Here's why we should design smart cities that help us get lost

“Now I'm sure we're round here somewhere...” Image: Getty.

The internet has reached our cities. A smart city is optimised for efficiency, productivity and comfort. The smart city uses intelligent transport systems. It is administered by integrated urban command centres, which analyse the omnipresent raw material of the digital era: big data. As citizens go about their everyday lives, they leave data traces everywhere, even in the sewers.

Many technology companies and city governments celebrate the new enfant terrible of smart city research: the urban scientist who finally imposes a rigorous scientific (that is, positivistic) mindset on city governance. But as Jeremy Kun has said, “Being quantitiative doesn't protect against bias.”

Commentators such as Cat Matson, Charles Landry and Paul Mason advocate a people-centred approach to city design. In our own work, we warn that ignoring decades of research by architects, geographers, urban planners, designers and sociologists could lead to a dystopian future where humans lose agency if we mindlessly pursue convenience and efficiency.

Wall-E presents a vision of a dystopian future created by techno-scientific determinism.
 

Algorithmic culture of like-mindedness

Big data requires analysis by algorithms, and they in turn create filter bubbles. Corporations such as Facebook and Google deploy sophisticated algorithms to help us navigate the otherwise bloated social mediascape. The content displayed on Facebook’s news feed is selected based on a user’s profile, location, interests, online habits – what they post, share, recommend and “like”.

The popularity of social media stems from its power to create personalised spaces, walled gardens, which are tailored to individual preferences and favour content relevant to each user. Proprietary algorithms determine what is deemed relevant.

Without ethics, it is these algorithms that determine the make-up of the Facebook news feed, Google’s top search results and the recommendations on whom to follow on Twitter and what to buy on Amazon. They are optimised to prioritise content that generates more business.

As Gilad Lotan has observed:

We’re not seeing different viewpoints, but rather more of the same. A healthy democracy is contingent on having a healthy media ecosystem. As builders of these online networked spaces, how do we make sure we are optimising not only for traffic and engagement, but also an informed public? … The underlying algorithmics powering this recommendation engine help reinforce our values and bake more of the same voices into our information streams.

The diversity advantage of cities

As more and more social media platforms embrace urban environments as their playground, this algorithmic culture has important implications for cities. People come together in cities not just for the infrastructure and convenience they provide, but for offering choice. Cities are fundamentally about possibilities, opportunities and diversity.

This has been discussed by a variety of urban theorists. Jane Jacobs notes:

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

Ethan Zuckerman thinks of cities as serendipity engines:

By putting a diverse set of people and things together in a confined place, we increase the chances that we’re going to stumble onto the unexpected.

And However, Zuckerman also asks:

… do cities actually work this way?

It’s a timely question for smart cities governed by big data and algorithmic analysis. How can a smart city become a serendipity engine? Can we design smart cities for getting lost?

Here are some examples of why that may not be such a bad idea.

Getting lost and getting to know strangers

Public transport journey planners are usually optimised for two factors: the fastest speed and shortest distance to get you from A to B. Yet there are opportunities beyond telematics.

Why don’t we offer the choice to go slow, to take the least polluted route to work, or the scenic way home? Experimental prototypes such as Martin Traunmueller’s Likeways and Mark Shepard’s Serendipitor allow you to lose yourself and rediscover your city.

The Likeways app lets users choose routes that wander past restaurants, pubs, shops, museums or art galleries. Image: screenshot, courtesy Martin Traunmueller.

In addition to a diversity of places, cities also offer a diversity of people. However, all too often we stay within our existing social networks of friendship and convenience. Eric Paulos’s Familiar Stranger Project investigated anxiety, comfort and play in public places.

Yet our ability to unlock the advantage of a city’s social diversity is still in its infancy. Early examples include co-working spaces and meet-up groups that bring diverse people together, airlines offering social seating, and design interventions such as Jokebox that foster playfulness and curiosity.

Co-working spaces aim to spark creativity and innovation by bringing diverse people together. Image: Impact Hub/Flickr/creative commons.

Saskia Sassen warns that the privatisation of public spaces in the city has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy and rights”. This also stifles innovation, as people are lacking the kinds of “skunkworks” that foster creativity and diversity.

Deliberative democracy and the city

Besides the nascent opportunities vested in people and places, what may well be the final frontier of a truly smart (as in intelligent) city is content and discourse. Seeking to burst the filter bubbles, Eli Pariser created Upworthy, “on a mission to change what the world pays attention to”. It curates news you should read rather than just “the news you want” to read.

Another illustrative example is Rebecca Ross’s project London is Changing. Large digital displays visualise local community voices and juxtapose diverse opinions about the impact of gentrification in London.

A digital billboard displays local community voices and diverse opinions about gentrification in London. Image: London is Changing.

To uphold a citizen’s right to the digital city and strengthen the role of cities in a deliberative democracy, cities should empower citizens to be smart. Smart cities should allow us to get lost and find new places, to meet strangers who may become new friends, and to engage in discussions with diverse others so we may form new opinions.

Alexandros Washburn observes:

In talking about the anticipational Smart wonders of ‘our city’, we really mean ‘my city’. We confuse the collective with the personal.

If collective, that is, civic intelligence is what makes cities smart, we need more serendipity engines. Smart cities should be open and agile and employ what Bob Dick calls “dialectical processes” and what Anna Cox calls “design friction”.

That way we may change algorithmic filters for the sagacious discovery of diversity in the city. Diversity fuels innovation, and innovation is what we need to be sustainable.The Conversation

Marcus Foth is professor of urban informatics at Queensland University of Technology.

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

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.