Digital collaboration

The promise of smart sustainable cities is predicated on the harmonious interplay of three forces: the dynamics of social media, allied to the analytics of Big Data, generated by a ‘self-aware’ urban infrastructure. Can these three forces be held in a productive tension? Can we harness emergent urbanism to the centralising tendencies of smart urban infrastructure? Are the biases inherent within social media consistent with the need for a broader civic empathy to address urban sustainability? Are we working with the primary drivers of urban life, or with the secondary drivers of infrastructural efficiency? As Cedric Price said in the mid-1960s: ‘Technology is the answer. But what is the question?’ This essay focuses on the issue that in smart cities, as much as with any other technology-led visions, we spend too little time thinking about questions.

The vision of the smart city tends to focus on feedback loops generated by infrastructure, buildings, and vehicles, often by people looking for clients among national and municipal governments. But the city is something else: it consists of its people. We do not make cities to make buildings and infrastructure, we make cities in order to come together, to create wealth and culture. As social animals, we chose the city so that we could be with other people. Buildings, vehicles and infrastructure are mere enablers, not drivers.

To see the city as a complex system to be optimised, made efficient, made smart, is to read the city along only one axis. But luckily, we are seeing more ‘smart citizens’ than ‘smart cities’; citizens use social media and related technologies to organise and act, through a flurry of crowd-sourced, crowd-funding platforms and collaborative city making. This crowd-led smart city needs no marketing and little urban infrastructure. It relies on loosely joined up open networks overlaid onto the city. Active citizens are knitting together their own smart city, albeit not the one envisaged by the systems’ integrators and technology corporations. Might this process alone deliver resilient urban environments?

The answer may be in the weak signals that indicate citizens are increasingly engaged in making decisions about their cities. Again, at its most viscerally obvious, we can see this in Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, Athens, Madrid, or recent underreported protests in urban China. Yet for all their impact, Occupy, the Arab Spring and last year’s UK riots have not projected any kind of alternative structure for a new, resilient decision-making culture. Their effects tend to be unpredictable and uneven.

Beyond these flashpoints, however, we can see numerous examples of a more systemic change: urban activism becoming urban activity. They enable the exploits of urban activists – today’s equivalents of the heroics that produced New York’s High Line, London’s Coin Street, or Renew Newcastle in Australia, for instance – to be shared, copied, translated and scaled. What these emerging tools deliver is a blueprint for more rapid, even, and sustained change. Due to the inherent dynamics and platform characteristics of social media, such tools suggest a new interface with the city that could, potentially, alter the way in which most citizens interact with it.

Over the last year many cities have witnessed an explosion in crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding platforms. In the wake of the increasingly high-profile crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, and popping up at the rate of one every couple of weeks, new platforms include Neighborland, In Our Backyard, SpaceHive, Brickstarter,, Change By Us, Give A Minute, Smallknot, Joukkoenkeli, Lucky Ant, I Make Rotterdam, as well as several more general crowd-funding services, occasionally bent into shape to serve as urban incubators – such as Indiegogo, PeopleFundIt, PleaseFundUs, Crowdfunder, and Kickstarter itself.

Behind all these initiatives sits the basic notion that someone thinks of and pitches a local project, and people in the community ‘back’ that idea, typically donating small amounts of funding. The network effects of social media and the architecture of contemporary websites enable the projects to be tracked, discussed, updated, voted upon and funded. Several crowd-funding projects indicate that they might be able to generate significant resources, certainly enough to build catalytic funding at the start of projects, alongside mechanisms for otherwise backing, discussing or sharing best practice or tacit knowledge about how to get things done.

This last aspect may be key. Traditionally, ‘bottom-up’ urban activism is the province of an individual who wants to give up every weekend for years, battling bureaucracy and inertia. They have to learn from scratch in each instance, as there are no breadcrumb trails to follow. With new platforms deployed, activism might become something akin to plain old activity, in which citizens are more deeply woven into the fabric of their city’s decision making, by leaving traces for others to follow. This is the kind of thing the Web has done since day one.

Entirely new governance models are implied as a result, with far more frequent, open and active engagement than a vote in the municipal elections every four years. City halls rarely have a meaningful ‘suggestions box’ on the front door, and these new platforms could be just that. By shifting where and how ideas come from, they might reverse a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) tendency such that it becomes YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard!) through genuine collaboration and participation in city making, in stark contrast to the dreaded ‘consultation’.

Equally, such systems might be read as ‘desire paths’ for a more ongoing, everyday form of deliberative democracy in urban governance. The promise is that, through the familiar transformative effects of ‘The Network’, the practice of urban development itself might change radically. This is in direct contrast to the public perception of the current system, where lumbering and opaque urban planning functions as a countervailing force against developers and politicians who are inevitably ‘on the make’.

The premise behind this argument is that citizens want to engage in their city; that it is citizens, not planning departments or property developers, who are best placed to notice, suggest, aggregate and drive a certain kind of urban intervention. This ‘Kickstarter urbanism’ is typically oriented towards the small things in cities – let’s turn this parking lot into a community garden, let’s renovate a co-working space, let’s start a bike-sharing scheme – rather than taking on urban governance models, or attempting to fund large-scale infrastructure.

This in itself is not a criticism: what city would not benefit from people caring about the small things? But is there maybe the lingering sense that this might be a little ‘bread and circuses’? A stream of micro-distractions to occupy the community, focusing citizens on trying to crowd-fund a park bench while the big boys in government get on with the big stuff – education, transport systems, energy policy, grand civic buildings, housing, and so on?

Social media can help catalyse an Arab Spring, but when used for a more local issue elsewhere – like Neighborland,enabling a proposal to extend commuter rail in Denver – it only attracts 50 ‘neighbours’ who agreed with the proposal. Their well-meaning comments are unlikely to change the situation much – that billions of dollars would need to be found, somehow, from within a culture not particularly predisposed to funding sustainable public transit. Neighborland is a wonderful example of a new platform, but it is, in itself, not enough to create a new decision-making culture for making more sustainable decisions.

Although omnipresent, social media still betray the cultural conditions they were created in. NYU/Harvard Law School researcher Alice Marwick’s analysis of social media centres on the assertion that they breed what she calls ‘status seeking behaviour’ (‘self-branding’) within a ‘competitive attention economy’, transposing a Silicon Valley-derived model of neo-liberal principles onto social organisation. Douglas Rushkoff described a related set of biases in his book, Program or Be Programmed, in which he identifies decentralising or individualising tendencies. For Malcolm Gladwell, the critique rests on a variant of ‘bread and circuses’, that social media do not generate ties strong enough to engender the genuine action required to change a regime – or perhaps a city. Either way, side-stepping the question of ideology, if we accept that sustainability ultimately requires an intrinsic selflessness – right now, it is about subsequent generations, distant lands, global conditions, and often it is not in my backyard – then this should be, at the very least, a red warning light on the dashboard.

All of this can be contested, of course. Clay Shirky’s response to the Gladwell’s critique, for instance, must be taken on board. He says that while digital networks ‘do not (necessarily) allow otherwise uncommitted groups to take effective political action… they do, however, allow committed groups to play by new rules.’

The Network’s ability to connect can, of course, enable civic empathy as much as it destroys it – depending on how we work with its tools and materials. There is genuine potential in the new tools, if we see them as sketches and not as solutions. One might take these settling design patterns and scale them up to a new form of urban governance, based on more frequent, more engaged, shared decision making, and not simply in bread and circuses mode. And one could shape those governance cultures in such a way that they counterbalance the potentially destructive individualistic biases within social media, enabling citizens to act with meaningful responsibility for their city. Government is there to take disruptive innovations and productively absorb them into a resilient system, such that it smothers social inequalities and generates broader access. That goal need not be solely achieved through our current systems of increasingly disengaged citizenship.

There is only one way to find out what balancing act might thrive under these new conditions, and that is to try it. ‘Trying it’ means considered, iterative prototyping of user-centred platforms; local experiments that can nonetheless scale up, and that are produced by designers, coders and city managers who understand both the Web and the city. There is no fundamental reason why municipalities could not work in this way, in terms of their strategic positioning, function and history. What if government was directly and boldly prototyping new versions of itself, using these new technologies: starting small, pivoting and scaling up, as all robust, resilient and popular contemporary systems do? It might be that a sense of public good, of civic responsibility, could be found within such a re-calibrated approach to municipal government.

We are in a radically different urban condition than the post-Enlightenment era in which we invented the modern municipality. Not just in terms of built fabric, whose significance is overplayed due to its sheer obviousness, but in terms of our highly interconnected patterns of living. The nature of our challenges are entirely different, with climate change the clearest example. The very idea of the city as a public good fundamentally rests on our ability to transform our municipalities for the twenty-first century. And the very idea of the sustainable city relies on understanding that the city is a public good.

For if sustainability requires us to think long term, we must surely create decision-making cultures that not only take the tendencies of these swirling vortices of individualism and short-termism into account, but actively counter them. Like judo, we might need to use the powerful dynamics of social media against themselves. Otherwise these opposing forces may cause shared cultures to tear themselves apart.

What possible models for cooperative urban governance might emerge? Do we need a city in which citizens understand that they are part of a wider, more holistic system, and act accordingly? To be actively engaged with, as opposed to being passively observed and ‘fed back to’, as is the case with most myopic smart city visions? How might we enable patterns of sustainable living that nonetheless recognise that cities thrive on the very unpredictability and inefficiency of citizens; that the city’s ecosystems will refuse to settle in ‘natural equilibrium’? How might we guide and shape a resilient city through shared governance cultures based on its incompleteness, openness and a sense of possibility, recognising that the city is a process, not a mere accretion of infrastructure?

Are we sure that these ideas – drivers and enablers, unpredictability and inefficiency, prototyping and pivoting, personal and civic responsibility, active citizens and active municipalities, the city as public good, recalibrated governance – are part of the emerging smart city vision? For these are all part of what makes a city work, what makes a resilient city and what makes a good city rather than just a smart city.

Dan Hill is the director of Fabrica, and co-creator of