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Will the smarter city be built by love?

pixelated heart graffiti
Source: ekosystem.org

Jack Mason, an IBMer working on the IBM Smarter Cities Tumblr, wrote a couple weeks ago:

As an IBMer working on Smarter Cities — and a New Yorker for much of my adult life — I’d like to observe that Adam Greenfield doesn’t know me, my motivations, or those of the thousands of colleagues who are dedicated their lives and careers towards the goal of enabling cities, and urban citizens, to become smarter.

Jack Mason later re-blogged his comment on his personal Tumblr which is Disqus-enabled, and further expanded:

Adam: You suggested that businesses that are working on helping cities become smarter are essentially heartless…lacking the love and appreciation of these places that you, presumably, hold. I categorically reject that sweeping, unsupported and contentious assertion. Just as the world is increasingly becoming urbanized, the vast majority of the people in organizations working on intelligent cities have a lifelong relationship with these same places, and a personal, human interest in seeing the cities that they grew up in or call home thrive. Your argument falls right on its face, and that’s why I think people should watch the video and come to their own conclusion on whether your assessment is either fair, accurate or true.

As a former IBMer (16 months at the Toronto IBM Software Development Group) and an unabashed fan of Greenfield’s work and approach to cities, these strongly-worded responses piqued my interest.

Mason was responding to comments Mr. Greenfield made in his talk at the PICNIC conference, entitled, “Another City is Possible.” In the interests of giving full context, I not only watched all of Adam’s talk (available here), I’ve also gone to the trouble of transcribing the section that is summarized in that original blurb, for those of you who are curious but without 25 minutes to spare. It’s a little long but I think it’s very helpful in teasing out the nuance of not only Adam’s point, but the heart of what the IBMer was expressing.

Who are the institutions who are so deeply invested in this rhetoric, who have so much to gain or to lose by ensuring that humanity as an urban species invests in the smart city? If you are in this room, you will probably not be surprised that the institutional players are people like IBM, Cisco, and Siemens. These are people who are in business — not a surprise, in the business of technology. At best they may be system integrators. They might even describe themselves as the missing link between the real estate and technology sectors —this is verbatim, taken from Living PlanIT, the firm building in the Portuguese valley.

I want to make it clear that I’m not faulting these institutions, these enterprises, for being enterprises — they have a role to play in the world, they have a valuable role to play in the world. But I do think it’s interesting and perhaps unfortunate that so much of our urban future is being predicated on the actions and activities of institutions that probably don’t have very much of a sense for design; certainly, as we’ll see, do not have that much of a sense for urbanism, and — I’m going to say this in a very small voice — probably do not love the places they are developing for; probably have never thought about the idea of love, and the idea of a city, and how these things might relate to one other. And my assertion to you is that these things go together very well inindeed as a matter of fact, if you’re thinking about cities in the absence of an affirmative sense of love for the place, you’re probably missing a lot of what makes that city valuable, and most of what makes it a generator of value.

First off, I get what Jack is feeling. As a lifetime inhabitant of Vancouver, one of the most planner-friendly cities out there (evidence: we name streets after them), before I went to planning school and engaged deeply with literature on urbanism, I scoffed at the hoity-toity idea that anyone could tell me anything about the city I grew up in that I didn’t already know, or that the future I desired for my city was rooted in anything less than pure love. Sometimes I still feel that way, even as I realize how rounded my understanding and appreciation of Vancouver has become in the past 2 years.

But I fundamentally think Mr. Greenfield has a point, which I would re-state in the form of the following questions. I don’t do this because I deny the love of New York as place held by Jack or his colleagues. But because it comes back to the first principles and DNA of the organizations in question, not what the individuals in those organizations hold to be central, vital and true.

  1. Does IBM (or other organization) respect the spontaneous, the emergent, and the community-driven in addition to the activities and units which constitute the native tongue of the governments with whom IBM and the enterprises like it can most readily identify with?
  2. Does IBM (or other organization) prioritize the inclusive aims of design, such as supporting choice and conviviality in the course of everyday life for end-users, ordinary citizens and residents, and lead through a process geared towards that outcome? Have their clients empowered them to prioritize these values in pursuit of their work?

While the answer to these questions will answer the question posed in the title of this blog post, I think it’s instructive to determine whether questions like this were asked at all.

What I’ve come to understand about loving cities is that there are two sides to the sentiment. There is an appreciative definition of love — the awe and recognition of the way the physical characteristics of a place and the spirit of the people doing what they do best just mesh. 1

But there is also an active definition — to love in the sense of promulgating, furthering, extending, nurturing to self-replicate. It means appreciating the interlocking patterns in ways that support the full diversity of a space’s users, needs and interests. It means to love not only the city that one knows, but the city as defined by those one disagrees with, maybe even those one despises — and to be at very least aware of it in the thick of defining an intervention, as a first crack at anticipating consequences. I don’t think it’s wrong to doubt whether business-oriented interests have the capacity to consider — nay, to love2 — a city in this way, and to ask that they should as they shape our experience of urban space.

So the relevant question becomes not whether one loves, but how that love is informing the judgments about what we want in the future city. The data we can gather can tell us how we might make certain changes, but not which are the right changes to make. The history of urban planning is littered with good intentions that have left their mark in our collective space and memory. This is what I heard in Adam Greenfield’s talk.

(You may also be interested in my previous conversation on this blog with the founder of Living PlanIT.)

1 — OK, so just how obvious is it that I’ve been (slowly) reading “Timeless Way of Building” by Christopher Alexander?

2 — For a while I almost forgot that love has been the centre of my practice.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for posting this, Karen.

    To be blunt, I thought it was pretty underhanded and sandbaggy of Jack to post that piece unsigned, in a context where I had no way of engaging him. (I refuse to sign up for Tumblr just to comment on a blog entry.) I’m glad he chose to repost it on his personal blog, so at least I could address his points, but surely he understands that only a relatively tiny percentage of the people who saw his original rant on the official IBM site will ever see my response.

    It’s not that I don’t understand Jack’s feelings, but I find them rather astonishing in their naiveté. If the twentieth century taught us nothing else, it’s that people can be perfectly lovely personally, and still participate in monstrous things. By extension, oughtn’t we judge an institution like IBM by the impact of its actions on the world, and not on the goodness its employees may well nurture in their hearts?

    The things I’m calling out in that talk are structural— are the consequences for design of large-scale public-sector organizations’ structural affinity for large-scale private enterprise — and I think that’s self-evident to anyone not approaching the talk in bad faith.

    This is what I wrote on Jack’s site:

    “I’m perfectly willing to believe, Jack, that you care and care passionately about your city, even the life of cities in general. There’s no reason to do anything other than take you at your word.

    But a business — any business, including mine — is by definition heartless. Surely you know better than to ascribe emotion to an institution incapable of any such thing.

    And it’s the institution I’m interested in, as a structure and a scale. The function of an (and again: any) institution is to reproduce conditions that are congenial to its survival. Whatever the individuals within that organization might feel, the institution is guided by a different logic. So no: I don’t believe, nor do I believe *you* actually believe, that IBM loves cities, or particularly cares about them except as a market and a particular kind of differentiated terrain for its operations.”

    But for the repeated “particular,” I’ll stand by that statement to the day I die. It doesn’t make me happy that my take on things rubs Jack, or anyone, the wrong way, but I can’t and won’t apologize for refusing to participate in a category error.

    PS “Mr. Greenfield” is my dad. You can call me Adam.

    Posted October 21, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

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