“One of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK”: Saskia Sassen on Manchester

Manchester from the north. Image: Getty.

Manchester’s character, achievements and history were woven into Tony Walsh’s The Place, a poem that Walsh – conjuring the city’s pride, passion and defiance, its unity in diversity – recited to thousands of people who had thronged to the city’s Albert Square following the attack on the Manchester Arena.

Manchester is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the UK and has a long history of migration from different parts of the nation, mainland Europe and the rest of world.

During the Industrial Revolution, large numbers of Irish migrants arrived in Manchester, followed by European Jews fleeing persecution in the 18th and 19th century. Arrivals from the Caribbean and South Asia followed World War II, preceding waves of migrants from former colonies in Africa, such as Asians from Uganda and Kenya.

In the early 2000s, many skilled workers from Europe, India and West Africa were attracted by employment opportunities in Manchester – as IT professionals, for example, helping transform the city into a tech hub for the north of England. Many were also drawn to the health and care sector: many nurses come from countries outside the EU, making a vital contribution to the NHS.

These arrivals have transformed the economy, the culture and the social landscape of the region through their businesses, diverse cultural communities and the mixing of global cultures. This can be seen from Manchester’s “curry mile” in Rusholme, its Chinatown, the vibrant Northern Quarter, the “gay village” along Canal St, and many East European delicatessens.

The contributions of migrants to the region needs to be recognised, not just in terms of their labour but also the wider benefits. For example, one Indian nurse’s efforts through working with hospitals and communities has boosted organ donation among South Asians in the region.

A resilient city, but unequal

The IRA’s 1996 bombing of the Arndale Centre in Manchester was a turning point, bringing substantial funds to help regenerate areas of the city. The Manchester Arena attack is a reminder that the city holds great promise and opportunity, but also challenges. Throughout that dreadful night, heartwarming news spread quickly of how Manchester’s citizens, from local businesses and Sikh temples, from taxi drivers to homeless men helped provide safety, shelter and transport for those caught up in the bombing. This social solidarity reveals a Mancunian spirit that crosses class, ethnic and religious boundaries.

The Beetham Tower, not everyone’s favourite landmark. Image: Sykerabbit77/creative commons.

Manchester aims to become a top 20 “global city” by 2035, with tremendous investment in transport and infrastructure, transforming the city into a north west hub or “Northern powerhouse”.

Yet we should ask if the vision that Manchester’s leaders have for the city embraces all the groups that make up the city’s inhabitants? Alongside the huge increase in new developments throughout the city region, there have been increases in poverty, crime rates and homelessness that are as stark as the jagged lines of the Beetham Tower, revealing a city of deeply unequal access to housing, education and security.


Flashpoints and the future

An event celebrating the region, Manchester as Cosmopolis, summed up the rich heritage of the city through but also highlighted concerns following Brexit, the rise of homophobic and racist views, and the effects of economic austerity.

Cities have long been flashpoints for war, racial and religious strife, and conflict between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. But major cities’ capacity to handle internal conflict is suffering in the face of the growth of new types of conflict, notably asymmetric war and urban violence.

Current trends of rising economic inequality, the refugee crisis, and conflict cannot be fully understood in the usual terms of poverty and injustice, but rather through processes of socio-economic and environmental dislocations that displace people and communities across the globe. This process of “expulsion” – of people from their districts and communities through gentrification, or from professional work through de-industrialisation – creates islands of privilege and deprivation, unsettling the social fabric of a city.

For example, the development of vast and visible “luxury zones” in the heart of cities leads to the exclusion of people and families who may have lived there for generations. Such luxury zones may create monoliths or forms of de-urbanisation at the cost of affordable inner-city social housing.

At the same time, densely inhabited city spaces overwhelmed by inequality and injustice can become the breeding grounds for a variety of secondary types of conflicts, from the rise of drug-related crime and violence that Manchester has witnessed, or even the incubation of terrorist sympathies.

The ConversationManchester, like many cities, must forge a future with its communities that will fight off terrorist threats. Government strategies aimed at combating extremism, such as Prevent, have proven ineffective and created more unease and suspicion – even, it has been suggested, leading to more extremism. Cities have long had the capacity to bring together people of different classes, ethnicities and religions through commerce, politics, and civic practices. Contemporary conflicts unsettle and weaken this cultural strength – something Manchester must unite to overcome.

Saskia Sassen is Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Shoba Arun is senior lecturer in sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.