“Smart City is opportunity to change the ‘defaults’ in our society” Report Meeting of the Minds Amsterdam

Last December, more than 150 professionals came together in an event organised by the city of Amsterdam, Cisco and Meeting of the Minds to debate on the trends of smart city development.

One of the highlights was the vision on the development of smart cities presented by Maarten Hajer, director of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. The rise of smart city technologies, he claimed, provide us with an opportunity to change the ‘defaults’ in our society. However, in order to do that, we need to make the debate about the smart city philosophical and start off with a close look at the discourse around the smart city. It’s important to take this discourse seriously, Hajer pointed out, as it is the way we talk about the smart city that will eventually be materialized into the hardware and software of the city and thus will set the new defaults through which our society is organized.

“It’s not the hardware, but our discourse around it that produces the future. Through language some issues are organized into politics while others are edited out”

It’s worth to ponder a few moments on the concept of ‘default’ Hajer brought forward. Our society is organized around a lot of ‘default’ ways of doing things, both in terms of infrastructure as in policy. There may be alternative ways to do things available, but the default way is the most apparent one to take. When designers or policy makers set defaults (or standards) they pave the way for a particular behaviour. Example on a micro-level: if in the lobby of a building the staircase is well visible and inviting, for many visitors, this will become the default way to reach the first few floors. If it’s hidden away, most will probably take the elevator. The point is: we don’t give these decisions much conscious thought; it’s the default in the design that will nudge us.

“our lives are not dominated by decisions, but by non-decisions. We do everything on the routine.”

Similarly, our urban infrastructure sets a default. Strip malls and freeways invite car use, high density urban areas provoke different modes of transport. Moreover their consequences are lasting: Designed and constructed to last, our urban infrastructures define cities for centuries to come. We only need to look at sanitation efforts in 19th century London or Moses’ 1960’s freeways; much of our urban infrastructure is still based on 19th century ideals of sanitation and 20th century modernist visions of society. The problem is not that all of the ideals in these discourses are old fashioned, but that in the way that they have been turned into ‘defaults’ they heavily rely on the 20th century’s fossil economy.

So the issue with the rise of the smart city is not so much how can we make this existing fossil fuel based system more efficient but rather: can we come up with new default ways of organizing our society in a more sustainable way? Either through the design of hardware, software or policy.

“In Germany the goal is to rely for 40 percent on renewable energy, and it’s 25 percent already. The point is: it’s not the government itself who is organizing this. But they have set a number of policies that encourages various players to produce or consume renewable energy”

Shifting from solid infrastructure to resources management means that urban metabolism flowcharts mapping the allocation and use of resources will become the most useful tools, as governments have to operate on two levels: what Hajer called hard infrastructures or daily routines and soft infrastructures that can be enabled or constrained by policies. The best way to engage citizens in these changes is to allow them to experience things incrementally, so they have the time to get used to them. That’s the first step towards bigger and more long-lasting changes. For instance in New York, Broadway was transformed into a car free zone by incremental steps. It started with small temporarily measures that grew larger and more permanent over time. Part of the success was that these measures were coupled with an active monitoring system that could show (statistical) evidence that, for instance, the situation for shopkeepers was improving.

In addition, we need to approach the urban infrastructure as a collection of loosely coupled systems, so they are not locked into the defaults of one provider, and we can exchange or adjust particular modules if new and better alternatives have become available.

So currently we are facing two options: to make the existing system and its defaults more efficient or to create a new set of values that will then create a new system of defaults. Obviously Maarten Hajer adheres to the second option and closed his speech proposing that ways for governments to help establishing a new set of values are by getting the infrastructures right, spot lock-ins and get out of them, program for the social to prevail the technology and educate multiple experts on multiple fields.

A somewhat similar issue was brought up earlier in the day in a discussion with Dan Hill, CEO of Fabrica, Robin Ried, Head of Urban Development at the World Economic Forum and Nicola Villa from Cisco. Ried remarked that governments are currently bombarded with offers by technology providers to realize the smart city for them. However many local governments are reluctant – and justifiably so if we follow Hajer’s argument – to commit to just one of them. The smart city 2.0 will not consist of a giant technological master plan, but rather be a patchwork of various (hopefully modular) services supplied by various technology companies. “We tend to see cities as enterprises” noticed Villa “ but cities are entropic; urban processes are much more complex and companies are not used to address such issues” The design of smart cities needs to take these issues into account. Trust becomes an important issue in this process. Citizens place their trust on their governments and their governments on private companies. Somebody from the audience commented that this may be problematic, as corporate interests undermine the foundations of democracy resulting to the lose of trust from their citizens. In response, Susan Crawford from Harvard Law School, suggested that contemporary urban problems are so complex that a citizen participation process would also not be enough to adequately address them. But a government that opens up its decision making processes to its citizens, creates a reservoir of trust and a feeling of shared responsibility towards the decisions taken that leads to better understanding of the conditions influencing an issue and more realistic expectations about the outcomes.

Somewhat disappointingly, few of these insights resonated in the closing presentation by TU Delft Architecture School Dean Karin Laglas who presented the plans for the new Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Studies (AMS). Also addressing the issue of urban metabolism, Laglas adopted a conventional engineering approach of merging sensing and responsive technologies to design metropolitan solutions. Where the previous panelists argued for a more social and philosophical normative approach, from this presentation, it seemed that AMS will bypass these discussions and will mainly look for technological fixes to make our current defaults more efficient. Anthropologists, artists and sociologists were urged to start their own institution, because taking their insights into consideration would make things just too complicated, Laglas argued. On the upside, AMS hasn’t started its program yet, so hopefully there is still some time to convince the founders that a more humanistic approach as argued by the other ‘minds’ present at this meeting, would be much preferable.

Cristina Ampatzidou