The City Leaders' Summit: Creating Smart Places for Smart Citizens - Opportunities and Challanges

Are smart cities more inclusive? Could our hunger for new technologies be harming our public spaces?

These were some of the questions explored by Ethan Kent, Senior Vice President at Projects for Public Spaces (PPS), and Daniel Latorre, Senior Fellow - Digital Placemaking at PPS, at the “City Leader’s Summit: Creating Smart Places for Smart Citizens  Opportunities and Challenges.” The Summit, co-hosted by the Future Cities Collaborative and the 2016 Media Architecture Biennale in June, brought together a panel of local and international speakers, and an audience of over 45 government and industry city-leaders.

Ethan and Daniel spoke about the need to develop public spaces collaboratively, and outlined why we struggle to do so. “The limiting factor" according to Ethan “is our collective governance…we need to move beyond siloed outcomes for each department of a city towards a collective goal.”

PPS has worked with hundreds of cities around the world. Despite many having the tools necessary for improving public spaces, Ethan explained that when applied in isolation “many of the elements of smart cities and media architecture can limit participation.”

"Is this the future of cities?" Ethan Kent, Senior Vice President of PPS, questions common projections. 

Central to Ethan's talk, and the placemaking movement overall, is that when “place” is prioritized in a city’s development, “everything is done differently.” This means grounding the development of public spaces in the local community, and building up citizens’ capacity for change.

Daniel addressed a different set of challenges facing the placemaking movement, particularly around our attitude to technology as a “panacea”. He questioned why we repeat the same mistakes again and again when adopting new technologies, suggesting that “the iPhone is the automobile of the last century.” Drawing on Jane Jacobs’ criticism of car-centered urban policies, and the huge ecological and social problems they caused, Daniel cautioned about the side-effects of smart technologies.

Daniel Latorre, Senior Fellow - Digital Placemaking, at PPS, presenting his keynote

On a city-wide scale, adopting new technology requires serious ethical considerations. Daniel urged city-leaders to carefully, and critically, weigh up their decisions or risk introducing “digital cane toads”, a term he dubbed to describe technology that solves one problem but opens many more.

“What sort of digital cane toads are we creating or buying, or are our cities doing contracts with…we are starting to notice these patterns over and over again about a tech centered approach that keeps coming back to bite us right in the butt.”

Daniel offered a policy structure to guide digital placemaking efforts. It centered on putting locals first and prompted us to question whether the digital technology is contextual to place. Does it result in more or less face-to-face interaction, for example? A salient point he made was to argue for software that affects public spaces to be open-source.

Holding on to older, simpler technologies that are still highly functional should also not be considered a regressive step but rather part of the suite of solutions to building smarter cities.

Underlying many of the shiny renderings of a Jetsons-like future, Ethan and Daniel painted a dystopian image, one of social alienation and lack of connection to any particular place. The resounding message from both experts was that a collaborative and critical approach to city-building is key if we are to avoid going down this path.