This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 49: Learning from a lanyard,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York on the 9th of December 2011.

Week 49: Learning from a lanyard

Adam Greenfield on 9 December 2011

Sometimes — rarely, but it does happen — you know a conference is going to be disappointing the very moment you’re handed your lanyard.

This was my experience of the first annual Smart City Expo and World Congress, held at Barcelona’s yawning Fira conference center week before last. I don’t know if you can quite tell from the thumbnail image that accompanies this weeknote, but what was given to me at check-in was an access-control credential, not a conference badge.

What’s the difference? Well, let’s see. A conference badge generally displays one’s name and affiliation prominently and legibly — which admittedly leads to that ugly, awkward scan people do when they’re trying to figure out if you’re someone worth talking to, but does at least afford recognition and identification. It may feature a friendly picture of the wearer. And if the wearer happens to possess some other special status relevant to one’s attendance at the event — sponsor, say, or vendor, or speaker — that status may be reflected in the color of the badge or the badge holder, for the utility and convenience of everyone involved.

An access-control credential, by contrast, is not primarily intended to be a human-readable document. Its most prominent line of copy is the name of the issuing institution. It may list the wearer’s name military-style (“LASTNAME, FIRSTNAME”), or bear some incomprehensible alphanumeric string that presumably relates to the permissions held by that person. Ultimately, of course, anything imprinted on its surface is secondary to the functioning of the RFID tag laminated within.

Why do I go into all this detail, about what is surely the most trivial aspect of any large event? Because I think it’s telling. I think it’s a give-away that goes directly to this conference’s unspoken conception of the relationship between people and technology.

In claiming to establish “the new international benchmark in the field of intelligent cities,” the event somehow forgot to devote any particular attention to the needs or claims of the people living in those cities. Time and time again, the audience was treated to (empirically ungrounded) assertions that deploying advanced information technologies would render urban areas more manageable, that new heights of efficiency could be realized, that even the most intractable issues would yield to sufficient application of sensors, or data visualization, or predictive analytics.

This tendency was particularly acute at the session I participated in — a panel ostensibly dedicated to discussion of “Living and People,” and including representatives of IBM, Siemens, and Endesa, and a former mayor of Barcelona. Typical of the rhetoric on offer was that of IBM’s Anne Altman, whose recitation of The Benefits of Smart was so juiceless and dutiful that even she seemed not entirely convinced by it. She talked up a case study featuring the century-old water mains of Washington D.C., where severe issues with leaks and low pressure were apparently brought under control by IBM’s spackling them with flow-rate sensors and other instrumentation.

Put aside, for a second, the thought that this little anecdote would have been more appropriate to a panel about infrastructure. What made me angry was the unchallenged mendacity of it. Here we have the capital city of the entity that claims to be the planet’s sole remaining superpower, beset with public works so critically degraded that the entire region’s quality of life is endangered, and the heroic “win” you’re claiming involves a few dozen flow meters?

Fine, you’re proud of your sensor technology. See if you can’t come up with an instrument capable of sensing why Americans won’t invest in the basic lineaments of functioning cities anymore. You want to place your technology at the service of Living and People? See if you can’t use it to foreground and enable the conversations that obviously and urgently need to happen, rather than slapping a Hello Kitty Band-Aid on a festering staph infection.

You can call IBM’s decision pragmatism, or good sound business sense, or impressive engineering, or you can call it cowardice. My beef with the panel, ultimately, was that nobody on stage called it anything at all. No contestation. No expansion. No discussion. Here in a place which aimed “to put together the most comprehensive possible program,” and to “inspire debate on the different issues raised” in that program, nobody said boo.

Do I sound angry? I am angry. I’m not sure what the value is in events like this, to be honest. When the stage is so packed with “speakers of recognized prestige and representatives of the…most innovative Smart City initiatives around the world” that there’s no time in the session to engage any of the issues that were raised, when the whole thing amounts to little more than high-profile Buzzword Bingo, it’s hard for me to see how it’s possible for the audience to learn anything beyond what they might have gleaned from a brochure.

The whole thing would more forthrightly have been pitched as purely a trade show, without any pretense at intellectual engagement. In fact, it’s very rapidly becoming evident to me that “the smart city” does not refer to any general conception of the circumstances arising where information technology intersects the urban environment, but is rather a very specific discourse within that larger field of inquiry. To be precise, it’s a discourse about the instrumentation and quantification of municipal processes, specifically for ease and efficiency of management.

That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s so very partial and limited a conception of things. As we’ve pointed out many times before, it’s a point of view that virtually excludes any conception of the citizen as anything other than an object to be acted upon. It turns its back on by far the greater part of the potential bound up in these technologies.

None of this is to say that there wasn’t a critical perspective being offered at the event. Though never anything less than cognizant of the irony inherent in this position being represented by Americans on a European stage, I was terribly, terribly proud to have presented alongside a contingent of engaged New Yorkers that included Jake Barton, Laura Forlano, Anthony Townsend and Sarah Williams. When I did hear some refreshingly grounded or politically conscious or simply humane words from the stage, the chances were very good indeed that it was one of these folks speaking.

My advice to the event organizers? Seriously, if there’s going to be a “next time,” please do leave some space for conversation. Organize smaller panels, and fewer of them. Insist on a more tightly curated selection of speakers. Aim for the cogent, rather than the “comprehensive.” (Since I know the whole point of the event is to fill the Fira Gran Via venue, I’m not even going to bother arguing what I truly believe, which is that the event would have been infinitely more congenial in a central-city location. Hospitalet is not Barcelona.)

And for god’s sake, try and scare up some conference badges that let me know who it is that I’m speaking to.

- Logistics: We’re getting into that space of time where decisions are deferred, and though we’ll be in and out of the studio, nothing meaningful is likely to happen on the client side until after the New Year. Unlike the past few weeks, if you happen to be in NYC, it’s not such a bad time to swing by and say hi. Endmark