urban living labs, smart cities – and culture?

I spent a really interesting day at a workshop on Urban Living Labs in Brussels on last week. I’m currently PI of a large research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council called ‘Smart Cities in the Making: Learning from Milton Keynes‘. The aim of the project is to carry out a series of close up, in depth analyses of how specific ‘smart technologies’ are embedding themselves (or not) in the town of Milton Keynes; in particular, we’re interested in how existing forms of social differentiation are being reproduced and how new forms are also emerging in that process.

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Milton Keynes is a new town, half way between London and Birmingham. It was founded in 1967, and its current population is around 260,000. From its beginning, it has always seen itself as an ‘urban laboratory’, and it has a long history of experimenting with innovations in energy and transport especially (the UK’s first solar-powered house went into action here in 1972, as did the UK’s first kerbside recycling collection service in 1992). More recently the city council has been very keen to attract new experiments into the city, under the rubric of ‘smart’. So for example, it’s one of the UK towns trialling driverless cars, and has developed a Data Hub with an innovation infrastructure to support local would-be entrepreneurs. It was really interesting at the workshop to hear Simon Marvin from the ‘Governance of Urban Sustainability Transitions: Advancing the Role of Living Labs‘ project place Milton Keynes into the wider landscape of living labs in Europe.

My own research interest in smart cities is kind of marginal to way that smart cities have been pitched and marketed, and also to the extensive practices of the diverse kinds of urban living labs that I learnt a lot about on the day.  I’m interested in how digital visualising technologies are shifting the way that urban spaces are experienced. So I’ve looked for example at how digital visualisations intervene in the urban design process, and more recently I’ve been examining what sort of visions of the smart city are being promoted by the tech companies selling smart hard and software on social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter.

Except that I don’t really think that these visualisations are that marginal to smart cities or to their close cousins, urban living labs, really. I think images and visions are actually very powerful ways in which certain kinds assumptions about what cities should be like in the future get normalised. So in lots of adverts for smart city tech, it’s assumed that everything important to a city’s functioning can be turned into reliable and secure data – including its people. It’s assumed that that data flows freely (most ads show data being beamed through the air via wifi networks). And it’s assumed that decisions about how to run a city are purely rational and technical ones of efficiency and sustainability.

The whole notion of a ‘lab’ on the face of it continues that commitment to technocratic solutions to urban challenges.  A lab assumes a place where conditions are controlled, data is gathered and analysed, and data is then shared with other scientists/labs in order to enhance knowledge. In fact, and of course, on all those countes cities are nothing like labs, as scholars like Andrew Karvonen and Bas van Heur (who were both at the workshop) have demonstrated. (Well, there is one similarity, now I come to think about it – both labs and smart cities tend to be run by men.)

What I did find surprising about the workshop day – and perhaps this is something generated by that whole notion of a town or city being understood as a lab – is that questions of culture and conflict weren’t broached at all. Smart cities are increasingly finding that to fulfill the vision of a good city that smart offers, the people who live in the city really have to be involved. That isn’t a process that can be achieved by data gathering. Instead, it’s one that involves how people feel about their city, how communication and engagement happens in the city, what histories of place and belonging shape the city.  All those are cultural things, not data things.

This is another reason why Milton Keynes will be such an interesting place to discover more about how smart technologies and polices actually work, because from its founding it has also had quite a distinctive vision of community development, trying to facilitate residents of the city to do what they want to do for their neighbourhoods. It’s an approach which has nurtured relatively high levels of voluntary action in the city, and we’ll be working with one of its leading organisations – Community Action MK – to work out just how that participatory culture is being mediated by smart technologies.

But, of course, neighbourhoods – let alone cities – are not full of one single group of people with the same interests, feelings, histories or agency. Not everyone in a smart city might agree about what kind of smart they want to be. ‘Smart citizens’ are not a homogeneous category, and I never got to grips during the workshop with how the notion of the lab would deal with radically opposed visions of what a lab might be experimenting to achieve. There are a lot of anxieties about data privacy in some places, for example, while in others research suggests that people are perfectly happy to give up ‘private’ data to commercial companies if it guarantees, say, a better bus service. How would a city-wide data hub negotiate between those positions?

The collaborative vision of urban improvement that’s at the heart of the smart city and the urban living lab is great, and was powerfully advocated by participants at the workshop who came from places with long histories of social democracy and welfare state support. But not all places – and cultures – have those histories, and even those that are seem to be under increasing challenge right now. So notions of cities as labs or as smart surely need to engage much more directly with the complexity of urban societies, the possibility that there will be (may be, at least) irreconcilable differences between different parts of those societies, and the role of values and priorities – culture! – in both of those.

One thought on “urban living labs, smart cities – and culture?

  1. A brilliantly thought provoking article. From an IT background, it was interesting to read about the social aspect of smart cities; and you’re right, this does seem to be commonly overlooked!

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