Should smart cities be sharing cities?

sharing citiesSmart Cities are springing up all over the globe, especially in the southern hemisphere. India is building new cities full of technology to house its ever-growing population. But some commentators are starting to question the premise of smart cities.

Technology vs people

Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, Medford, MA, has written a book on the subject, together with a freelance researcher and consultant,  Duncan McLaren. Their book, Sharing Cities, due to be published next year, argues that nowadays almost every city claims to be ‘smart’. Heavy investment  in technology is designed to make each city more competitive and attract more business. However, mayors and developers get distracted by technology, and forget people, at their peril. If they do, ‘smart’ quickly becomes ‘stupid’.

Agyeman and McLaren have studied cities around the world before drawing these conclusions. They suggest that focus on technology can increase inequality and undermine social co-operation. Truly smart cities will be those that use technology to promote community sharing. But when you look, the move seems to be in the opposite direction.

For example, in India, there are 24 planned new smart cities, designed to provide accommodation for the growing population. But development on one, Dholera, has stalled. Why? Two reasons. First, the engineering challenges of building on salt flats, with a high chance of flooding. Second, the villagers and farmers who live on the planned site of the city, who are peacefully protesting about the loss of their land, supported by a grassroots land rights movement. Evicting them from land likely to flood is not smart thinking.

And it’s not just a problem in the developing world. In London, Shoreditch’s Tech City, intended as a hub for technological development, is occupied by Google, Cisco, Intel and McKinsey. Not exactly struggling start-ups, but there to take advantage of the relatively low rents. But the start-ups have been displaced as the rents have been driven up.

Sharing is common sense

As cities grow and spread around the world, and more and more people live in them, sharing makes more and more sense. After all, we don’t all need to own everything ourselves. Indeed, we can’t afford to do so, in either financial or space terms. And technology makes it easier to find others with whom to share, via online communities such as airbnb, or car-sharing sites.

But increasingly, Agyeman and McLaren suggest, sharing for sharing’s sake has been overtaken by sharing for economic gain. Is the collaborative consumption movement succumbing to the lure of money?

The answer seems to be both yes and no. Yes, in the sense that many of the most well-known sharing companies have accepted venture capital, and therefore are focused on making a profit as well as simply collaborative consumption in its purest sense. For example, Taskrabbit, originally conceived as a way for neighbours to share tasks, has become more like a temping agency. Uber, originally a ride-sharing company, is becoming like a taxi company. Even airbnb, the ultimate in person-to-person, has been adopted by landlords buying property solely to let it via the site. Does this matter? Yes, it probably does, because it reduces social cohesion, and it also devalues the person-to-person contact that is the foundation of collaborative consumption. And that removes trust, the key building block of relationships.

But all is not lost. Although these ‘early’ models may have turned to the market, other models are springing up in their wake. Freecycle still does great business, and it’s free. No economic advantage to anyone there. ‘Repair cafes’, bringing together those with skills with those who need help repairing something, are springing up all over. Kiva City provides free loans to local social businesses. Perhaps the sharing economy is still alive and well, just evolving.

A wider need for sharing cities

But perhaps this split in the collaborative and sharing economy demonstrates a wider point. There is a place for city leadership to signal what kind of city they want: open, collaborative and sharing, or driven only by hard economics. They can, for example, support community schemes that work around sharing, such as Landshare, and other local shared land-use schemes, facilitate car-sharing on a smaller scale, or, like Medellin in Colombia, enable shared Rapid Transit Systems. Supporting community schemes, and emphasising sharing, would go a long way to supporting the growth and regrowth of genuine communities, running on trust and old-fashioned ‘community values’. In the long run, it sounds a lot smarter to support sharing.

Image credit: Stephen Coles

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