Civics for a Digital Age

Eleven principles for relating to cities that are automated and smart

Flickr/Alvin Ng Chong Xun

Over half of the world’s population lives in urban environments, and that number is rapidly growing according to the World Health Organization. Many of us interact with the physical environments of cities on a daily basis: the arteries that move traffic, the grids that energize our lives, the buildings that prevent and direct actions. For many tech companies, though, much of this urban infrastructure is ripe for a digital injection. Cities have been “dumb” for millennia. It’s about time they get “smart” -- or so the story goes.

According to the new digital version of urban planning that’s being underwritten by companies like Cisco, Intel, Siemens, and Microsoft, every part of the city should leak data into sensors that communicate with algorithms designed to make the city run like a well-oiled machine -- and, in the process, provide whoever is sitting in the city control room a massive amount of power over the city’s features and inhabitants. IBM, the global technology powerhouse, has already staked out its leadership position, funding approximately 2,500 projects around the world that aim at making “smarter cities,” a term of art that’s more than just another meme waiting to be birthed. This is trademarked terminology, and the linguistic buck doesn’t stop there: The collision between IBM’s intellectual property and vernacular extends to a slew of other “smarter” things, including commerce, energy, healthcare, public safety, water, and traffic.

To get a good sense of where things are going, consider Songdo, which sits outside of South Korea’s capital Seoul. At a cost of approximately $40 billion, Songdo’s corporate and government backers hope to make it the world’s first fully smart city by 2015. Telecommunications giant Cisco has landed the contract to provide the city with all its smarts -- namely, networked technologies, sensors, software, and more. As tech theorist Christine Rosen describes it, “Songdo claims intelligence not from its inhabitants, but from the millions of wireless sensors and microcomputers embedded in surfaces and objects throughout the metropolis.”

Before accepting the techno-hype as a fait accompli, we should consider the implications such widespread technological changes might have on society, politics, and life in general. Urban scholar and historian Lewis Mumford warned of “megamachines” where people become mere components -- like gears and transistors -- in a hierarchical, human machine. The proliferation of smart projects requires an updated way of thinking about their possibilities, complications, and effects.

A new book, Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia, by Anthony Townsend, a research director at the Institute for the Future, provides some groundwork for understanding how these urban projects are occurring and what guiding principles we might use in directing their development. Townsend sets out to sketch a new understanding of “civics,” one that will account for new technologies.

The foundation for his theory speaks to common, worthwhile concerns: “Until now, smart-city visions have been controlling us. What we need is a new social code to bring meaning and to exert control over the technological code of urban operating systems.” It’s easy to feel like technologies -- especially urban ones that are, at once, ubiquitous and often unseen to city-dwellers -- have undue influence over our lives. Townsend’s civics, which is based on eleven principles, looks to address, prevent, and reverse that techno-power.

It’s worth exploring each principle of this new civics. When taken together they speak to many of the main trends, possibilities, consequences, and potential within the current hype around smart cities. I’ll do this by giving a representative quote from Townsend’s book for each principle, and then I’ll briefly explain what he’s getting at.

1. “The commercial success and cultural ascendance of the Internet lends an air of inevitability to the idea of smart cities … we should never default to smart technology as a solution.” 
Just because a new device or system comes out with much fanfare claiming it to be the next best thing, doesn’t mean we have to accept those promises. Smart tech should be an upgrade for our lives -- it should actually increase our well-being and address real problems. This means asking hard questions and recognizing that “smart” doesn’t automatically mean better or good.

2. “Community-owned broadband is one of the best investments a smart city can make.”
The telecommunication companies hold a monopoly over broadband networks, and they are quick to vilify any arguments that propose making broadband a public utility (like electricity). This helps to solidify their power over increasingly vital modern infrastructure. Townsend argues that public broadband “puts the city in control of its own nervous system, giving it tremendous bargaining power over any private company that wants to sell smart services to the city government or its businesses and residents.” This isn’t to say that local governments should all follow one plan, rather, they ought to have the ability to experiment with different options without being stopped by federal or state laws, or corporate interests.

3. “Build a web, not an operating system.”
By this Townsend is referring to the software and standards that smart city technologies build from. If we go the route of an operating system, then we’re just asking for power to be centralized and held by whatever entity controls the software. Townsend quotes an executive of one possible entity, the software company Living PlanIT: The “urban operating system will control everything that happens in the city.” Such a scenario doesn’t exactly inspire positive imaginations. A web-like construction, though, would encourage more openness, flexibility, and distributed power -- a chance to provide citizens with more direct influence.

4. “Smart cities need to be savvy about what data and service infrastructure they own and what they give up to private interests in the cloud.”
As the tide of what Evgeny Morozov calls “information consumerism” -- the treatment of personal data as a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded -- rolls onward, it’s important to understand the civic consequences. If the public loses control over their own data streams then what happens to vital rights to privacy? Or, what happens when City Hall turns to the cloud for information storage and management? “How will you ever switch vendors,” Townsend writes, “when your data is sitting on a server in another country running on proprietary software?” These are all questions that governments looking for that smart city boost will have to answer if they hope to balance values like privacy and public control against the financial benefits of privatization and outsourcing.

5. “Yet the most powerful information in the smart city is the code that controls it. Exposing the algorithms of smart-city software will be the most challenging task of all. They already govern many aspects of our lives, but we are hardly aware of their existence.”
The computer models that influence how cities develop and the processes that govern how cities run are locked up tight -- they’re black boxed to most people, which means we have no idea what they look like. Government agencies and industry players alike avoid the accountability that comes with transparency by feigning concerns about security. Thus, the citizens who are impacted by these algorithms have little chance to discover -- let alone influence -- what biases are coded into them.

6. “How can we harden smart cities against [crises], and ensure that when parts of them fail, they do so in controllable ways, and that vital public services can continue to operate even if they are cut off?”
Every technical system should be designed with resilience in mind. Otherwise when a disaster of some kind occurs the system is likely to crash and burn. This is especially dangerous when dealing with city infrastructure that millions of people rely on.

7. Organizations and governments should “provide cities with incentives to share, and designers with advice on how to build systems that can solve local problems and be reused elsewhere.”
That is, technological research and development can be an economic boon for a city, but total reliance on self-sufficiency isn’t enough. If products or processes developed for another city can be useful and imported at a cheaper cost, or exported for profit, then the pathways for trade should be open.

8. “Smart-city designers will also need to be transdisciplinary -- able to think across disciplines inside their own minds.”
Cities are complex environments; making them even more technological will greatly contribute to the complexity. For cities to foster better well-being and lead to desirable outcomes, urban scholars and planners will need to be able to grasp and work with all the entangled social, human, and technical characteristics involved.

9. “Figuring out how to harness real-time data and media to think about long-term challenges is one of the most important opportunities we must exploit.”
Having a finer detailed knowledge of how a city operates can be useful, but we must be careful to not focus only on the here-and-now. Being able to look back at how past decisions changed a city is valuable for informing different scenarios about urban futures. Cities are dynamic; urban design that treats them as static risks impeding social changes. An iterative design philosophy allows for technological flexibility that accommodates such changes.

10. “Crowdsourcing with care means limiting its use to areas where government needs to mobilize citizens around efforts where it lacks capacity, and there is broad consensus over desired outcomes.”
Crowdsourcing is a seductive technique—it has an aura of being both a participatory and accurate way to reach solutions. But it’s only a responsible method in specialized circumstances. As Townsend explains, “Taken to it’s extreme, crowdsourcing is tantamount to the privatization of public services—the rich will provide for themselves and deny services to those outside their enclaves.”

11. “The consequences of disconnection go beyond just a lack of access. Connection is the means by which people will participate in civic life, not just actively but passively as well.”
If a smart city fails to account for the divide in digital literacy and access than those without privilege will be left out of fundamental parts of democratic life. They will live within the city, but they will lack any agency over how the city affects their lives. What’s more, the technologically fluent will gain even more power by making sure that their concerns are addressed and public resources are allocated to them. Any worthwhile smart technology has to ensure that these problems are prevented outright.

* * *

At present, many city planners and other leaders are pushing to make their cities thoroughly technological. “Hardly a week passes without a mayor somewhere in the world unveiling a ‘smart-city’ project -- often at one of the many conferences hailing the concept,” reports a recent story in The Economist. These potential changes deserve critical analysis from all sides. And Townsend has laid out multiple perspectives that will help us choose how “smart” cities really ought to be.

However, to be clear, these useful lessons largely reside in the last chapter of Townsend’s book. The rest of the book suffers from some overarching faults that detract from the valuable ending. To provide a more holistic picture, a quick critique is in order.

The book’s title gives the impression that it's yet another breathless meditation on the awe-inspiring wonders of the digital age, just with an urban twist. (To be sure, Townsend is pumped for smart cities; he’s confident that they will arrive, revolutionize, and generally be awesome.) His awareness of history and the negative implications of urban technologies, though, is surprising and unlike many other similar pop tech books. This context is beneficial, even if it does feel like you’re reading a lightweight textbook at times—if you’re not up on the relevant research and history you’ll at least walk away with an understanding of different perspectives in urban planning.

Without previous knowledge it can be difficult to pin down whether or not a certain approach to thinking about cities -- say, the theory of “cybernetics” -- ought to be disregarded, revived, or continued. This is because Townsend’s views often get lost in his long summaries of other scholars and practitioners’ theories, endeavors, and business models. A theory might sound great -- as if Townsend is supporting it -- only to find out later in the book that he thinks it was, or should be, abandoned for good reason.

When Townsend’s own voice does surface it's clear that he is, unfortunately, wrapped up in the incestuous culture of Silicon Valley where apps are revolutionary, everything should be hacked, and the start-up model of innovation is king. He rightfully deplores the centralized vision of smart cities as a tool for technocratic reach into every moving part of a city, which is increasingly the case in places like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and China. Instead, Townsend spends hefty sections of the book gushing over the wonders of apps like Foursquare, websites like, and organizations such as Code For America. In his mind, the city of the future will be made smart by a legion of so-called "civic hackers." The technocratic influence of this non-governmental method of changing cities frequently escapes Townsend. Big, open data shouldn’t necessarily be embraced just because it originates from the bottom-up.

Townsend’s principles are a solid foundation, but for them to be effective they must be applied symmetrically: To government planners and corporations as well as hackers and organizations. If we’re going to ensure that cities are “smart” in all the right ways, then that means being skeptical of anyone who promises that powerful technologies will change society for the better.