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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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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.

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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 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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