It is smart to consider new urban technology as an incentive to redefine urban interests

Author: Rob Ruts

Smartness in cities requires being smart in defining what stands in the way of realizing well thought through urban interests. Safety is such an interest, and a whole industry provides the hardware to observe and detect phenomena that are contrary to it. Being smart subsequently is wisely using the resulting overabundance of data, Big Data. Again, it is an industry in itself that provides for the ways and means to make sense of what sensors and census show.

The sense making obviously requires a set of references. Given a city square a reference might be ‘normal behaviour given the function of a square’. People are mainly seen negotiating the square to either enter a shopping mall or the public transport hub on the other side. They do so on foot, as cycling is prohibited to protect pedestrians.

Sensors can pick up cyclists, and people who choose to use the square as a place to meet each other and talk for a while. Without human intervention software can inform those who enforce rules and regulations on the square about behaviour that is not in line of what is seen as normal.

Moreover, technology gives us increased opportunities to intensify surveillance, also in residential neighbourhoods, picking up on speeding and littering on the one end of the spectrum and signs of radical behaviour of youths on the other. Cameras do the trick, and increasingly sound is being analysed as a source of information.

Again, drawing conclusions and acting upon them require a clear definition of what is and is not the justified norm in terms of behaviour.

Redefining urban issues

I am involved in the start up of an urban innovation laboratory focussing on safety in city neighbourhoods. The municipal government has the urge to invest in being smart, and show the world that there is an advanced attention given to using technology. Being the Silicon Valley of safety and security technology is its goal.

The question now is whether developing smart safety and security technology is to be prime interest in the innovation lab. Or should the search first be for innovative approaches to safety related issues and then see what technology can do?

All too often definitions are tailored to meet technology, instead of vice versa. My proposition is that it is smart to consider new urban technology as an incentive to redefine urban interests such as safety and security. Especially when we –at times literally—zoom into the small scale, into the daily goings on, into the life stories of people, there is a need to re-frame the issues we encounter. Generalised policy qualifications do not work in the complexity of daily life. We need technology to smartly use data that is rich, rather than big.

Radically eliminating all too obvious generalising definitions of what often are a whole range of different stories is part of the art of being smart, albeit it perhaps the less attractive one. What happens when we eliminate ‘radicalisation’ as a term in our urban governance equations? We are then forced to de-generalise phenomena and become smart in using data concerning life stories of young men and women. That forces upon us the need to care, rather than to wait until shots are fired and young people need to be eliminated.

An intended experiment in the new urban innovation lab is to develop an app as a tool for street level professionals to document and make accessible the information gathered while simply being at work in the neighbourhood. The information is to be used not in an effective response to things having gone wrong but enhancing things going rights. The focus will be on conflict resolution, as a neighbourhood that shows the resilience to deal with conflict effectively is a safe, and smart neighbourhood.

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