Creative cities and smart cities are nothing but a corporate taming of creativity

The Smart Cities Expo in India, May 2016. Image: Getty.

In 2007 US creative cities “guru” Richard Florida was flown up to Noosa to tell the local city council how they, too, could become a creative city.

Noosa was one of a long line of cities across the globe queuing up to pay big bucks to the US-based academic-entrepreneur. “Being creative” had become an almost universal aspiration. Who would not want to be a creative city?

And so Creative [insert name of city here] signs sprang up in the most unlikely places, along with stock shots of creative young things hunched over laptops in cafes.

Ten years later, different gurus are being flown around and the signs have been replaced by Smart [insert name of city here]. The stock shots are much the same, but now the young things are being innovative, disruptive and above all “smart”. That’s the trouble with fast policy: here today, gone tomorrow.

Below the surface more tectonic shifts can be felt. In its first outing in the mid-1990s the “creative city”, associated with thinkers such as Charles Landry, was an energising vision of a new role for cultural creativity in our cities. Now expanded in democratic fashion beyond the world of “high art” to embrace popular, everyday creativity, culture would be a key resource for the 21st-century city.

Culture could re-activate the decayed industrial zones of the inner city, breathing new life into the dead infrastructures of factories and power stations, dockyards and tram depots, schools, barracks and banks. Culture could renew stale urban identities, catalyse new aspirations and stamp a different global brand on long-dormant cities.

And with the creative industries – culture plus all things design and digital – all that was needed were some creative people and a bit of entrepreneurial flair. Then we would have one of the industries of the future.

Creativity broke cities away from the old bureaucratic top-down planning silos of the industrial city and let them approach the future holistically. Culture would be what cities do best, earning a living and enjoying it at the same time.

By the time Florida had left Noosa the discontent was growing. Big investments in photogenic CBD developments seemed more intended for the creative class than local citizens, generating massive real estate profits while the suburbs languished unloved.

Creative industries turned out not to be so inclusive after all. They failed to soak up all those unemployed dirty industry workers and were reliant on educated workers willing to work their way up on low pay and high debt.

The turn of the smart city

Since the global financial crisis the energising vision has been around social justice, citizenship and the right to the city, with a return of community and activist-focused arts activities. Creatives are now less Californian start-ups and more counter-cultural “post-capitalists”.

Enter the Smart City, creativity without all those messy cultural bits. The tech start-ups were just as cool, the fab labs and hacker spaces just as disruptive, but now slotted onto a very different agenda.

This too promised a re-invention of the city, not now a cultural re-imagining but a complete re-tooling of the social and governmental infrastructure of the city. Courtesy of some very big global tech companies, a new digital infrastructure could be rolled out, applying sensors, data-capture devices and large-scale computing power to urban life.

Smart cities are data cities, promising efficient management of transport and utilities, security, and customised commerce. If the early Creative City embraced the messiness of city life, viewing it not as chaos but creative fecundity, the Smart City give us a clean utopian picture of the perfectly transparent city.

It’s messy on the surface, but with a big data back-room providing bespoke information for almost any aspect of urban living your care to ask for. What’s not to like?


A corporate taming of creativity

That the brains of the Smart City – as envisioned by its corporate promoters – are increasingly embedded in its walls rather than its inhabitants reveals much about the trajectory of the digital economy so closely tied to Florida’s conception of the Creative City and its industries.

Internet scholar Jonathan Zittrain has described the rise of “app” culture as a betrayal of the creative potential unleashed by the mainstreaming of the internet. If the open internet was messy and chaotic, Zittrain argues that it was correspondingly “generative”, promoting experimentation and creativity.

By contrast, the “app” represents the pacification and domestication of the internet: its transformation from a productive medium to an infrastructure for consumption and marketing. Apps sort our music and photos for us, tell us where to eat, how to get there, and what to watch afterwards. The price of the newfound convenience that renders smart phones so addictive is a shift in the balance of control away from the end user.

For Zittrain, the “applified” world is, “one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control” – which is not a bad description of the corporate blueprint for the Smart City.

As urbanist Adam Greenfield has observed, the corporate world has taken the lead in both envisioning and promoting its version of the “informated” city. It looks suspiciously like the commercial internet projected out into physical space.

The promise is one of efficiency, convenience and security: smart streets that adjust traffic flow in real time, walls that change images to suit our tastes (which have become indistinguishable from market preferences), even floors that cushion us when we fall.

For all the talk of disruption, the paradoxical promise of the smart city is one of data-driven efficiency and predictability. The promotional materials feature the same smart young things, freed up from the impositions of daily life (traffic, shopping, routine decision-making, even driving), to do... what?

Whose city is it?

There are surely possibilities here, but the version of smart city as automated city looks inhuman. It promises to serve people by rendering them increasingly efficient, perhaps to the point of their own redundancy.

To subject the future of the city to the corporate imaginary is to concede too much to the galloping privatisation of our cultural and informational infrastructure.

What if the right to the city were also a right to participate in shaping its information infrastructures and their implementation? Can we envision an alternative to centralised corporate control of the city’s data? And how might public priorities be redefined in ways that distinguish them from the private imperatives of the ruling tech giants?

Justin O'Connor is professor of communications and cultural economy at Monash University. Mark Andrejevic is chair of the Department of Media Studies at Pomona College.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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