Whenever people talk about smart cities, they invariably speak about implementing technology from the top down. It’s all about asking the question, “How can governments provide better services?” Usually, the answer involves a connected network of sensors that help reduce waste. But there’s another way of looking at smart cities.
In most developed countries, people carry a personal computer around in their pockets. This development has led to major disruptions of the status quo. The most notable example of this phenomenon, as it relates to cities, is the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. 20 years ago, people didn’t walk around with video cameras in their pockets, but they do now.
But there are many other ways citizens are using “unglamorous” technologies to transform their cities. Adam Greenfield writes in The Guardian of how the Occupy Sandy movement used simple Google Docs to reach survivors before federal relief agencies:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its lineage, OS was organised along strong principles of leaderlessness, horizontality and consensus. What may be more surprising is that this group of amateurs – unequipped with budgetary resources or any significant prior experience of logistics management, and assembled at a few hours’ notice – is universally acknowledged as having outstripped traditional, hierarchical and abundantly resourced groups like the US Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross in delivering relief to the hardest-hit communities.
Occupy Sandy’s volunteers were unquestionably able to do this because they used networked technology to coordinate and maintain real-time situational awareness over their activities. Crucially, though, the systems they used were neither particularly elaborate, nor the ones many theorists of networked urbanism might have envisioned. They certainly didn’t have anything to do with the high-spec, high-margin instrumentation that IT multinationals would have municipal governments invest in.
In a stroke of inspired creativity, Occupy activists repurposed Amazon’s existing e-commerce and fulfillment infrastructure, in the form of a wedding registry, to funnel donated goods to the distribution centre they had set up in a Brooklyn church.
While the traditional thinking on smart cities isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just a little ahead of its time. As “Internet of Things” technology develops, more cities will have access to the kind of technology that can make cities sustainable. But, in the meantime, there are still many unique ways citizens are using technology to change the places from the bottom up.