The ‘new urban citizen’ and the dangers of the measurable city
Last year’s United Nations-brokered agreement on the future of cities, the New Urban Agenda, embraced many of today’s trends in urban planning and management made possible by new technologies. From smart cities to data collection, the high-tech possibilities of urban data centres and street-level monitoring tools were all given the U. N.’s stamp of approval.
But for geographer Federico Caprotti of the University of Exeter, who studies smart cities, the rush deserves some pause. What if new technology further exacerbates urban inequality, especially among those on the wrong side of the digital divide? Caprotti sees the world heading toward a notion of a “new urban citizen”, one that continually provides data, which may leave out those who are unable or unwilling to contribute. For example, how to fit in the individual who does not own a smartphone, whether out of choice or for economic reasons?
As the New Urban Agenda was being negotiated last year, Caprotti and several colleagues authored an academic paper to engage these questions. It was published this year in the journal Urban Research & Practice, following the agenda’s adoption. Citiscope’s Gregory Scruggs spoke with Caprotti from his home in the United Kingdom to see how these speculations during the drafting phase of the document compared with its final version.
This interview has been edited.
Gregory Scruggs: Your critical paper was written while the New Urban Agenda was still under negotiation. What is your overall assessment of the final draft of the New Urban Agenda vis-à-vis the concerns you raised in your academic article?
Federico Caprotti: For me, the key thing about the [New] Urban Agenda and about the way it’s been put together is the fact that it is actually an urban agenda: The city has become centre stage in some ways, and we see it reflected in policymaking. Whereas throughout the 1990s into the early 2000s, the city in policy was still seen as a stage on which various other processes — that might not necessarily be considered urban — play out. But now the city is increasingly becoming seen as an actor.
At the same time, it does raise questions about who sets the agendas that have to do with the urban when large international organizations and others are also involved. Whose agendas does that reflect?
Q: So do you think that the New Urban Agenda, as a document drafted by national diplomats working in the United Nations, is an equitable document? Who does it leave out?
A: I’m not implying that a specific group is left out. What I’m saying is that whenever you have policymaking made by large coalitions of international actors — like the group that negotiated the New Urban Agenda — the risk is always around whose discourse is going to be incorporated in that agenda. Whose discourse is going to be communicated by that agenda?
For instance, I work on smart cities. A lot of smart cities have to do with metrics, evaluation systems. It’s all fairly top-down, very much driven by corporate, techno-environmental agendas that have to do with improving the economic performance of cities and integrating digital technologies in the city. And there’s no problem with that, of course — all of that is very positive.
But urban development doesn’t stop there, number one. And number two, these sorts of agendas — about bringing about the smart city in the world today — do very little to address things like, well, what kind of inequalities does that keep hidden? For example, around access to digital technologies, equitable access. Groups like the elderly, the poor, who are already on the other side of the digital divide — how does the smart-city agenda potentially end up reproducing those types of inequalities?
So that’s how I would approach that question.
Q: I was quite interested that you raised the question of whether the focus on data and metrics leads away from the focus on urban development. There’s the famous Michael Bloomberg dictum, “In God we trust. Everyone else bring data.”
A: Right, or “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” I think there is a broader trend of which the New Urban Agenda is an expression, a new urban trend toward the “measurable city”. Big data, modelling cities, city metrics — this is a development that we all know about and live in, at least in certain parts of the world. And it’s great. But if you just focus on what is measurable, you have to ask critical questions about measurement. “If you can measure it, you can manage it” — that’s great, but what if you can’t measure something? At the moment it’s still really hard to measure, for example, things like the experiential side of cities — stress levels, well-being, etcetera.
Q: You don’t think there are efforts afoot to try to measure stress levels and well-being in cities?
A: Of course there are, but it’s difficult at the moment. You can’t model that in the same sort of real-time environments that we have with large-scale traffic flows, for example. And most of the research that I’m seeing coming out of the city is very clearly economically and technologically focused.
Q: So what did you mean by the “new urban citizen” that the New Urban Agenda is pushing the world’s cities toward?
“I think there’s a real risk of reducing citizens and human beings in general to providers of data.”
A: Basically, this part of the article takes its shape from this emergence of data-driven urban analytics — modelling the idea of urban citizens as centres, urban citizens as providers of data, real-time control of the city. There is this idea that the citizen is being shaped by these new data flows and by these new ideas about governing the city through code and through data. But also it is precisely the idea of measuring the citizen that is producing the urban citizen. That’s one of the critiques of measurement and of metrics in the city: You’re not just measuring things; you’re actually producing a subject for governance. You’re saying this is the urban citizen.
Q: So the more that you download civic apps on your phone so that you report back to city hall — like when you get stuck in traffic or how long your commute is — the more you’re subject to administrative or other kinds of control of the city government that you’re feeding information to?
A: Yes, and the more you matter because you produce data more than anything else. You matter as a citizen because you produce economic data. You matter as a citizen because you produce health data.
I think there’s a real risk of reducing citizens and human beings in general to providers of data, for two reasons. One, not all citizens provide data. So if you don’t provide data, or if you don’t plug into those data flows, what happens to you? Do you get marginalized from the world of the near future? Number two, governance through data and governance through metrics always carry with it authoritarian potential. That’s something that the history of the 20th century has amply shown.
Now, I’m not saying that the New Urban Agenda is some sort of conspiracy theory. Overall the use of data from the standard city, the use of data to shape and influence the city, is incredibly positive and carries great promise. But with any so-called potentially neutral technologies and ways of understanding the city come great political responsibilities. At the end of the day, any sort of technique, any technological regime, any agenda, has its own politics underneath it. And it’s important just to be aware of that.
Q: Are there any examples you can point to of places that have perhaps acknowledged this danger? Efforts to reach across the digital divide or cities that have taken steps to address some of these concerns?
A: A lot of it’s small, grass-roots smart-city schemes, or the sort of “sharing economy” type of things going on in Sweden — Malmö, for example. A really good person to talk to on this would be Anna Holst, who is at KTH in Stockholm. She has done work in Gothenburg and Malmö with this type of local projects — I think she calls it the sharing and remaking economy, so the idea of regrowth, of citizens getting together and repairing things as opposed to buying new things.
In Sweden, some of these groups are putting forth alternative discourses about urban sustainability. For instance, a lot of the Swedish government policy discourse about urban sustainability is about measuring emissions through a “production” perspective: Over the last x number of years, emissions have been going down at the same time as economic growth has been rising — so hey, we produce a sustainable economy!
What Anna Holst shows through with her work with these organizations is that if you start measuring and thinking about emissions in different ways using different metrics, especially by looking at the emissions of products that are brought in from abroad — flights, all that sort of stuff — you start seeing that emissions are actually rising even faster. So a lot of it, again, is about what metrics you chose to incorporate into your policy discourse.
Last year with a collaborator on a current project, we did a survey of all of the U. K.’s smart-city projects. And we looked at projects that were in the pipeline and projects that were actually being built and worked on in these cities. And one of the fairly striking findings that we had from this survey is that while the smart city is a real discourse in the U. K., there was an almost total lack of focus on urban social sustainability when thinking about the smart city in the U. K.. Overall, the focus was on the economy of the city and of the technology of the city. And partly that’s due to data and metrics, which lend themselves quite well to that.
But then you ask yourself, when you’ve got cities that have neighbourhoods that for decades have had massively high unemployment, historically fairly structural reasons for inequality, an interesting question would be to ask: How can metrics and data be leveraged so as to provide some sort of progressive input there?