Urban Age Electric City Conference

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LSE Cities hosts 7th annual Urban Age conference in London

Maybe it is, after all, the centre of the Universe. After all, it has so often in the past been at the centre of the remaking of our Universe: from the industrial revolution, to both world wars; from Darwin’s science to the invention of the cellphone; from epicentre of the neoliberal revolution, to now – as it basks so luxuriously in the resounding success of its Olympic Games glory – it prepares to leverage its dominance of global financial circuits and melting pot of talents from every continent to become the home base of choice for the Jedi Knights of the world’s most powerful information technology corporations.  The carefully choreographed Urban Age  conference on the Electric City (6-7 December 2012) hosted by the LSE Cities Programme in the Shoreditch Electric Light Station on Coronet Street in the recently jazzed up London East End was a truly grand affair that celebrated, debated and played with the enticing possibilities of a new London lit up by trillions of LEDs all reflecting in every blink another chunk of data gathered from the countless clicks we all make every day. Although, as the name implies, the venue used to be where waste was burned to generate electricity over a century ago, it is now the home of a circus training company. How appropriate for a Deutsche Bank-funded conference of urbanists who must be able to combine insights into the rigidities of technical infrastructures with the accidental comedies and contortions that are the gritty stuff that makes ‘cityness’ so utterly compelling for those who relish the uncontrollable creativities, intimacies and passions of the ever-churning, unsleeping and relentlessly pulsating city.

The Urban Age conference on the Electric City was hosted by the LSE Cities Programme and the Alfred Herrhausen Society which defines itself as the ‘The International Forum of Deutsche Bank’.  ‘Supported by Mayor of London’ was prominently displayed alongside the brands of the host institutions – an endorsement that consistently wafted its way through the dialogues, as if the circus conductor  that is usually around in that building had morphed into a benign apparition to keep an eye on things. At the centre was Ricky Burdett – the charismatic, expansive, energising, big hearted Director of LSE Cities who has stitched together over many years an extra-ordinary power network of some of the most respected academic urbanists, many key policy makers and significant corporate players. He certainly knows how to mount an impressive show. I have never attended a ‘conference’ – if one can call it that (more like a giant tech-enabled long coffee shop discussion) – like this. With a support staff of 40 drawn from the host organisations and sub-contractors, this event brought together 300 participants for 2 days (with speakers flown business class and accommodated at the plush St Pancras Renaissance Hotel) in a remarkable conversation without breaking up into those awful parallel sessions that so often kill the dynamic of events that are supposed to transcend disciplinary boundaries.

A major coup for LSE on the opening morning was the vigorous appearance of PM David Cameron with his tousle-haired Mayor Boris Johnson in tow. Although a few stories circulated as to how this happened, the one with the most credibility seems to be the following: ‘David and Boris’ had planned to make an announcement the previous day about a 50 million pound grant to build a new building to host an open learning space to further stimulate ‘tech city’ on the Old Street roundabout that has become the heart of East London’s tech renaissance. Realising that the Electric City Conference was starting the next day just a stone’s throw away with the world’s ‘urban age’ glitterati all conveniently assembled to watch the spectable, they delayed the announcement for a day to take advantage of the setting – to his credit, ‘David’ apologised for ‘hijacking’ the conference to make the announcement. ‘Boris’, of course, had everyone in stitches as he is want to do, not least because he unabashedly sees himself as the veritable Luke Skywalker of the new Jedi Knights of London’s global project to lead the next technological revolution (which, in his grandiose mind, it already does!).

The list of speakers was most impressive:
* the sceptical academics like Prof John Urry from Lancaster University, Prof Maarten Hajer from The Netherlands (now a civil servant headiing up The Netherlands Environment Agency), Prof Richard Sennett from LSE and NYU, Prof Saskia Sassen from Columbia University, Prof Alejandro Zaera-Polo who is Dean of Architecture at Princeton University, Prof Edgar Pieterse from UCT and, of course, the great Anthony Giddens (who, in my view, delivered a surprisingly weak rendition of the ‘climate-change-equals-limits’ line which, of course, suits the techno-fix guys whose hand is strengthened as the levels of fear about the future go up);
* the enthusiastic policy-oriented researchers like Bruce Katz from Brookings, Julio Davila at the DPU University College London (UCL), Philip Rhode from LSE, Frauke Behrendt from University Brighton, Dimitri Zhengelis from LSE and Carlo Ratti from MIT;
* then there were the corporates punting their closed system turn key technology solutions for cities that aim to replace the messiness of our current unsatisfying (sometimes) democratic governance systems with the sanitized clairvoyance of algorythmic governance that bewitched the room with its blinking techno razzle dazzle – these included Wim Elfrink who is Cisco’s Chief Globalisation Officer and Executive Vice-President for the Industry Solutions Group (whose performance was the least impressive), Roland Busch who is CEO for Infrastructure and Cities in Siemens AG, Rainer Becker who is Chief Operating Officer of car2go at Daimler AG, Patrick Cerwall who is Head of Strategic Marketing and Intelligence at Ericsson (who admittedly was much more modest, resisting the temptation to overstate what is possible and sticking to what Ericsson does best – providing the infrastructure that others can use);
* there was also a healthy sprinkling of politicians and policy managers who reiterated the usual range of governance and policy challenges they face, but few seemed willing to challenge the techno-fix agenda head on (most likely because there are costs associated with telling the emperor that he has no clothes): there was Andy Altman who is Chief Executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation (who did emphasize the importance of debating the techno-fix agenda), Rohan Silva who is Senior Policy Advisor to the PM, Joan Clos – ED of UN Habitat, Carl Cedershiold – former Mayor of Stockholm, Isabel Dedring – Deputy Mayor of London, Antoni Vives – Deputy Mayor of Barcelona (who did raise a very critical voice, including about the future of capitalism!), and Anthony Williams – former CEO and Executive Director of City Council of Washington DC.

But before going on to discuss the main debate, mention must be made of the meeting room. LSE appointed a design firm to design the entire setting – lighting, seating arrangements, central table, real time filming and webcasting, etc. Every detail was carefully thought through, with the electronic coordination working absolutely perfectly. At the centre of the room was the oval shaped table with seating for about 8 plus a chair at the head of the table – desk micro-phones for all, interspersed with bottles of water. The sleak black oval top was mounted on a tasteful perspex stand lit up from the inside in the same yellow shade as the branding of the conference theme – Electric City. The 300 chairs were organised in shallow semi-circles along the two lengths of the hall, facing inwards to the oval table. The walls of the hall were unplastered red brick, which remarkably created a kind of soft warm natural earthy feel in a hall without windows that otherwise could have felt like yet another white cube for disconnecting people from their natural surroundings (which is where architects seem to think we like to sit to learn about new things and be creative). But the most stunning feature of the hall was three huge screens on three of the four walls – apparently they had to be flown in from Germany because none were available locally that were appropriate for the very high definition screenings. Three cameras captured the speakers on the screens at all times. The result was a truly remarkable sense of intimacy. Normally this fishbowl approach does not work – yes, people listen to the dialogue at the table, but they feel outside of the engagement. But having the face of the speaker blown up and in your face so that you could see every wrinkle and inflection, made you feel you were as much at the table as the 8 people sitting there. Unsurprisingly, when it came to question time, it all worked brilliantly: the cameras captured the questioner no matter where s/he was in the room on the giant screens, as if s/he was also at the table. There was a podium that keynote speakers and some others used, but it never distracted at all from the overall effect, because you still watched them on the screen because their ppt and image were both on the screen (most of the time). Hence my description that although this was a permanent plenary of 300 people, it felt like an intimate coffee shop discussion. Speakers had ten minutes, which meant core ideas were expressed in rapid succession, and a LOT of ground covered without breaking into parallel sessions. Times were rigorously enforced. A remarkable experience of how it can be done. And oh so far away from usual format of straight rows, raised stage, long speeches, discipline-specific parallel sessions, and boring reports back. I am sure we can make this work with a cheaper infrastructure for similar events – but 3 screens and cameras will be indisensable.

My 10 minute presentation was basically a summary of the Report compiled for the Cities Working Group of the International Resource Panel. Although I was told that material flow analysis would be covered by others talking before me, this was not the case. From feedback by quite a few people after my talk, what I was talking about was new to them, but also very appealing. After introducing the concept of resource flows through cities, I simply argued that because urban infrastructures conduct flows through cities, it follows that these flows can only be changed by reconfiguring the urban infrastructures. But these are ‘locked in’ systems that are difficult to change. Hence the importance of intermediaries to facilitate change. I ended by saying that the big tech companies – Cisco, Siemens, Alstrom, Phillips, Veolia and IBM have started to understand this, and their business models are clearly geared to expanding market share by securing control of city infrastructures, i.e. their accumulation strategies are now about securing control of the urban spaces within which these infrastructures are embedded. The consequences of this for democratic governance and innovation  may well be profoundly retrogressive – with Masdar and Songdo as the iconic projects of this modus operandi that, in turn, remind us of what the ecological dystopias for the low carbon elites could look like in future. Fuse the sanitized, cold and soul-less aesthetic of the gated community, the pre-programmed thrills of the video game, the dummed down routines of the call centre and silent woosh of a luxury electric sedan, and what you get is a Masdar or Songdo.

Towards the end of the last day, Andy Altman summed up the key debate of the conference by saying there are two positions: the one is the top down ‘big tech’ solutions punted by the hi-tech corporations, and the bottom up deployment of information technologies to enhance self-organizing communities of practice that kind of remake cities from below as they find ever-smarter ways of combing, recombining and collaborating to solve the real social, ecological, economic and cultural problems of increasingly complex cities. If Masdar and Songdo are the icons of the hi-tech top-down centrally coordinated option, the role played by electronically mediated social networks during the Arab Spring and Occupy Movements provides the iconic images for the bottom-up decentralised autopoetic cellphone-plus-cloud alternative.

The most interesting session was on Friday morning when a bunch of techno-sceptics were let loose to tackle the challenges of bottom-up alternatives, with Adam Greenfield (an independent New York designer and former Design Director at Nokia) leading the way. His analysis of the definitions of the smart city punted by the big tech companies was revealing and chilling – one of those rare moments when a researcher just has to use the direct quotes from PR material to make his point, i.e. the absurdity just speaks for itself. But he probably made the best remark of the conference when he said: ‘In our business, the general rule is that the smarter the technology, the dummer the user’. So profound. The implication is clear: the dummer the technology, the smarter the user. Richard Sennet opened this session with a theoretical argument which for me captured so succinctly what I have intuitively comprehended over the past several months, but lacked the conceptual language needed to join the dots. So profound, and worth summarising and quoting from his written essay in the conference newspaper entitled ‘The stupefying smart city”.

For Sennett, what makes the city a space of freedom is the fact that agglomerations of people and activities results in dynamic patterns of social engagement that are “unpredictable”, “indeterminate”, “unforeseen” and therefore “complex” and “open”. He argues that “the process of change in an open system does not try to resolve all conflicts”. Messiness, incompleteness, provisional partial solutions and edges are the norm, not the exception. To cope, urbanites need to develop the capabilities for adjusting to these contexts, and they do. As Sennet puts it so beautifully, this is the complexity that gives rise to the “cognitive stimulation through trial and error” that drives innovation. This is why he can conclude that “[i]nformal social processes are the genius of the city – the source of innovation economically and the foundation of an arousing social life.” It is this notion of the city as the open space for cognitive stimulation, arousal and innovation that Sennet believes is now threatened by what he calls the  “closed-system urbanism” promoted by Norman Foster and others who are providing the architectural discourses needed by the big tech companies to mount their hegemonic bids for control of the city in order to market and sell their solutions. For Sennett, the smart city is not at all smart, instead, it runs the risk of “stupifying” the citizens, thus removing the wellsprings of the things we value most – innovation, creativity, learning and the intimacies of a rich cultural life. Without edges, messiness and incompleteness, the conditions for “cognitive stimulation” fall away because there is “no personal encounter with resistance”, “no knowledge of the city has to be fought for”. Instead, the architecture of the smart city “comprehensively lays out the activities of the city, in which technology monitors and regulates the function from a central command centre. This is to conceive of the city in ‘Fordist’ terms – that is, each activity has an appropriate place and time. Urbanites become consumers of choices laid out for them by prior calculations of where to shop or to get a doctor the most efficiently.” He goes on to argue: “Foster’s idea of the city … assumes a clairvoyant sense of what should grow where. Put crudely, the city is over-zoned: the algorithms of the CPU [Central Processing Unit] do not envision their own violation.”

I am so taken with this idea – ‘clairvoyant algorithmic governance’. Just as the massive accumulation of data about our every click in Google’s server farms empowers Google to start predicting with ever greater accuracy what we will click on tomorrow, or next week or even next year, so the capacity for algorithmic governance becomes an ever more practical possibility. Conjoin this kind of communication power with the spatial powers of the architect, and the result is ”closed-system urbanism” that will depend on the dumming down of the citizens – something that might, of course, need to be enforced when people start resisting the routines anticipated by the algorithms. Is repression the logical ultimate outcome? Sennett ends off with a powerful description of freedom in the city: “If they have a choice, people want a more open, indeterminate city in which to make their way: that is how they can come to take ownership over their own lives.” He strongly believes that information and communication technologies could be deployed to support this “and can do so if we think of our new technological tools as enabling the open systems of the city.” Sennett is not a c.21st Luddite.

It is tempting to construct a neat dualism between the big tech companies and their architectural lackeys on the one hand and a more liberatory Arab Spring/Occupy Movement alternative: creates that much-loved definition of who the good guys and who the bad guys are. But this won’t work. The big tech companies will not go away. And in any case, they put in place the core infrastructures that make everything else possible. So the real hard question is how they can change their business models in ways that are compatible with the kind of open non-linear complex urbanisms that Richard Sennet and John Urry has in mind. This might require some facilitated dialogues over a sustained period of time to build up a shared understanding of the challenges that will need substantial contributions from sociologists, social anthropologists, political scientists, ecological economists, behavioral economists, designers, and modelers, to name just some of what will be required to crack this.

So, back home now. Back to headlines about Zuma as a ‘kept politician’, to the land where the highways are lined with informal settlements and, of course, the stunning beauty that could attract so many of the world’s most creative people if we could get our acts together. And yet, what we do have is everything that Richard Sennet reckons makes us human – conditions that turbocharge the kind of ‘cognitive stimulation’ that could spawn a new generation of city-builders from below inspired by the vision of a just urban transition. Will we learn from where the world is trying to go? And what is it about our own conditions that help us to participate?