Sane Governance in the Digital City

Sane Governance in the Digital City

This post was created automatically via an RSS feed and was originally published at

This post has been created automatically from a feed, and was originally published at:

“There is a canyon dividing people who understand technology and people charged with addressing the world’s toughest [..] issues, and no one has built a bridge”(Cohen/Schmidt: The New Digital Age)

The Governance Gap

Information travels around the globe in seconds reaching people in many ways, less and less via the morning paper and more and more through alternative cable “news” like the daily show or online and “on demand” journalism or simply through blogs/social media. Opinions and comments are written and published within minutes and an issue might thus become red hot or “viral” in hours.

The digital city (image source not found)

Meanwhile, the manner in which the political process articulates itself has barely changed since Abraham Lincoln’s time. Bills churn through first and second readers, hearings, committee votes while arms get twisted and the pockets of politicians swell from an ever growing torrent of cash. Often it takes months before a final vote is taken. The public has long lost interest in the machinations of the political class, on the local and national level alike.

Rarely are city council decisions based on sound data, usually they are “political”. This word has long turned into an epithet describing the opposite of rational, scientific or reasonable. It is no exaggeration to say that many citizens are disgusted.

Which is curious thing considering that the essence of “political” is derived from the Greek word polis for city. “Political” decisions are also curious because never in human history was it easier to obtain data or create a truly public forum.

The Internet provides the access. While internet access may not be as egalitarian as needed for true democracy, it sure beats lining up in council chambers for a two minute testimony. Or writing to your local councilperson and get a form-letter in response.

Could free information and connectivity on the Internet be an answer to the corrupting influence of money that no campaign finance reform appears to be able to tame? The bulk of the money politicians need for campaigns goes to commercials run by private TV stations. If information comes though the little screens of internet-fueled demand-based “programming” instead of the TV, the high cost of campaigning could disappear, at least partly.

Since we live in the age of cities (a claim made in this blog before and to be further explained in future articles), it is only reasonable to propose that cities also become the incubator for new forms of governance. We all know the old chestnut of “all politics being local”, so what better place to begin to bridge the governance gap than right in our metro areas?

Cities now represent the core hubs of the global economy, acting as hives of innovation in technical, financial and other services. Arup 2011

The gurus of the information elite seem to have picked up on this already. How else to explain the purchase of the Washington Post by Amazon’s Bezos than by a desire to reach into the old channels of politics? (Ok, outright obliteration could be also a goal, reminiscent of the purchase of streetcar companies by the auto industry). The book “The New Digital Age” quoted above gives hints where the journey may go.

It laments the disconnect between the crowd sourced way of new thinking and the way the world is governed. The problem applies any scale of governance including cities, even though there is talk about “smart cities” and not about smart states or countries. Obviously, it would be easier to be smart on a smaller scale.

Cities are, indeed, good testing grounds for politics, both, good and bad. People are directly affected, problems seem somewhat understandable and outcomes are tangible. Of course, on the flip side, local politics are notoriously provincial and often myopic, essentially too local for really good solutions.

Rational planning should consider comprehensive systems that hardly tick according to jurisdictional or district boundaries. The reality, though, is that local resources are scarce and governance is splintered and fragmented. Regional overlays intended to create the appropriate larger framework are typically marginalized and made ineffective by the virtuosi of the local political game.

Can tactical urbanism, Internet journalism, direct action, “open data“, crowd-funding and social networking replace the comfortable business-as-usual model in which the various casts of the power elite scratch each others back within an established system of power-play and paybacks? Can these various types of free form action provide a solution that is at once local and complex and accessible and less corrupted?

From “occupy” to Gezi Park, examples of direct action yield impressive results. Wendy Davis’ recent State Senate filibuster performance at the Austin Capitol, albeit not an urban example, provided an illustration of the intersection between traditional political shenanigans (the filibuster) and direct action powered by social networks (400,000 followed the event on Facebook and Twitter resulting in thousands showing up in person right in the Capitol Rotunda itself.

Before we discuss in detail how the combination of direct action, internet connectivity and social media may, indeed, be able to bridge the gap between the current political system and the new information age, let’s recap the strengths and weaknesses of the urban arena noted above.


  • An obtuse system of bills, hearings, subcommittees and arcane parliamentary rules which are obtuse and impenetrable to most citizens
  • Decision making based on a poisonous melange of established patterns, political arm twisting, nepotism, corruption and power-play instead of data and analysis
  • Myopic overly local views based on election districts, illogical jurisdictional boundaries and election cycles instead of a regional perspective and long-term outcomes
  • Competencies and responsibilities are assigned to siloed departments
  • poor public participation as a result of being poorly informed, disenfranchised, disenchanted or all of the above
  • increasing bifurcation between rich and poor especially visible and abrupt in urban areas


  • Knowledge and information are the drivers of a new economy and require cities as their base
  • Millennials and knowledge industries increasingly make their locational decisions based on quality of life and are trending towards cities as a result.
  • Metro areas are relevant market places that interact globally
  • Local governance, sluggish as it may be, is still nimbler than states or nations. As a result, city or metro policies are often ahead of those of states and nations
  • Global urbanization continues guaranteeing growth for many cities
  • Cities are suitable test areas for “action before regulation”
  • Climate change and resiliency requirements strengthen cities over rural or suburban areas due to their inherent redundancy and willingness to address these issues
Diagram trying to illustrate the complexity of the information based city
(Source: Hitachi)

What can be expected

The tension between how things are done versus what would be possible will lead to tension which may fuel additional innovation. The status quo will increasingly be challenged from outside the classic checks and balances of democratic systems and constitutions.

Occasional elections or referenda won’t be sufficient for the public voice to be heard or for local systems to adapt quickly enough to a changing world. Increasingly the public will get organized outside the traditional arena of parties, unions or churches in ad-hoc interest groups based on specific conditions and conflicts that may arise locally, spread quickly and decay equally swiftly.

Cities with their limited scale, their easily identifiable constituents and somewhat shorter verification-falsification timeline are the ideal testing ground for new technologies, innovation, parallel elements of governance, direct action, experiments and unavoidable failures.

The emerging digital city will provide networks, connectivity and data that will provide the spark for alternative and new organizational models based on spontaneous action, emergence, crowd sourcing and feedback loops. In a time where real time data trump experience the digital city may not necessarily create a whole new way of governance. More likely, the regulatory system will increasingly be augmented and occasionally undermined by what becomes obvious through the universal availability of data.

Governance will happen less and less by describing all possible scenarios “a priori” (as traditional planning has done through zoning, masterplans and design guidelines) and more often be able to model proposed solutions and test them for desired outcomes. In short: Governance of the digital city will be influenced on two tracks:

  1. New forms of how people organize (resulting in direct action and increased participation);
  2. Data availability will reverse planning from an approach that tries to nail down a projected future to one that is more open ended.

Below I will try to describe examples for both of these tracks.

Examples of Direct Action

  • An example of such a movement taking hold locally with a lose international link through social media and internet connectivity is the already noted “occupy” movement that came about as a result of the financial crisis. The movement flourished quickly across the US and other countries. Actions where largely limited to larger cities. As fast as the movement spread it also collapsed, no permanent structure emerged to date.
  • Another example, this one totally local, is the Stuttgart 21 movement against a large urban renewal and federal transportation project in Stuttgart. I mention it here because it has reached global notoriety, unprecedented resonance across generations, parties and classes and a strong presence in the Internet. The protest movement in Stuttgart, a south German city of a bit more than 600,000 residents in a 2.5 million metro area, have transferred two key local positions (A big city mayor and a rich state governor) to opponents of the project as a result of well organized opposition. This came to pass even though the main objective, killing the transportation project has not (yet) been achieved.
  • Another, but much larger movement, arising from bad urban planning, is the fight about Istanbul’s Gezi Park which has explicitly made references to Stuttgart 21. The Turkish movement has spread to other large Turkish cities and expanded from an urban planning case to one challenging the national government. The movement has remained urban and did not find any resonance in the rural areas of the country which still dominate the Turkish elections in spite of dramatic urban growth (Istanbul is #7 of the 10 largest cities in the world).

A team of Spanish-Portugese and American researchers discussed internet based direct action in this 2009 paper using a number of older examples.

Digital Space as Social Space

Far more integrated and less “applied” than direct action will be the digitization of “social space” (Lefebvre) itself. Data collection, lies at the heart of the digital or “smart city”. Ubiquitous sensors and comprehensive data connectivity will provide a data rich base for smart decisions.

The Google apps that show traffic congestion or the location of transit in real time are simple examples how data will result in immediate response, smarter action and increased efficiency. Applications for data collection are endless, simple non-controversial applications exist already: For example sensors that transmit the real time occupancy of parking garages and free spaces (an old hat in Europe), car sharing or demand based transit (Uber, group taxis).

Airbnb is an example of the hospitality area where crowd sourced bed sharing has provided more beds than any hotel chain. By aiding Sandy victims, Airbnb unexpectedly became also an effective digital relief action in a real world catastrophe. Some data collection is frightening because it collides with the concept of privacy.

The enthusiasm for data recently received a damper when vast NSA spy and wire-tapping programs became known and started a necessary discussion about “big data” and how large amounts of “blind” data can easily become “seeing” i.e. identify specific people through the addition of just a couple of parameters. (The Boston bomber was tracked retroactively via facial recognition software among thousands of fleeting faces on hundreds of videos once his identity was known).

Technology aside, when it comes to implementation of “smart city” strategies, US cities are behind many cities in what US citizens may consider unlikely places like Malaga or Barcelona, Spain or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Once cutting edge, efforts like Baltimore’s CitiStat are now rather quaint relics.

Here is one list of the “top ten smart cities” globally. Of course, there are many other ways to define smart or digital city, but in most the US are not ahead. The Smart Cities Council provides these best practice case studies as a guide.

Crowd-sourcing has become popular in the urban context as well. Either for idea generation (Spark Festival in Jacksonville, Fla, 150,000 participants) or for “fundrising” (H Street DC project with an RFP for a crowd funded project). While this type of funding won’t alter governance directly, it will enable many to become investors by circumventing the entire established power hierarchy.

This may empower the public to become active in fields previously carefully guarded by a financial elite. While the “crowd” does not necessarily care about boundaries, it is the local scale of the goals that propels them to action. For this, too, the metro scale is perfect.

Creative digitization beyond the practicality of utility data will address subjective matters such as awareness, sentiment about places and comfort. This “fuzzy” field is addressed inArchitecture’s Brave New Digital World.

Once street lights express in their color how citizens feel about themselves or their places (by miningTwitter entries, for example), politicians wouldn’t need polls to see how the wind blows. Those type applications merge Cohen/Schmidt’s bi-polar digital and “real” world.

These trends are still very much in the beginning and largely limited to geeks and artists. It isn’t yet clear how those blurred digital and analog lines would change the governance of cities. They may further fuel those direct feedback loops which activists have already used to grow actions exponentially and much faster than the established powers are able to react. They may alos allow to create fluid real worlds that can change and respond in the blink of an eye.


While one can easily see how the digital world can empower and equalize especially through access, information and horizontal connectivity, the down-sides begin to take shape as well, notably the loss of privacy, the danger of information abuse but also the loss of identity through too much fluidity. The city with its anonymity provided the freedom that the village without privacy could not offer (Tonkiss, Space, the City and Social Theory).

We need to think hard if we want to turn the world into global village with the associated loss of anonymity and freedom. The sense of “home” comes from recognition. If cities will occupy several realities at once and fluidly move back and forth between them, recognition may become impossible and with it the identity of space and the comfort recognition provides.

While unprecedented spread of knowledge and availability of data enables ad-hoc structures and instant change, it is hard to see how this helps the increasing need for the long view, for patience and for thoroughness. While more data will certainly allow decision making that is less arbitrary, leadership could be stifled by the abundance of data. Historically leadership meant a gut level ability to cut through the maze, simplify and arrive at needed action in a reasonable time.

Ideally the city may become the place at the intersection of data rich analysis and experience based decision making, change and preservation, fluidity and permanence. Certainly a difficult balance. Looking for examples, Shanghai may come to mind as the one extreme, Paris as another. Closer to home, Houston as an exponent of fluidity, San Francisco as one of preservation.

The eager gurus of the information revolution overlook the benefits of slowness, the need for the brain to digest, settle and ferment facts and ideas. They have not yet come to terms with creativity as an essentially non digital phenomenon which, much like quantum leaps or “phase transitions” is somewhat unpredictable and little understood.

Creativity, the sudden “eureka moment” and unpredictable insight are the very elements that still separate the human from the computer. Connecting previously not connected data, though, is certainly a source of creative sparks.

The belief that more data, faster processing and additional information will automatically make a better world is ultimately dangerously naif. Neither nature nor humans aren’t only good. Real interest conflicts exist between individuals, classes, nations and species and not all of those differences will be resolved in global digital harmony. Paradise, seemingly around the corner, will remain elusive once again. This should not stop us from dreaming, gaining knowledge and improving governance, though.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Related articles:

Links related to the topic:

Tagged with: , , , ,