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The Future of the Crowdsourced City

Detail of the Institute for the Future's "Planet of Civic Laboratories." [1]

Yesterday, a group of urbanists, technologists, designers and urban planners gathered at the offices of the Rockefeller Foundation [2] to discuss the future of the crowdsourced city. Four presentations focused on forecasting the benefits, tensions and pitfalls of mining the data that humans generate as they go about their daily lives at a variety of scales — global, national and urban.

First was a summary of a report, “The Future of Cities, Information and Inclusion,” authored by the social sector office of the global management consultancy McKinsey & Company [3], that offers a survey and taxonomy of how cities around the world are making progress in urban informatics. The second explained a “map” produced by the Institute for the Future [4], entitled “A Planet of Civic Laboratories,” that illuminates the “innovations that will harness urban data to reduce poverty and promote inclusion.” The third delved into a couple of case study projects of the Spatial Information Design Lab [5] that use various kinds of data to reveal those invisible geographies that link the social city to the physical city. In the final presentation, Clay Johnson [6] raised some of the political and managerial challenges to realizing the potential of technological advances to deliver more efficient and effective governance.

Before the presentations began, Benjamin De La Peña of the Rockefeller Foundation set the context by referencing the Foundation’s long history with funding new ways of responding to urban change, from giving an unknown Jane Jacobs a grant to finish the book that would become The Death and Life of Great American Cities to investing in innovative economic development programs in the Global South.

He cited UN Habitat [7]’s ubiquitous urbanization statistic – that over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas – and then quickly re-contextualized this over-cited figure by juxtaposing it with a sobering stat from the world of information technology that bears huge implications for how we will deal with urbanization in years to come: Between dawn of humanity and 2003, roughly five exabytes (an exabyte is one billion GB) of information were created. Now, we generate that amount every two days. With that amount of information produced by an incalculable number of sensors embedded in the material of everyday life, from toll booths to cash registers to cell phones, the Rockefeller Foundation and its co-presenter, CEOs for Cities [8], want to know: how will this information affect how we perceive and manage cities? And in what ways might any of this benefit the poor and vulnerable?

The McKinsey people performed like impartial social scientists: explaining their methodology (reviewed published literature! Interviewed 65 experts! Classified 200 examples of current deployments of urban informatics around the world!) and categorizing their findings into neat categories of benefits and barriers. Their examples ranged from mobile electronic systems integration in Istanbul that speed police response to electronic handsets used by New York City’s Department of Homeless Services.

The first question the report asks is, who benefits? Seems like just about everyone. Citizens can profit from direct economic and social benefits, some of which are tailored to local needs, and some of which might empower citizens to engage and participate more fully in public life. Policymakers and administrators can rely on good data for better operational decisions and increased transparency. Nonprofits can expect greater efficiency and effectiveness, while at the same time playing new roles in increasing digital literacy and access. And the private sector can capitalize on talent and infrastructure advantages and rely on cities as important customers and as demonstration opportunities for new devices and applications. Every sector benefits because the benefits themselves are so broad: urban informatics can provide faster and cheaper services and improve coordination between planners and service delivery through data sharing, centralized analysis and the reduction of redundancy and transaction costs. Furthermore, the information itself is not just more abundant but is also of higher quality. What exactly defines higher quality was never made explicit.

The final stated benefit brought the ideas back to the stated keywords of the event – crowdsourcing and inclusion – by asserting that urban informatics provides new opportunities for collaborative problem-solving and engagement. Bringing in new pools of problem-solvers not only strengthens the process itself but also increases the likelihood that solutions will reflect the priorities of stakeholders.

OK, so everybody wins? Not so fast. The barriers are manifold. For these benefits to be reaped, certain mindsets must be overcome: tech developers lack a familiarity with cities’ needs; municipal agencies are risk-averse and are plagued by a structural incapacity to coordinate across siloes; and citizens’ groups are traditionally slow to adapt to new technologies. And then there are the resource constraints: funding, talent, infrastructure and access. The access issue is not just about affordable devices, of course. Digital illiteracy will widen the digital divide and accelerate exclusion. And the speed of technological change will only accelerate the isolation of certain cities and individuals as urban informatics becomes more and more central to the functioning of government, commerce and society at large.

The presentation ended with some suggested principles and actions that were simultaneously encouraging and obvious: put citizens first, multi-faceted approaches work best, etc. The context they provided of what is currently going on in world of urban informatics set the stage for the second presentation, in which a Rockefeller-funded report on the future of cities, information and inclusion outlined what we have to look forward to, and to fear, ten years down the road.

Anthony Townsend and Rachel Maguire, both from the Institute for the Future, began by claiming that the experimental period in urban informatics that we find ourselves in is likely to continue for the next decade. This condition results in what they, somewhat optimistically, label a Planet of Civic Laboratories, where the urban poor of the Global South roam through slums with smartphone supercomputers in their pockets and global technology is adapted to meet local needs.

They structured their presentation (zoom into the embedded version above) in the same matrix format as the report they were summarizing, with “scales” on the x-axis – people, networks, environments – and “drivers” on the y-axis – commons, markets, design and planning and governance. This format, and its striking graphic design, demonstrated well the simultaneity of major realms of advance (i.e. the good news for the inclusion and justice folks) and key tensions that will bedevil the realization of these forecasts.

The predicted advances are plotted on the matrix as large, brightly color-coded circles that declare what the future will look like in attractive, aspirational phrases like “democratized public safety” and “anticipatory health,” followed by detailed descriptions of a future where technology has made the world a kinder, more responsive place. The tensions, on the other hand, appear small, lack explication, and float free of the matrix’s rows and columns. They are described as concise oppositions (“Visible vs. Actionable,” “Identity Safeguarding vs. “Public Good”) linked by arrows that dubiously suggest a chicken and egg cycle of causation or, perhaps, simply make clear that you can’t have one without the other (as in the case of “Economy Gap” vs. “Knowledge Gap”). Townsend, Maguire and their co-authors go into more detail in the full report; check it out here [11] (PDF).

One of these oppositions struck me as especially pertinent to any responsible discussion of the opportunities that the crowdsourced city presents: “Cooperation vs. Offloading.” As technologies empower networks of individuals to take care of those non-emergency services that governments have provided in the immediate past, to what extent will the suspension of public services match the abilities of citizens to pick up the slack?

The next presentation, by Laura Kurgan and Sarah Williams, grounded the afternoon’s proceedings in examples from one particular body of work, that of the lab at Columbia that Kurgan and Williams co-direct [5]. But before delving into projects like Architecture and Justice [12] and others that collect, analyze and communicate specific stories with fine-grained data, Kurgan sounded a note of caution about the data optimism that permeated the room and the previous presentations. While visualization and data have recently become cool, the former is defined while the latter is not. For her part, Williams seemed a bit less ambivalent than her colleague about the role data can play in providing for the public good. She raised the important topic of creating strategies and policies for using crowdsourced and commercial data when government data is not accessible or doesn’t exist.

Overall, the Spatial Information Design Lab’s work is powerful testament to how carefully and strategically choosing which data set to analyze and spatialize (looking at the home addresses of convicted criminals as opposed to looking at traditional crime data, for example) is as important as the technological ability to collect that data in the first place. As we lean into a future of infinitely more data, it seems to me that fostering a sophisticated conversation about how best to promote tough analytical choices between distinct data sets is crucial to excavating the benefits from a world awash, if not submerged, in automatically generated information.

The final presentation of the day zoomed out from specific urban-scale projects to national political culture. Clay Johnson, founder of Blue State Digital [13] and Big Window Labs [14] and a former director of Sunlight Labs [15], has been interviewing Chief Information Officers at governments around the country in an attempt to understand why government creates so much cost around technology. His broad-stroke comments reminded the audience of who was not in the room and not at the table generally in conversations about data, informatics and governance.

Organized labor, he stated strongly and clearly, is a big problem for the crowdsourced city. The rhetoric of efficiency and of do-it-yourself public services often flies in the face of those things labor unions are sworn to protect: jobs. Another conspicuous absence from similar discussions is Republicans and the South. And the failure to engage these constituencies runs the risk of equating, in the popular imagination, technologically-enabled municipal renewal with political progressivism. In other words, the failure of the community of people who care about this topic to talk to people unlike themselves means that any attempts to create political, legislative change will be blocked from both the left and the right.

Johnson had some concrete suggestions for how governments and electoral campaigns can start to shift the culture, particularly by recognizing that information technology, strategic communication, and new media production are distinct skillsets and should be recognized as such in the organization of any government office or campaign. The combination of his irreverence and his pessimism was alternately comic, depressing and reassuringly practical and led the audience into a lively question and answer session that touched on issues of urban morphology, the basic survival needs of slumdwellers and the difficulties of navigating the nexus of corporate interests, privacy concerns and the public good. At no point was the difficulty of defining what the public good is or what inclusion really means addressed. Perhaps those are questions for which we should mine the wisdom of the crowd? Or perhaps what this conversation needs now is debate about what’s desirable, not only what’s possible.


Cassim Shepard is the project director of Urban Omnibus. He makes non-fiction media, especially films and video, about architecture and urbanism. He lives in Brooklyn.