Real Smart Cities are not user-friendly

AQE_image1If user-friendliness means that we close off our information technologies behind flashy interfaces and in shiny casings, while outsourcing the difficult questions about power and value to specialized helpdesks and separate spheres of technology development, smart cities should not be user-friendly.

On November 27th I attended a meeting in Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam about the “Smart City.” The concept of the smart city points to a future ideal in which digital technologies, implemented in domains such as health care, transportation, education, finance, and politics, will make urban life more efficient, sustainable, inclusive, and hence “smart.”

An example of such a “smart technology” was recently introduced by the Waag Society and announced in an article in the local Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool: Amsterdammers can apply for a so-called Smart Citizen kit, a small computer with sensors that measures toxic substances in the air and streams these measurements onto a website where they appear on a map. The article was entitled “To Measure Means to Know” (Meten is Weten), suggesting the kit to be a scientific tool that gives citizens power to really understand their environment.

People versus Technology

In the next couple of years, the European Commission makes several billion euros available through its Horizon 2020 program to support multistakeholder networks that offer good ideas for realizing this smart city future. Hence, it is lucrative for institutions and individuals in cities across Europe to claim a frontrunner position the smart city debate.

At Pakhuis de Zwijger, one of the speakers did announce herself as part of a frontrunners group. An important part of her vision of the future of the smart city is that it should not be about technology, but about people and the question how technologies can be applied to actual social problems. Her argument appealed to the sympathetic idea that people should not be controlled by technologies, but be able to use friendly, accessible technologies to empower their own lives. This visions took a central place in the many other smart city debates and presentations I attended.

Sympathetic as it may sound, to me as an anthropologist who studies technology creation as a cultural practice, it seems odd to assert such a distinction between the world of “technology” on the one hand, and of people and applications on the other. It suggests, somehow, that technology comes from outer space in neutral form and only after it has landed on earth achieves political, cultural, social, and psychological meaning.

This idea doesn’t conceive of the process of technology creation as one that is deeply affected by cultural and political decision making processes. These decisions have lasting effects on the lives of technology users, regardless how friendly and empowering these technologies seem in their everyday lives.

Creating the Air Quality Egg

In the past two years I have seen this from close by. I followed the creation of a predecessor of the Smart Citizen Kit, the so-called Air Quality Egg (hereafter “AQE” pic1eggwires): The AQE was made by an international network of entrepreneurs, programmers, engineers, activists, “community organizers”, and anthropologists like myself. We met regularly and stayed in touch through a wiki, mailinglist, and a website. During this process many decisions had to be made about the hardware, software, and the potential uses of the AQE.

In this process, two problems in particular came up regularly. The project appealed to the ideal of transparency and of making that otherwise elusive object, “air”, scientifically measurable and shareable. Yet, the sensors that were used were cheap and not at all reliable in a scientific sense. Another problem was the fact that, even though the hardware was produced in an Open Source way, meaning that no-one could claim exclusive ownership, the platform that collected the data produced by the AQE was owned by a commercial company. Throughout the process, this platform became increasingly commercialized. It now offers long-term data storage and full flexibility in the way that data can be made accessible, only to paying customers.

Engaging with these issues while following the making of the AQE showed me how ostensibly technical decisions were also always decisions about power. Depending upon the positions taken by the AQE creators with respect to these issues, the object meant different things, pointing to different types of futures, and, by extension, to different ways in which the ideal of this alleged smart city can be realized.

pic4airqualityEgguserfriendlyObscured by the Button

During the process we were always told that in the end the AQE should be relevant not only to us “early adaptors” and geeks, but also to average users, who can apply it to their real-world problems. Yet, when the messy prototype that we worked on changed into a user-friendly object enclosed in a shiny casing, the very real-world issues we had been wrestling with were also closed off.

From an object that evoked many important discussions about society’s belief in science, the meaning of data, and the role of capitalism in technology development, the AQE now became a user-friendly product that could either be switched on or off. And the platform that streamed the data produced by the AQE stopped facilitating discussions about the actual meaning and reliability of the data, and instead adopted marketing language, selling “transparency”, “efficiency”, and above all, a Plus account with helpdesk facility.

Questioning User-Friendliness

If the concept of the smart city is to be more than a story that turns citizens into consumers of ever-new technologies, I think we should be more precise about what we mean with “user-friendliness.” If it means that we close off our information technologies behind flashy interfaces and in shiny casings, while outsourcing the difficult questions about power and value to specialized helpdesks and separate spheres of technology development, smart cities should not be user-friendly. If anything should be made “user-friendly” it is access to the discussions of power and value that go into the production of our everyday technologies.

In the following months I will study in how far this Smart Citizen Kit facilitates these discussions. I will keep you posted!

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1 Response to Real Smart Cities are not user-friendly

  1. Pingback: Real Smart Cities are not user-friendly | kwalitisme

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