7 film and TV series set in the exciting world of municipal government

Something deep and dark. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. Image: HBO

One of the big TV hits of 2014 has been True Detective, a beautifully shot HBO series which saw Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey investigate a string of murders over a period of 17 years. In between all the police procedural stuff, the series explores themes such as family, faith, and the nature of the universe.

The reason we bring this up is that, as it turns out, season 2 is going to be about municipal transport policy:

“According to a breakdown obtained by TheWrap, the second season of “True Detective” will follow the death of a corrupt city manager of a fictional California city who's found brutally murdered amid a potentially groundbreaking transportation deal that would forever change freeway gridlock in the state.”

Thrills! Terror! Traffic management!

Actually, the new series, which looks set to star Vince Vaughn, has a very good chance of being awesome. As unlikely as it might sound, TV and film about local government has a surprisingly good track record. Here are seven more examples.

Spin City (ABC, 1996-2002)

Sitcom set in New York City Hall. Started off as a rather good vehicle for Michael J Fox, as the smart young deputy mayor; later became a substantially less good vehicle for Charlie Sheen as his replacement, and promptly got itself cancelled. Includes such exciting municipal plot lines as a subway train breaking down, pollution in the city’s rivers, and garbage collectors going on strike.

Our Friends in the North (BBC Two, 1996)

Possibly the best television drama ever to be largely about British social housing policy, Our Friends stars an amazing cast led by Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig (pictured), and takes in everything from police corruption to the Zimbabwean boycott to the rise of New Labour. It also features some amazing haircuts.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988 movie)

Gritty political thriller about a corruption scandal in which car companies buy up Los Angeles' streetcar network, purely so they can rip it up, thus forcing the public to buy more cars. Also features a cartoon rabbit.

The Wire (HBO, 2002-08)

Without wanting to sound like one of those people, The Wire is one of the few things in life that's as good as everyone says it is. Over five seasons it explores many aspects of the decline of the American city (policing, education, labour relations, the media). From season three onwards a major character is politician Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen, pictured), who successfully runs for mayor, only to learn that the job is actually amounts to "eating shit all day long, day after day, year after year". This show basically offers a comprehensive explanation of why nothing works.

Chinatown (1974 movie)

Classic noir starring Jack Nicholson, which begins with the murder of Los Angeles' chief water engineer. One of the few films of the genre which is fundamentally about water desalination.

Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009-present)

Mockumentary about municipal officials working in a pseudonymous department in the fictional Indiana town of Pawnee. Contains a plot about turning a big hole into a nice new park. The series made a star of Chris Pratt (pictured), who's since sold out and lost a load of weight, mostly so he could appear in movies.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB/UPN, 1996-2003)

Okay, it's mostly not about municipal government at all, it's about vampires and teenagers. But the villain in season three is the mayor of Sunnydale (Harry Groener), who's secretly plotting his "ascension" – that is, his transformation into a giant snake-like demon who feeds on people. Remember that, next time Boris Johnson or Bill de Blasio appear on your TV screen.

Images credits: Our Friends in the North: BBC; The Wire: HBO; Parks and Recreation: NBC.

 
 
 
 

“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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