What would the Luddites do?
(Click the picture for my presentation)
There’s nothing like technology to stop people thinking straight. Just as the Daily Mail seems to find a new cure for cancer every few days, so technology-watchers love to predict amazing new futures for cities.
 
The ‘smart city’ epithet is particularly attractive right now. After all, you have to be stupid to be against anything that’s smart. And the smart money is on smart cities: India has just announced it wants 100 of them. Big technology meets big property: what could go wrong?
 
Of course technology is wonderful. I’m unlikely to get a driverless car in the near future, but I’m old enough to know how much benefit has been derived from everything from LED lightbulbs to Skype, and to see why Soofas could be a great idea. But I’m also old enough to know that a slum where everyone has a smartphone is still a slum.
 
I spoke at an event on smart cities for construction professionals last month, and returned to the same theme in a discussion with Richard Motley of Integreat Plus for Sheffield Live this week. For me, smart cities are less about the ‘internet of things’ and having sensors in your dustbin and much more about learning to ask smart questions about where we live and how we live there.
 
For me, those smart questions are no different to the questions it has always been smart to ask. What technology does is to introduce new tools.
 
So the smart question about leadership is how to make it more inclusive and participatory, more open and responsive. Social media is one way of opening up such conversations. But if the conversation doesn’t shift the boundaries of who has access to land, property, influence and money, the benefit of the technology is marginal.
 
A lot of ‘smart city’ talk is about traffic. But the smart questions to ask are about how to manage traffic flows to reduce carbon emissions, improve air quality and create a healthier and more liveable environment, not just how to keep the cars moving so commuters get to work on time.
 
There’s huge concern about broadband infrastructure too, and it’s generally linked to discussion about creating the right climate for business investment. But the smart question is what kind of educational and enterprise-supporting infrastructure is needed to ensure that any investment benefits those who most struggle to do well in today’s labour market.
 
In my presentation last month I talked about the Luddite response to new technology 200 years ago - which was to smash it up and threaten those who introduced it. Today ‘Luddite’ is a term of abuse for those who stand in the way of what’s assumed to be progress.
 
But the Luddites, as Lord Byron pointed out at the time, had cause to be angry - even if their strategy was ill-conceived. They were defending their skills, their livelihoods and their communities, much like the coal miners in 1984-85. Industrial change, far from bringing innovation into their lives, was leaving them desperate and destitute.
 
Cities that are really smart will make sure technology widens opportunity and builds the skills, livelihoods and communities of the people who are most marginalised. They will focus on sustainable livelihoodsand build networks of mutual support. They will begin to address some of the issues that Rick Robinson sets out in his recent blog on using technology to create cities that are ‘smart, open and fair’.
 
Can the interest groups and commercial sectors that currently dominate discussion of smart cities achieve that? And if not, who will be the defenders and builders of skills, livelihoods and communities?