In our last article for the CCCB Lab blog, we argued that there is a need to promote smartcitizens in the face of the concept of the smartcity: in other words, rather than the centralising, exclusive, hierarchical smartcity logic, we should defend the values of smartcitizens (innovation, collective intelligence, horizontality, collaboration, P2P, copyleft) as the foundation for the urban, territorial and social changes that are taking place in the contemporary world. After that initial theoretical foray, we will now offer a more practical approach, with specific examples and proposals.
How can we go about developing urban processes and projects that meet the needs of citizens today? Now more than ever, it is necessary to subvert many of the precepts and the logic that have governed the development of cities and urban design over the past few years. We need to come up with new imaginaries based on the collaborative construction of the city from a creative perspective. And digital culture and the values that ‘smartcitizens’ stand for can play a crucial role – although not necessarily by any means or at any price: as always, it is important to bear in mind the “whys” and “hows”, to critically analyse the new models for urban management and intervention, and to think about how they can be linked to citizen intelligence, innovation, social participation and free culture. We have to ensure we begin with a solid foundation for this incipient ‘neo-urbanism’, based on equality, cooperation, territorial cohesion and on social and environmental commitment.
We have recently being witnessing the creation of the myth of the “smartcity” as the benchmark for urban innovation and digital technologies applied to the city. But smartcities have not been hailed because of a transformative power that takes into account the kinds of values we have just mentioned. Rather, the myth responds to the interests and marketing campaigns of multinational corporations. At the same time – or in response to the rise of the smartcity – we now see the emergence of “smartcitizens”, who defend the use of citizen intelligence to solve urban problems. And this is the idea behind many collaborative strategies that are springing up with the aim of empowering the common good and, as such, promoting urban innovation at the service of the interests of citizens.
As could be seen in the recent Smartcitizens exhibition in Madrid, applying citizen intelligence to urban intervention and management can generate many different types of projects and developments. This text, however, will focus only on a few that we think contribute an innovative approach to the transformation of cities, and can thus be considered to come under the umbrella of urban innovation.
Urbanism in the digital era
Nowadays, all kinds of media and devices allow us to share valuable information among different agents and sectors of our society, and to become smart, active, participatory citizens. But we are still in the very early stages of the effort required to transfer this opportunity into a real paradigm change in terms of urban design and the transformation of the city, and in some cases the powers that be and traditional professional fields tend to try and limit this power.
Now that the flow of major public investment in urban development or renewal has run dry, the urban sector has come to a worrying standstill. Unable to adapt to the new social and urban dynamics that define the change of era we are currently in the midst of, urban planners and public administrations huddle and wait for the return of the good old times. Meanwhile, the city follows its course and continues to grow through other agents, other disciplines, other gazes.
This depletion of urban practices is a double-edged sword for the city. On one hand it has brought in new disciplinary perspectives, revealing the need for a transversal culture when it comes to urban projects and processes. On the other, this exclusion (self-exclusion?) of urban professionals from the spaces where new urban changes are brewing is dangerous in that it cuts them off from the possibility of an integral vision of the city – actions taken in a sectorial, partial way can generate negative or unexpected effects –; and leaves them without access to tools, methodologies and types of knowledge that can make them more coherent and efficient.
Urban innovation: life beyond urban orthodoxy
Urban planning has become a wasteland, creating a gap that has allowed for the emergence of urban practices from other sectors, which is, in turn, transforming the notion of urbanism as we knew it. These new ways of intervening in the city and developing urban innovation strategies are diverse and take many different forms, as we will see below.
One of the main hubs of urban innovation involves the initiatives promoted by technological innovators which are enabling citizens to access information, make decisions and organise collectively in order to use the city in smarter ways. We now have an enormous amount of applications and platforms that make it possible to visualise and share information about your city or neighbourhood, (Disqus, Livehood…), that help citizens to make informed decisions (Mindmixer, Near Interaction…), or enable us to take an active, entrepreneurial attitude to the urban habitat (Urbapps, Social Lab…).
These types of initiatives are by no means limited to encouraging the smart use of cities: they are also helping to improve them. An example is the Peruvian digital platform Datea, which managed to redesign the route of a public transport line in Lima (El Metropolitano) thanks to the reports and problems identified by the people who took part in it.
Another important field that is playing an crucial role in urban innovation today is the cultural and creative industries (CCI). The convergence of interest in the fields of free culture and the city for research and experimentation has allowed this sector to respond in different ways to this “in-between” period that we find ourselves in. One of the examples that best reflects this idea is ZAWP (Zorrotzaurre Art Work in Progress), a project that is working towards reclaiming the abandoned industrial heritage of the Zorrotzaurre peninsula in Bilbao, Basque Country, through creative activities and cultural programmes, thus offering an alternative urban model to the special plan designed by the architect Zaha Hadid for the area. The scale of the site makes it one of the most comprehensive examples of urban intervention, along with the Esto no es un Solar programme in Zaragoza, which aims to find uses for empty sites in the city through a process of collaborative decision-making and the labour of unemployed workers. Other equally interesting but smaller-scale projects in Spain include LaFábrika-detodalavida in Extremadura and Jazar in Pamplona. All of these initiatives call into question the classic forms of city-making by applying creativity, community entrepreneurship and peer-to-peer logic.
Another of the interesting branches that are sprouting from the union of urban innovation and the CCIs are the so-called Citizen Labs, which have inherited the spirit of the Living Labs that are conceived as contexts for learning, dissemination, experimentation and collective and collaborative creation. Even though their scope of action is not the city in the strict sense, many of them host and promote initiatives that profoundly urban in nature. This is the case of MediaLab Prado and Intermediae in Madrid, for example, two spaces that are working with architecture collectives and providing the infrastructure necessary for the development of urban intervention projects. Some new projects that are also working along these lines include Hirikilabs, the citizen lab run by Tabakalera in Donostia-San Sebastián, and the process of setting up an Open Urban Lab that has started in Zaragoza in conjunction with Etopia. Centro de Arte y Tecnología and the Zaragoza Activa programme.
The proliferation of these types of spaces is reinforced by a favourable international context: in July last year, the Ciudadanía 2.0 project run by the Secretaría General Iberoamericana (SEGIB) in collaboration with the Citizen Participation Programme of the Panama President’s Office, the Department of Culture of the Prefeitura de São Paulo, the AECID, Unidos en Red Foundation and the CAF Development Bank of Latin America, began to promote the citizen innovation process. One of its aims is to draft a collaborative document for the joint creation of Citizen Labs in various countries in the region.
When we take all of these elements together, they create a new scenario from which we can start to collaboratively build an alternative future for collective decision-making and for the transformation of our cities. And here, the collaboration and synergies among the different stakeholders will be key: only collective intelligence, social participation, innovation and creativity, entrepreneurship, the potential of digital tools and ICTs, the ecology, sustainability and a cross-disciplinary approach will allow us to consolidate the urban revolution of the twenty-first century