An expert in Urban Affairs, Law and Diplomacy regarding cities, Pablo Chillón closed last year’s Smart Travel event, in Bragança. From “dashboard cities” to “Instagram urban planning,” this Spaniard has warned not only of the negative effects of a purely technological vision in cities, but also of the dangers of the “empty reference” to the role of citizens.
We are witnessing a huge buzz surrounding the concept of smart cities. What sort of cities are we building?
With regard to innovation and technology, etc., the cities I like are those based on several contributions. We are relying on citizens, companies, stakeholders and institutions, both public and private, to outline a project where everyone is somehow involved. Indeed, I don’t believe in purely technological smart-city projects.
Can too much technology threaten to prevent the concept from working?
Technology can be a narrow view of a “smart city,” as it can provide a very small and limited view of the city and of the smart city, as well. It will clash with the concept of complexity, because, if we are in a city controlled from a dashboard [control panel], where any kind of response to an event can be predicted, there is no room for public decision, and democracy is based on possibilities.
How can we escape these “dashboard cities?”
By including a broader view of the city, where the opinion of other suppliers and other non-technological solutions are taken into account. Major technology-supplying companies are currently calling the shots regarding smart cities. If we can somehow recover the traditions, the visions, the authenticity, the history, the community, and ask for intelligence, by providing solutions and decisions based on the collective contribution, made possible by technology, we could obtain a bigger picture of the whole thing.
Do citizens have a decisive role in this?
Yes. Whenever an expert says that citizens are at the heart of smart cities, a tree is felled and dies. There are many commonplaces and understandings regarding the role of citizens. Now, everyone points out the role of citizens within the smart city project, but the way I see it, that’s an empty reference.
The overview would involve not only formally activating participation, doing this and explaining it, but also opening the processes as they are developed throughout. If we ask people to become involved only when the project is already designed, that contribution won’t mean a thing. And while citizens are vital, they aren’t pixels. Many narrow views of the smart city are regarding citizens as mere pixels that move in the city, on a dashboard.
Could social media be a good instrument for finding out what people want?
Yes, this could be a good starting point. There is a lot of information coming from social media, but only concerning people who are active on social media, and cities are also made up of many people who are not in contact with these. Let’s look at digizens: these people are part of two worlds. A youth who interacts with friends and acquaintances through social media and on the Internet, but who returns home for supper with his/her parents and makes this connection with them, explains things to them and expands their visions... That contribution is crucial. We will have to provide [the emergence of] projects where citizens use this technological capability, people whose lives comprise a human part that combines with any access to technology as an experiment. This will be great and very interesting.
How do those in responsibility in cities reach people without including the technological aspect?
First, perhaps by having a vision or a greater understanding of what a smart city is, and what is at issue, the kind of instruments that are available for somehow controlling processes. This is not solely about buying or about money, but about urban planning, services, communities, neighborhoods and all of a city’s capital. As I’ve mentioned, while technology is an enabling element, citizens, communities and companies are key throughout the entire process. In short, relying on the community. Secondly, in my view, starting off by explaining everything to citizens from the very outset, in order to make things very readily understandable by them. I say this because, in Spain, we have worked with cities and mayors who, at the final stage of the process, regret not having involved people from the beginning, which is vital to make things easier.
The event Smart Travel’15 was devoted to small and medium-sized cities. Do you feel that implementing a smart strategy in a city such as Bragança is a bigger challenge than doing so in a large city?
This is a classic question and, in my opinion, in this regard, size doesn’t matter. Interesting things can be done by enlivening the community, investing in the vision, in projects, while organizing events such as Smart Travel, which are somehow stirring things up and providing an image and perception of the city as a modern city committed to innovation. I have worked with small and medium-sized cities that have undertaken very interesting projects that the communities are very close to. When talking about a large city, we can predict that there will be a large swath of the community that will never know this project exists. In such a case, there is greater proximity, as all the tools are available for conducting a proper presentation, explaining [the process] and involving people. And, naturally, as concerns authenticity and the perception of who they are, small and medium-sized cities are greatly linked to their identity, and this is something that somehow gets lost in large cities.
Is identity important for a city?
Yes, identity as well as authenticity. I have spoken of the concept of “Instagram urban planning,” where cities with filters and false perspectives are capturing the imagination of cities all over the world... and that’s not my city. I ask: “dude, where’s my city?”