discouraging labour migration, among others to limit brain-drain
  • Continued support for peacekeeping in conflicts around the world, therefore strengthening UN rather then NATO.

In the long term fighting inequality is in everyone’s interest.

[1] Included are listed and unlisted companies with a turnover of at least $ 200 million. See: https://hbr.org/2015/10/the-future-and-how-to-survive-it

[2] Companies around the world still make huge profits, but the share of ‘Western countries’ has decreased as the distribution over the world of production is becoming more evenly . Further, especially in Western countries small innovative companies take over part of the production of the powerful but rather inflexible multinationals.

[3] He is from 2014 professor at New York University and was a researcher at the World Bank. For a recent interview: Humo February 8, 2017: https://blendle.com/getpremium/item/bnl-humo-20170207-132032

[4] Where necessary, he further subdivided these groups.

 

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