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Ten years later, different gurus are being flown around and the signs have been replaced by Smart [insert name of city here].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.

 
 
 
 

How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 


CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.