This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Weeks 59-60: Taipei to come,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York City on the 1st of March 2012.

Weeks 59-60: Taipei to come

Adam Greenfield on 1 March 2012

We’re just back to the studio after a moderately lengthy trip to Taipei, a city we’d never been to before and from which we had very little idea of what to expect.

Compared to its flashier sisters among the great Asian capitals, Taipei feels like something of a well-kept secret. It’s relatively compact, easy to navigate, and favored with that particular kind of safety that encourages wandering and risk-taking. Its Metro is a joy to use, taxis are cheap, and in general getting around simply isn’t a problem. What’s more, the city is positively blessed with close-in amenities like the Beitou hot-springs district.

Curiously, many of the things we ourselves loved best about Taipei — the night markets, the texture of the sidestreets and alleyways, its impressively profound lack of large-scale commercial advertising — are apparently among those aspects of the city least valued by officialdom, the representatives of which invariably seemed surprised and even faintly embarrassed when we singled these elements out for praise.

Their reaction made me wonder how well these particularities — the elements, after all, which fundamentally distinguish one place from another, and which do so much to support the experiences that resonate and that you take away with you — will fare under the generic sort of smart-city strategy that seems sure to be implemented here. Having sat through a presentation from a functionary of the semi-official Institute for Information Industry that emblematized just about everything that’s wrong with contemporary Internet-of-things discourse as applied to cities, I have my doubts.

What struck me as so troublesome about it? The national strategy, at least as enunciated in this particular presentation, deploys a very impressive-sounding stack of mediating technologies in its conception of networked objects in everyday life, but essentially waves its hands at the two most crucial aspects of any such schema: the data feeding the stack from the bottom (which were here, as so often, presented as natural and unconstructed) and the applications at its top (which “developers will come up with” at some unspecified point in the future). None of this effort, mind you, driven by anything but the perceived necessity of keeping pace with the EU and Taiwan’s Asian competitors, and laying claim to some of the “USD 200B” in annual revenues projected to be generated by the market for IoT products and services by mid-decade. (The one aspect of the presentation that was actually helpful, although surely inadvertently, was its point-by-point comparison of Taiwan’s initiative to the similarly grandiose Chinese, Korean and Japanese national-level IoT strategies.)

If you’ve been paying close attention to the documents and other artifacts thrown up by this discourse, you’ll have noticed that they generally collapse the distinct notions of a developed cloud-computing infrastructure, an “Internet of things” and the transformation of everyday, but specifically urban, experience by networked informatics. There may be certain circumstances under which this effacement of details is warranted, but it doesn’t bode particularly well for those of us who are interested in ensuring that networked urbanism works at least as well and as smoothly as the naive city did before.

A concrete example: Taipei does offer a blanket of free public WiFi, a service called TPE-Free. But a critical design decision — the requirement that visitors to Taiwan register for access to the service in person by bringing their passport to one of a very few physical service centers — means that access to TPE-Free is effectively denied to one of the populations that most obviously stands to benefit from it.

At the most basic, hygienic level, can Taipei claim to offer free municipal wireless access? Yes. Does that mean it’s very useful, or returns to the city very much on the investment that was surely made in deploying it? Not necessarily. And the same goes triply for more elaborate deployments of networked informatics, situations in which the technology of connection is more intimately interwoven with the circumstances of everyday experience. If nothing else, history teaches us that getting this stuff right is difficult; planners are displaying an almost contemptuous disregard for that difficulty, the innate complexity of the urban terrain in general and the specific quiddities of each city, when they sketch out generic technical “solutions” and call it a day.

We think Taipei deserves better. We’d like to see a strategy for networked Taipei at least as clever and idiosyncratic as the city’s new crossing-signal character — a loping fella who seems like he might just be on his way to Ampelmannian status in the hearts of his countrymen. Judging from the folks we met, there’s both the desire for such a thing, and (abundantly) the local insight, talent and energy necessary to carry it off. There does also seem to be a fair amount of entirely justified skepticism that the national and local bodies charged with setting policy in this domain will make wiser choices than they have in the past. You know what they say, though: where the people lead, the leaders must follow.

Our hearty thanks to Ilya Lee for inviting us to Taiwan in the first place, to Xiao-Ling Lin and Ruby Yang for keeping everything flowing smoothly, and to Denny Tsai for introducing us around. A double-extra helping, as ever, is due to Ching-Yao Chen, because he’s awesome.

» Logistics: In the studio until we go wheels up for Copenhagen and Aarhus in the third week of the month. At last, some time to focus on New York and NYC-based projects. Endmark