Four ways to (re)make a city
Last night I attended a lecture at the LSE by Adam Greenfield, author of 'Against the Smart City'. While this work provided a powerful critique of the often misguided corporate notions of the role that technology plays in cities, he used his lecture to offer a positive vision of how citizens can use technology to shape the places where they live. Part of this is about rethinking what a city is.
Rather than a finished product, he argued that a city is a perpetual beta system, always in the process of becoming. His talk then largely focused on how citizens can improve their cities through the act of making, and proposed the following framework:
1. Making data - Involving citizens in the collection of data allows them to understand the subjective judgements involved in the way data is generated. Projects which are trying to involve citizens in the process of data generation include Transparent Chennai, which works with communities to collect data and create maps that help them better understand and navigate their cities.
2. Making things – A new culture of repair and reuse is developing based on digital fabrication technologies, freely downloadable designs and public access to labs and maker spaces.
3. Making places – Digital fabrication could also stimulate local economic development by bringing manufacturing back to former industrial communities. Nesta’s project on mapping makerspaces in the UK will seek to understand where labs exist and what people are using them for.
4. Making networks – Reliable networks are an important enabler of citizen participation. Technologies like mesh wireless networking offer a cheap way to expand network coverage where formal provision is insufficient. They have been used successfully by community groups to provide internet access across cities, for example to residents of New York after hurricane Sandy.
This framework provides a very welcome alternative to the top down narrative which we usually hear about cities and technology, which is largely focused on efficiency and control.
But how effective are any of these citizen focussed approaches and what is the evidence that they lead to positive change in cities? Nesta's work on Digital Social Innovation provided a robust framework for thinking about how people are using digital technologies to achieve social impact.
We’re planning to build on this with further research which will look at how citizens are using networked technologies to influence the way their cities function and what the role of government should be in supporting them to do this.