Beyond Techtopia debate

(Photo by Barbara Zandoval)

I was recently invited to participate in a debate titled Beyond Techtopia, organized by Transforming Cities Utrecht. I couldn’t be there physically because I tested positive to covid, but I did prepare and record a ‘provocation’: a starting position for engaging with the other participants, Katrin Merfeld (UU), Tessa de Geus (DRIFT), and Ekaterina Petrova (TU/e). This is the text:

I want to address the question that motivates this afternoon’s debate, the relation between cities and technology, by asking who is the city for? The question appears quite simple, I mean, isn’t it clear that cities are for people? But I think there’s more to it than that.

Let me explain.

Those following the discourse of smart cities could not but notice that there is a particular logic that drives the design and application of urban sensors, databases, algorithms, and now urban digital twins. This logic holds that transitioning to more sustainable, resilient cities requires foremost that cities become more efficient, and that technology is the means to get there. In other words, for every complex or “wicked” problem there is a technological fix, and it doesn’t really matter whether the issue is social or environmental; technology will save us.

This position is often described as “solutionism”, and it is embedded in our social institutions, is promoted by the media, and of course, it informs municipal bureaucrats. It also shapes how we train the next generation of engineers.

Now, this way of seeing the city is very powerful and quite convincing, but it reflects what I think is an unsubstantiated faith in the power of technology and technologists to make the world better, thus ignoring all the ways in which technological solutions often yield new, and sometimes even greater problems. (This is called the Jevons paradox or the rebound effect).

Importantly, when this way of seeing the world is applied to urban design it yields cities that cater for technology.

Cars are the obvious example here. Wherever cities were designed for cars in mind, and Rotterdam is the classic example in the Dutch context, multilane highways took the place of social housing, the air became more polluted, the streets more congested, public space less inviting, and the overall quality of urban life declined. So what first seemed like a great way to increase the efficiency of movement, became a nightmare for residents – something many cities are still struggling to correct.

What I’m worried about, then, is that our future cities will be designed not for cars but for algorithmic decision-making instead of for the humans, plants and animals that make cities liveable. The way to address it, however, first requires that we understand that how we use technology is inherently tied to how we imagine it. What I mean by this is that we cannot separate the materiality and effects of technology from how we think and relate to it. Experience and the imagination are inseparable. This is often captured in the notion of social or sociotechnical imaginaries.

And so what I want to argue today, is that a real urban transition requires that we first nurture an alternative imaginary – one that replaces the drive for efficiency with something else, more humane, more transparent, and more equitable. How we do this is ultimately a matter for the public to decide, but I have a few propositions that I hope may help us shape alternative imaginaries for the future city.

The first proposition is that everyone has a right to the city. This is a point made long ago by Henri Lefebvre and again, more recently, by the geographer David Harvey, who emphasized “The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves”. I think Harvey’s formulation can be extended from the shaping of urban spaces to that of the technologies that mediate urban life.

In other words, when we design urban technologies we should think very carefully about whose interests are served, and whose interests are not, which communities are seen and which are invisible to our new digital eyes.

Take for example the data that is fed into municipal simulations and decision making algorithms (or “digital twins”). What kind of means does the public have to shape the way they are measured, quantified and represented in these complex technologies? What happens to those marginalized communities that are either hard to digitize or that reject digitization outright? (and I’m thinking here about undocumented migrants or those nonhumans that share our cities).

The design and deployment of urban technologies should therefore take social justice, equitable representation and fair access as core, non-negotiable principles.

The second proposition holds that public participation is not just a ‘nice to have’ but a core requirement. If the right to the city is to be more than a declaration or abstraction, the public must be consulted before deploying new technologies with disruptive potentials – not only afterwards, or as a form of tokenism. Municipalities and technologists should really listen to the public and seek to share power, invite oversight, provide recourse against questionable decisions, and encourage debate and critique.

This is especially important when dealing with complex technologies and automated decision-making processes, because these technologies often operate in opaque ways that are hard to understand and evaluate not only by the general public but also by those who build them.

When cities implement technologies they should make sure that these are transparent and contestable, that there are easy and accessible ways for the public to be aware of what the technology does, and be able to challenge the policies made based on it.

The complexity of technology, in other words, should not be an excuse for keeping the public out of design, but an added reason to include them in substantial ways.

The next proposition asks us to consider urban technologies as tools for conviviality. When municipalities make decisions about urban technologies they would do well to regard them as what the philosopher (and priest!), Ivan Illich called convivial tools. What he meant is that the design and use of technology should be first and foremost a means for self-actualization – a way for the users of technology to live more fulfilling lives, to become more active and capable, and to be able to make those technologies their own.

When it comes to new digital technology, this means that we should reject universal, one-size-fits-all solutions, and work to enable the public to customize and appropriate technologies as they see fit. The role of experts in such processes is important, but they cannot be the exclusive arbitrators of the public good.

In a project that I‘ve been involved in over the last few years, we tried to do this by designing speculative dashboards with residents of neighbourhoods in Rotterdam and Amsterdam Noord. Our point of departure was not the availability and capability of technology but those things that members of the community found important in their neighbourhood.

If such a way to design technology would catch on, the data that flows upward to decision makers would represent the neighbourhood as it wants to be seen, and not just a cluster of anonymous data points.

My last proposition asks us to think more critically about the notion of scale. Much of the drive for efficiency relies on the ability to scale up whatever technology is designed. This is very much according to the logic of industrial production were make more artefacts means that the cost of each artefact is lower.

The risk in seeking to scale up every urban technology is that the crucial differences between local sites and practices is effaced. Instead of a beautiful and healthy diversity we may end up with homogeneity and blandness. So while some forms of scaling up make sense, I suggest that other forms of scaling may offer similar advantages but with more sensitivity to differences.

We can get a sense of what this can look like from a recent editorial about citizen participation in urban development by Diana Mitlin. In the article she describes ‘scaling within’ from one household to another in the same neighbourhood; ‘scaling out’ from one neighbourhood to another; ‘scaling across’ from one service to another in the same neighbourhood; and ‘scaling through’, using capabilities and ambitions learned through one activity to take on new activities and projects. These alternative forms of scaling offer a provocative way to benefit from sharing experiences while maintaining the specificity of individual urban locales.

To briefly conclude, if we are to promote an urban transition that is fair, just and equitable, we need to inform the design of new urban technologies with new ways to imagine the city. This way, I hope, our future cities will not be designed for technology but for those who inhabit them.