Waiting for the smart city

Nowa­days when we talk about the smart city we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly talk about smart­ness or cities.

I feel like when the term is used it often obscures more than it reveals.

Here a few rea­sons why.

To begin with, the term sug­gests some­thing that is yet to arrive. Some kind of tech-enabled utopia. But actu­al­ly, cur­rent day cities are already smart to a greater or less­er degree depend­ing on where and how you look.

This is impor­tant because too often we post­pone action as we wait for the smart city to arrive. We don’t have to wait. We can act to improve things right now.

Fur­ther­more, ‘smart city’ sug­gests some­thing mono­lith­ic that can be designed as a whole. But a smart city, like any city, is a huge mess of inter­con­nect­ed things. It resists top­down design.

His­to­ry is lit­tered with failed attempts at author­i­tar­i­an high-mod­ernist city design. Just stop it.

Smart­ness should not be an end but a means.

I read ‘smart’ as a short­hand for ‘tech­no­log­i­cal­ly aug­ment­ed’. A smart city is a city eat­en by soft­ware. All cities are being eat­en (or have been eat­en) by soft­ware to a greater or less­er extent. Uber and Airbnb are obvi­ous exam­ples. Small­er more sub­tle ones abound.

The ques­tion is, smart to what end? Effi­cien­cy? Leg­i­bil­i­ty? Con­trol­la­bil­i­ty? Anti-fragili­ty? Playa­bil­i­ty? Live­abil­i­ty? Sus­tain­abil­i­ty? The answer depends on your out­look.

These are ways in which the smart city label obscures. It obscures agency. It obscures net­works. It obscures intent.

I’m not say­ing don’t ever use it. But in many cas­es you can get by with­out it. You can talk about spe­cif­ic parts that make up the whole of a city, spe­cif­ic tech­nolo­gies and spe­cif­ic aims.


Post­script 1

We can do the same exer­cise with the ‘city’ part of the meme.

The same process that is mak­ing cities smart (soft­ware eat­ing the world) is also mak­ing every­thing else smart. Smart towns. Smart coun­try­sides. The ends are dif­fer­ent. The net­works are dif­fer­ent. The process­es play out in dif­fer­ent ways.

It’s okay to think about cities but don’t think they have a monop­oly on ‘dis­rup­tion’.

Post­script 2

Some of this inspired by clever things I heard Sebas­t­ian Quack say at Play­ful Design for Smart Cities and Usman Haque at ThingsCon Ams­ter­dam.

Artificial intelligence, creativity and metis

Boris point­ed me to Cre­ativeAI, an inter­est­ing arti­cle about cre­ativ­i­ty and arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence. It offers a real­ly nice overview of the devel­op­ment of the idea of aug­ment­ing human capa­bil­i­ties through tech­nol­o­gy. One of the claims the authors make is that arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence is mak­ing cre­ativ­i­ty more acces­si­ble. Because tools with AI in them sup­port humans in a range of cre­ative tasks in a way that short­cuts the tra­di­tion­al require­ments of long prac­tice to acquire the nec­es­sary tech­ni­cal skills.

For exam­ple, Shad­ow­Draw (PDF) is a pro­gram that helps peo­ple with free­hand draw­ing by guess­ing what they are try­ing to cre­ate and show­ing a dynam­i­cal­ly updat­ed ‘shad­ow image’ on the can­vas which peo­ple can use as a guide.

It is an inter­est­ing idea and in some ways these kinds of soft­ware indeed low­er the thresh­old for peo­ple to engage in cre­ative tasks. They are good exam­ples of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence as part­ner in stead of mas­ter or ser­vant.

While read­ing Cre­ativeAI I wasn’t entire­ly com­fort­able though and I think it may have been caused by two things.

One is that I care about cre­ativ­i­ty and I think that a good under­stand­ing of it and a dai­ly prac­tice at it—in the broad sense of the word—improves lives. I am also in some ways old-fash­ioned about it and I think the joy of cre­ativ­i­ty stems from the infi­nite­ly high skill ceil­ing involved and the nev­er-end­ing prac­tice it affords. Let’s call it the Jiro per­spec­tive, after the sushi chef made famous by a won­der­ful doc­u­men­tary.

So, claim­ing that cre­ative tools with AI in them can short­cut all of this life-long joy­ful toil pro­duces a degree of pan­ic for me. Although it’s prob­a­bly a Pas­toral world­view which would be bet­ter to aban­don. In a world eat­en by soft­ware, it’s bet­ter to be a Promethean.

The sec­ond rea­son might hold more water but real­ly is more of an open ques­tion than some­thing I have researched in any mean­ing­ful way. I think there is more to cre­ativ­i­ty than just the tech­ni­cal skill required and as such the Cre­ativeAI sto­ry runs the risk of being reduc­tion­ist. While read­ing the arti­cle I was also slow­ly but sure­ly mak­ing my way through one of the final chap­ters of James C. Scott’s See­ing Like a State, which is about the con­cept of metis.

It is prob­a­bly the most inter­est­ing chap­ter of the whole book. Scott intro­duces metis as a form of knowl­edge dif­fer­ent from that pro­duced by sci­ence. Here are some quick excerpts from the book that pro­vide a sense of what it is about. But I real­ly can’t do the rich­ness of his descrip­tion jus­tice here. I am try­ing to keep this short.

The kind of knowl­edge required in such endeav­ors is not deduc­tive knowl­edge from first prin­ci­ples but rather what Greeks of the clas­si­cal peri­od called metis, a con­cept to which we shall return. […] metis is bet­ter under­stood as the kind of knowl­edge that can be acquired only by long prac­tice at sim­i­lar but rarely iden­ti­cal tasks, which requires con­stant adap­ta­tion to chang­ing cir­cum­stances. […] It is to this kind of knowl­edge that [social­ist writer] Lux­em­burg appealed when she char­ac­ter­ized the build­ing of social­ism as “new ter­ri­to­ry” demand­ing “impro­vi­sa­tion” and “cre­ativ­i­ty.”

Scott’s argu­ment is about how author­i­tar­i­an high-mod­ernist schemes priv­i­lege sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge over metis. His explo­ration of what metis means is super inter­est­ing to any­one ded­i­cat­ed to hon­ing a craft, or to cul­ti­vat­ing organ­i­sa­tions con­ducive to the devel­op­ment and appli­ca­tion of craft in the face of uncer­tain­ty. There is a close link between metis and the con­cept of agili­ty.

So cir­cling back to arti­fi­cial­ly intel­li­gent tools for cre­ativ­i­ty I would be inter­est­ed in explor­ing not only how we can dimin­ish the need for the acqui­si­tion of the tech­ni­cal skills required, but to also accel­er­ate the acqui­si­tion of the prac­ti­cal knowl­edge required to apply such skills in the ever-chang­ing real world. I sug­gest we expand our under­stand­ing of what it means to be cre­ative, but with­out los­ing the link to actu­al prac­tice.

For the ancient Greeks metis became syn­ony­mous with a kind of wis­dom and cun­ning best exem­pli­fied by such fig­ures as Odysseus and notably also Prometheus. The lat­ter in par­tic­u­lar exem­pli­fies the use of cre­ativ­i­ty towards trans­for­ma­tive ends. This is the real promise of AI for cre­ativ­i­ty in my eyes. Not to sim­ply make it eas­i­er to repro­duce things that used to be hard to cre­ate but to cre­ate new kinds of tools which have the capac­i­ty to sur­prise their users and to pro­duce results that were impos­si­ble to cre­ate before.

Collaboratively designing Things through sketching

So far, Ianus, Alexan­der and I have announced three of the four peo­ple who’ll be speak­ing at the first Dutch This hap­pened. They are Fabi­an of Ron­i­mo Games, Phi­line of Super­nana and Dirk of IR labs The final addi­tion to this won­der­ful line-up is Wern­er Jainek of Cul­tured Code, the devel­op­ers of Things, a task man­age­ment appli­ca­tion for Mac OS X as well as the iPhone and iPod Touch.

When I first got in touch with the guys at Cul­tured Code, I asked who of the four prin­ci­pals was respon­si­ble for inter­ac­tion design. I was sur­prised to hear that a large part of the inter­ac­tion design is a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort. This flies in the face of con­ven­tion­al wis­dom in design cir­cles: You’re not sup­posed to design by com­mit­tee. Yet no-one can deny Things’ inter­ac­tion design is sol­id, focused and cohe­sive.

Things touch still life by Cultured Code

Wern­er and his asso­ciates col­lab­o­rate through vig­or­ous sketch­ing. Some­times they pro­duce many mock-ups to iron out appar­ent­ly sim­ple bits of the appli­ca­tion. A prime exam­ple being this recur­ring tasks dia­log. Just look at all the alter­na­tives they explored. Their atten­tion to detail is admirable. Also, take a look at the pho­tos they post­ed when they announced Things touch. I’m sure that, if you’re a design­er, you can’t help but love care­ful­ly exam­in­ing the details of such work in progress.

Wern­er tells me he’s been busy scan­ning lots of sketch­es to share at This hap­pened – Utrecht #1. I can’t wait to hear his sto­ries about how the design of both the desk­top and mobile app have hap­pened.

Wern­er com­pletes our line-up. Which you can see in full at thishappened.nl. There, you’ll also be able to reg­is­ter for the event start­ing this Mon­day (20 Octo­ber). I hope to see you on 3 Novem­ber, it promis­es to be a love­ly filled with the sto­ries behind inter­ac­tion design.