From urban illiteracy to technology impact: how do we need to prioritize the quality of the demand and to focus on the emotional side of people’s lives.
This article has a couple of simple messages: in times of abundance (there was never so much wealth in the world) we should be focusing more on quality instead of quantity; and the secret to achieve successful, happy lives must lie in our capacity to distinguish long-term needs from short-term desires. In order to turn these apparently snobbish points into something almost self-explanatory and to connect them to the world of cities we live in today I will comment on today's city making illiteracy and will intentionally reinforce my vision by using several references throughout the text. My goal is to get these themes more and more out there and to instigate people to connect the dots. As an urban strategist that is one of my primary focus: to recognize patterns -even between seemingly divergent ideas- and to discern quality among quantity.
In times of abundance we should be focusing more on quality instead of quantity
“The way we develop, extend and build in many cities worldwide demonstrates that we are becoming urban illiterates.” Jonathan Glancey, 2016 (BDOnline UK). Today's cities prominence (combined with the appearance of decentralized economic systems) will change the way we do certain things. Yet, this urban rise is apparently not being accompanied by real knowledge on how exactly cities must work. It should be pretty much known for all those involved in the smart cities world that the word city has its origin in the greek word polis, which can also be translated as citizenship or group of citizens. As such, it is not hard to understand this concept as something intimately linked to the notion of society composed by a body of citizens connected through the polis=city, the public realm of a political human being. This single historic aspect should be enough to understand what living in the city should symbolically mean or, at least, what cities should be the bastion for: the highest representation of civic life and citizens participation in the city making processes.
The lack of understanding of this aspect -both by ignorance or negligence- represents the first step for the current state of things. If on one side, there is an urgent need to educate people about the meaning of the choice of living in cities -the fight against ignorance-; on the other hand there is the need to “eliminate autism and make everyone neuro-normal”, as referred by the MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito in a joint interview with the former US President Barack Obama to the Wired Magazine. In this interview, Ito states that some of his students actually believe that if they could just make science-fiction, generalized Artificial Intelligence (AI), “we wouldn’t have to worry about all the messy stuff like politics and society.” While this radical notion is not new, I must confess that reading it from the MIT Media Lab Director is a clear sign that the alarms should be fully ringing by now, as we must agree that giving up on society and politics mea ns the end of citizenship and polis=cities as we know it. Is this what we really want?
The secret to achieve successful, happy lives must lie in our capacity to distinguish long-term needs from short-term desires
The impact of technology in our daily lives is increasing at an astonishing rhythm. In fact, as it is pretty much knowledgeable to the majority of the readers of this magazine, the term smart city was coined by the largest technological companies of the market. It is an example of a successful marketing strategy to re-direct investment and generate new business opportunities. Yet, we must not forget that technological literacy is also the ability to understand why, how and for what purposes is technology used. The really important question is: should we do something just because we can actually do it? Or should we try to prioritize on getting the right things done?
On that matter, it always amazed me how Barcelona -one of the smartest cities in the world accordingly to all sort of rankings- continues to reject Uber and Airbnb and denied any kind of tech company major influence. Simultaneously the city banned the creation of more hotels in the city center, admitting a reduction in the number of tourists, and is set to introduce a new local/social alternative currency, despite warnings from Spain’s central bank. In sum, the city is literally fighting for their long-term sustainability and not for short-term profits, considering every idea that contributes to the prioritized path and avoiding disruptions that contradict the well-being of local inhabitants.
Data and information
I know that there is a lot of human behavior knowledge that can be revealed by the synthesis of terabytes of informational data (and how important that is), but simultaneously I have the strong intuition that this data will never be able to inform about what are the real reasons that take people to act and behave as they do and especially what are their desires and ambitions. They can reveal the actual patterns and the exact paths and percentages, but not the hidden, intimate justifications for something to occur.
In an article for the american website TechCrunch.com, the marketeer and futurist Tom Goodwin explains through several examples, from Ikea to rent-a-car and airline companies, why “innovation is in all the wrong places”. In order to get all the available funds for the next-big-but-not-essential-disruption, several companies (both global or start-ups) try to innovate at all cost. And in this intense (re)search “if you spend enough time in the data, you can lose sight of the objective”, as the american author and critic Bill Tancer remembered. The goal is to avoid what Steven Poole wrote to The Guardian: “In the end, (smart cities) will destroy democracy”.
I truly believe there are no secret ingredients in the creation of successful cities. All the cities we love have common denominators and can be described using simple, very low-tech vocabulary.
Why is it so hard for us to admit that disciplines like architecture and urbanism, anthropology and sociology, or even philosophy and psychology, have been studying the human being, communities and cities for centuries? Is their knowledge so irrelevant that should be entirely substituted by STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) disciplines?
Barcelona as example: the city is literally fighting for their long-term sustainability and not for short-term profits
This is another aspect that surprises me every step of the way: why smart city clusters around the globe are managed/ruled almost entirely by technological companies instead of a mix of company types? Is all knowledge on human behaviour hidden behind data? That is assuming we didn’t know anything about ourselves in the pre-internet era... There is no argue about the value of technological improvements and discoveries but more than ever companies need short-term specialists working side by side with long-term strategists and futurists, people that use the not-so-loved arts to explain what data can not understand.
The Good Demand
The philosopher Alain de Botton, founder and director of The School of Life, an agency devoted to emotional intelligence, is one of the increasingly many that have been trying to show how “the forces of production –and therefore jobs, investment and profit– are often at odds with our best interests.” Among The School of Life vast array of texts and videos a specific one untitled “On Good Demand” caught my attention. In this article De Botton explores the hidden forces behind the notion of demand and claims on the usefulness of prioritizing needs instead of desires.
The concept of Demand is commonly understood as a consumer willingness (based on personal choice) to pay whatever price for a specific good or service. It can be applied in almost every aspect of our daily life, as our economy today seems pretty much based on how much do we consume. There are three interrelated aspects concerning Demand that deserves consideration and at least an afterthought.
The first is the fact that demand seems to be tremendously dependent of the quantity of products/services consumed and apparently negligent on the quality of those products/services. Forgive me for another apparently judgmental sentence, but yes, there is good and bad demand. Check, for instance, the amount of rubbish TV programs and magazines available in the market. Do we demand for that? If yes, does anyone believe -even among those who consume it- that is a positive thing for society in a long term? We must not forget, as Alain the Botton remembered, that “the combined purchasing choices of millions of people shapes the kind of society we live in and the kinds of lives most of us end up leading.”
There are very few things as important as prioritizing real needs of citizens
The second interconnected aspect is that we seem to accept that “what people want” is something impossible to change. In fact, that could not be more far from the truth. That would mean that we believe in deterministic forces and do not consider evolution and learning as groundbreaking forces of being human. Good demand is related to choices that are intimately connected with our real long-term needs and not with our short-term consumerist desires. This important distinction (needs versus desires) take me to the third point.
Our society explores this “cognitive flaw” (as Alain de Botton called) in a very unethical way, as a great number of services and businesses are making huge profits selling stuff nobody needs. We may desire something for a moment but in reality we don’t need it. There are always exceptions to the rule, but don’t we all agree that the companies with higher profits should be the ones overcoming our real needs?
This brief explanation on the concept of Demand allows me to go back to the beginning of the story and close the circle. There are very few things as important as prioritizing real needs of citizens. Especially because the great majority of those priorities are linked to the emotional side of our lives. People want to feel safe and happy and want to define their contribution to society in a way that makes an emotional difference, not as part of a predetermined, boring process. The Australian author and Director of The Emotional Economy at Work, Jeremy Scrivens defends exactly that. By adding emotional and social/cultural value to products, systems or processes we can make all the difference. The same was stated by David Roberts, a member of Singularity University in Silicon Valley, in an October 2016 interview to El País: “Emotional abilities will play a very important role in the new economy”.
The smart cities paradigm and buzz is a given. Yet, the meaning of what that really means is not consensual. As described, my argument and dream is that the ones using this epithet in the future will be the ones that were able to prioritize on the quality of the demand and to focus on the emotional side of people’s lives, by discerning what are their real and fruitful needs.
By Carlos M Guimarães
Urban Strategist & Designer; Smart Cities MSc # UdG