Tag Archives: Milan

What we mean by “smart” in “smart cities”

There’s lots of talk about smart cities. There are two reasons for such attention.

The first one is structural: cities are our future as a species. Already, for the first time in history, over half of the world population lives in cities. Every week, 1.3 million people relocate from rural areaas to the cities of planet Earth. It’s plain common sense that we apply our best smarts to our dominant habitat. The second one is contingent: there’s money up for grabs if you hack smart cities. In Italy, the government is throwing over 600 million euro at research-and-deploy projects to “solve problems at the urban and metropolitan scale” in spaces like safety, aging, technologies for welfare, domotics, smart grids etc.

Interference between the two causes the expression “smart cities” to be interpreted in different ways. Simplifying a bit, there are two main interpretations. The dominant one (also the first one to be proposed) is associated with some large tech corporates: IBM and Cisco were the prime movers, but Google is in there too with projects like Latitude. The idea is to use networked sensors to increase the density of the flow of information that cities generate; and then move on to use this information to adapt our behavior and redesign the places we live in. “Redesign”, in this case, is an ambitious project; it aims to deploy new infrastructure (example: curbside recharging stations for electric cars), in their turns connected to more sensors. The most important sensors would live on our smartphones, that feed a non-stop stream of information about our surroundings onto large datasets. Technology and interdependence are the lynchpin of this vision. Its symbol is MIT’s Copenhagen Wheel.

The second interpretation is associated to hacker culture and the social innovation world. The idea here is to redesign cities to make them more comfortable, simple, sustainable – financially sustainable too. Sometimes this will imply introducing advanced technology (examples: microsolar and LED street lighting); others it will drive low tech solutions (examples: bicycles and urban farming). Social relationships, community building and awareness of the natural environment’s fragility are the lynchpin of this vision. Its symbol is the hackerspace. I will call cities evolving according to these two different interpretations “type 1 and -2 smart cities” respectively.

Type 1 smart cities have advanced technologies, cool design, researchers of proven excellence. Each component, taken individually, is definitely smart. And then a funny thing happens: once you piece them together you get a whole that does not look smart to me. Not at all. Take, for example, electric cars. They are silent, and don’t spew out greenhouse gases. But:

  • the electricity that powers them has to be produced somehow. In a world in which hydro is at capacity, nuclear is politically dead and solar not developed (yet?), installing additional capacity means burning fossil fuels. Cars’ emission, then, are not eliminated, just moved where you can’t see them. A shift to electric cars would increase or decrease total emissions depending on the existing power stations and the grid: fossil fuels power stations typically convert to electricity only about 50% of the energy harvested from combustion (the rest becomes heat); another 5% are lost along transport. So, of 100 KW embedded in fuel, only 45 are actually available to recharge that new, shiny electric car.
  • they require a costly infrastructure of recharging stations
  • electric cars are still cars. They embody the idea of associating to each human being a tin box of four meters by one and a half by one, that gets driven on average one hour a day and spends the remaining twenty-three squatting precious urban space. As such, they don’t solve mobility problems. They might even make them worse, since they are allowed into restricted entry areas.
  • they are a nonpermissive technology. You are not allowed to hack them, you are not allowed to charge them any way other than connecting them to the power grid. You are allowed to choose what color you want them, and how to pay for them. They relegate us to a passive role – the same we have with respect to internal combustion cars.

Now let’s look at another approach to mobility, not as innovative on first sight: congestion charges – schemes whereby drivers are charged some money to enter a city center. I had the privilege of witnessing the launch of a congestion charge scheme in Milan, Area C. Its results are impressive: 34% reduction in vehicles accessing the area (49% of high emission vehicles); 5% increase in commercial speed of public transport; 23% reduction of driving accidents (24% on injuries); 15 to 23% reductions acroo the spectrum of the main pollutants (source – Italian).

But the real advantage of Area C is that it creates space rather than occupying it. In perspective, it makes the central streets in Milan available to be a platform for social interaction, play, trade, food consumption, lifestyle innovation. Since fast and heavy (hence dangerous) vehicles are not reclaiming most of their surfaces anymore, people can attempt to do new, interesting things with city streets. They can and do explore other ways to move about – bicycles, rollerskates, running. Talented hobbyists and crafty mechanics can create new ecosystems of urban light mobility: in countries that have already undergone this transition you can see this in the sheer variety of bicycles – bicycles with trailers, or bicycles with loading surfaces for small freight. You can see children walking to school in safety, a big taboo in Italy (roads are perceived to be so dangerous that only nonconformist parents let their children walk to school: many schools go as far as to forbid it).

So, what do we mean by smart in smart city? The two approaches I tried to cover here are not clearly outlined in the current debate. And yet, it seems to me they are not only different, but mutually incompatible. Type 1 smart cities are centralized: all smarts are concentrated in the technologists in corporate and university labs, and the role of citizens is to consume their various gadgets. Type 2 ones are full of networks to purchase locally produced food, urban farming, sewing cafés, hackerspaces, fablabs. Type 1s invest huge amount of money on ultrafast mobile networks. Type 2s conjure, as from thin air, wifi city networks that ride on the back of routers already installed in cafés, public libraries and our own homes (this happened in a matter of hours during the earthquake in spring 2012). Students in Type 1 smart cities go to school with tablets. Those of Type 2s use creative commons syllabi – and probably can mix and match the lecturing of their local teachers with that of the Khan Academy or similar experiences. Smart cities of Type 1 concentrates production (agriculture, manufacturing, finance) to large companies, organized to take advantage of increasing returns to scale. Those of Type 2 distributes it, at least in part, across many small entities: permaculturists, makers, community lending agencies.

By now you will have figured out that I find decentralization much smarter an more modern. But there is a problem: almost anything that is smarter in that sense reduces GDP. If public transport works better, more people use them: traffic decreases, but so does the consumption of fuel and vehicles. If people engage more in sports and outdoor activities GDP goes down via the reduction in health care costs (health care is a gigantic business). Area C in Milan, by reducing driving accidents, is a scourge on GDP (fewer medical treatments, less rehab, less car repairs). Type 1 smart cities have no such problem: the Copenhagen Wheel costs 600 dollars and needs an onboard iPhone to work. In fact, the Guardian ended up wondering how smart it is to put over a thousand euro worth of sophisticated circuitry on a bicycle – an eminently stealable contraption.

Corporates love centralization. And so they should, because it gives them a pivotal role and lots of headroom to monetize what they do (when everything is centralized, people in the periphery have to buy everything from the center). I have no doubt that they will be the protagonists of the government’s smart cities call for projects. And still, I have a hunch that in the last few months the voices of the supporters of decentralized solutions started to be heard somewhat. Such voices come, as usual, from that most decentralized of places: the Internet.

What fascinates me in the discussion on smart cities is that it twists our arm into asking really relevant questions. What does GDP really measure? What is really this thing called growth that we are trying to drive? How do we want live with each other in our cities? Whatever the outcome (or the lack of one), I do hope we will take the time and effort to go deep into the debate. It’s not every day that we get to make collective decisions of such broad scope, forcing us to ask ourselves what we really want, how we really expect to live together. To fully rise to this challenge, I hope that the prime sensors of the new smart cities are deployed to listen to citizens (and by that I mean individuals, not just stakeholders); and that their prime enabling technologies are safe, detoxyfied, rational argument-oriented environments – located both online and offline – in which we can talk stuff through, and make, together, the relevant decisions. Even those of us who like centralized systems will surely agree that making collective decisions on our common future should stay decentralized. You see, we even have a name for decentralized public decision making: we call it democracy.

A people, not a target group: why advertising thinking can damage the collaboration between people and government

The campaign for this year’s municipal elections in Milan left us with a precious legacy: the awareness that many citizens are willing and able to collaborate with their elected representatives in a constructive way. Thanks to the large number of people involved, their great creative energy, and their Internet tools to coordinate towards common goals, the connected citizenry’s potential to contribute to a much needed general renewal of the country is out of the question. The Italian civil society claimed a role for itself; there was no Obama to summon it. As it turns out, it has proven to be at least as advanced as any other in the world, and possibly more so.

This legacy, it turns out, has a dark side. Besides citizens, the protagonists of the Milanese campaign were Internet communication experts, who tend to have a marketing background. The marketing-derived approach makes sense for election campaigns, because voting has near-zero cost; low thresholds for access; and above all is often driven by non-rational, gut feeling motivations. All of these characteristics carry through to the purchase of consumption goods. So, political communication experts speak the language of marketing and advertising: they tell stories like Nixon losing the presidency to Kennedy because, in the key TV debate, he was sweating. Their job is not to help the citizenry to build a realistic idea of what is needed in the next term, but cajole them into voting for a certain candidate, even if they do it for superficial or wrong reasons. Granted, it is not particularly noble, but it works.

Collaboration between citizens and public authorities is very different from competition for votes, and the analogy with purchase of consumption goods does not carry through. Designing and enacting policies is a high-cost, prolonged activity; it requires rational argument, data, competence. In this context the marketing profession’s seduction techniques don’t work well; what’s more, they risk doing damage. In particular, they risk creating participation bubbles: initially luring into signing up people that later, faced with the exhausting wrangle of designing policy, get disheartened and defect en masse – leaving themselves with a bad experience and others with the chore of reorganizing the whole process. Enacting the wiki government is not about attracting large crowds, but about enabling each and every citizen to choose whether to engage, and just what with, while giving her honest information about the difficulties, the hard work, the high risk of failure associated with participation. Indicators, too, have different meaning than in marketing: in the advertising world attracting more people is always better, whereas in the wiki government there is such a thing as too much participation (it entails duplication of information, with many people making the same point, and reduction in the signal-to-noise ratio, with low-quality contributions swamping high-quality ones).

There is a fundamental difference in the way the decision to engage is modeled: in wiki-style collaboration participants self-select, in marketing the communication experts selects a target in a top-down way. In the former the participant is seen as a thinking adult, that needs to be enabled and informed so that she can make the right decision; in the latter the consumer (or voter) is seen as a stupid, selfish individual that reacts to gut stimulation, and that needs to be led to do what we know must be done. The outcome of collaboration, when it is well designed, is open and unpredictable; the outcome of marketing, when it is well designed, is meeting some target set a priori.

All in all, a shift towards marketing of the discourse on collaboration would be a mistake. An increase in the number of participants to a single process does not automatically mean an improvement; a mayor is not a brand; a willingness to help out is not a trend to be exploited on the short run (and if it is we have no use for it, because collaboration on policy yields results on the medium to long run); and above all citizens are not a target, because they don’t need to be convinced: they need to be enabled to do whatever it is they want to do. It is crystal clear that Italians are up for trying out a collaboration with any half-decent public authority; this collaboration needs space and patient nurturing to grow healthy and strong, sheltered from hype and unrealistic expectations. I hope that the leaders of Italian authorities – starting from the new mayor of Milan Giuliano Pisapia, the leader who best synbolizes the current phase – resist the temptation to frame collaboration as a campaign, citizens as voters, rational conversation as hidden persuasion. Yielding to it would mean shooting themselves in the foot, and wasting an opportunity that the country cannot afford to miss.

Cittadini, non target: perché la cultura del marketing può danneggiare la collaborazione tra persone e istituzioni

La campagna per le elezioni amministrative di Milano ci ha lasciato un’eredità preziosa: la consapevolezza che tantissimi cittadini vogliono e possono collaborare in modo costruttivo con i propri amministratori pubblici. Grandi numeri, grande energia creativa, strumenti Internet per coordinarsi su obiettivi comuni; il potenziale dei cittadini connessi per contribuire ad un rinnovamento generale del sistema paese è indiscutibile. La società civile italiana ha espresso in questa fase una grande autonomia, almeno pari a quella delle più avanzate esperienze internazionali e probabilmente superiore.

Questa eredità, però, ha anche un lato oscuro. Protagonisti della campagna milanese non sono stati solo i cittadini, ma anche gli esperti di comunicazione su Internet, persone e aziende con un retroterra culturale nel marketing. L’approccio derivato dal marketing si presta bene alle campagne elettorali, perché il voto ha un costo basso o nullo; soglie d’accesso inesistenti; e soprattutto motivazioni spesso emotive o irrazionali. Tutte queste caratteristiche si applicano anche all’acquisto di beni di consumo. E così, gli esperti di comunicazione politica parlano il linguaggio della pubblicità e del marketing: raccontano, per esempio, che Nixon perse le elezioni perché, durante il dibattito televisivo con Kennedy, sudava. Il loro lavoro non è aiutare i cittadini a costruirsi un’idea realistica delle politiche che saranno necessarie per i prossimi cinque anni, ma indurli a votare per un certo candidato, anche se votano per ragioni futili o sbagliate. Non sarà particolarmente nobile, ma, dicono, funziona.

La collaborazione tra cittadini e istituzioni è cosa diversa dalla competizione per il voto, e la similitudine con l’acquisto di beni di consumo non regge. Progettare e attuare politiche pubbliche è un’attività ad alto costo e prolungata nel tempo; richiede argomentazioni razionali, dati, competenze. In questo contesto le tecniche di seduzione del marketing non solo non funzionano bene, ma rischiano di fare danni. In particolare rischiano di produrre bolle nella collaborazione: convincere a partecipare persone che poi, di fronte alla fatica del lavoro di progettazione, si scoraggiano e abbandonano in massa il processo – e così facendo rendono l’intera esperienza negativa per sé e caotica per gli altri. Il problema del governo wiki non è attirare grandi folle di partecipanti, ma abilitare ciascun cittadino a scegliere se e dove impegnarsi, senza tacergli problemi, difficoltà e rischi di fallimento connessi con l’impegno. Anche gli indicatori si leggono in modo diverso che nel marketing: lì attirare più gente è sempre un segno di successo, mentre nel governo wiki può esistere la troppa partecipazione (comporta duplicazione dell’informazione, con molta gente che dice le stesse cose, e riduzione del rapporto segnale/rumore, con gli interventi di bassa qualità che sono molti di più degli interventi di alta qualità).

C’è una differenza profonda nei modelli di decisione sottesi alle due modalità: nel governo wiki i partecipanti si autoselezionano, nel marketing è l’esperto di comunicazione che sceglie il proprio target. Nella collaborazione di tipo wiki il partecipante è visto come un adulto pensante, da informare in modo accurato in modo che possa prendere le proprie decisioni, mentre nella pubblicità il consumatore (o l’elettore) è visto come una persona stupida ed egoista, che risponde a impulsi primordiali e che occorre indurre a fare ciò che noi sappiamo già che va fatto. L’esito della collaborazione ben progettata è aperto e imprevedibile, l’esito della pubblicità ben progettata è il raggiungimento di un obiettivo stabilito a priori.

Insomma, uno scivolamento verso il marketing del discorso sulla collaborazione tra cittadini e istituzioni sarebbe un errore. Un aumento del numero di partecipanti a un singolo processo non vuol dire automaticamente un miglioramento; un sindaco non è un brand; una disponibilità a collaborare non è un trend che va cavalcato nel breve termine (e se lo è diventa inutilizzabile, perché il governo wiki produce risultati in tempi medio-lunghi) e soprattutto, le persone non sono un target, perché non vanno convinte, ma messe in grado di fare ciò che già desiderano. È chiaro che gli italiani sono disposti a collaborare con le loro istituzioni; questa collaborazione ha bisogno di spazio e pazienza per potere crescere sana e forte, al riparo dall’hype e dalle troppe aspettative. Mi auguro che gli uomini e le donne delle istituzioni – a cominciare dal nuovo sindaco di Milano Giuliano Pisapia, simbolo di questa fase – resistano alla tentazione di vedere la collaborazione come una campagna, i cittadini come elettori, la conversazione razionale come persuasione occulta. Cedervi significherebbe farsi del male, e sprecare un’opportunità a cui il nostro paese non può permettersi di rinunciare.