City Is People

Creative city focuses on attracting and keeping creative inhabitants. Putting people over capital is significant and may serve as a starting point for building more inclusive urban strategies.

In the text “Urban-Development Legends” published in 2011 in the CITY magazine, Professor Mario Polese argues that strategies for building cities based on simple theories reducible to one phrase or sentence never succeed. It should not be a surprise, for the city is an extremely complex thing, impossible to grasp from just one point of view. Nonetheless, such slogans as “creative city”or smart city (the former slightly less than once, the latter a bit more) still seem to organize thinking (above all of politicians or municipal officials). Of course, there are serious theories and projects behind these slogans, but what gets through to politicians and the media is only a pale shadow of these theories and projects. It is easy to ridicule such extremely simplified theories, especially that, as the example of Richard Florida shows, they are not based on research employing unquestionable methodology and their usefulness outside the USA is doubtful. There is also no doubt that an attempt to build a strategy of city development based on just one phenomenon (such as Florida’s “creative class”) can never end well. On the other hand we should remember that the popularity of these theories results from the demand for them. So it is worth our while, after all, to treat them seriously.

If the “creative city” ideas slowly cease to be attractive (it was an interesting model in the first years of the 21st century but since the crisis broke out in 2008 the idea to invest in the urban culture and entertainment is simply unachievable—there is too little money, just as before 2008 it seemed that there was too much money), the smart city idea still seems intriguing. It should be remembered that both “creative city” and smart city are relics of an ideological “third way.” Both models exist in the context of the capitalist (or rather neoliberal) city but it is not the “heroic” neoliberalism from the 1980s, dismantling the welfare state, but its “softened” version, with the inhabitants (not just them, of course) in the center of the project. But the problem lies in defining who these inhabitants are, what their role is and what the relation between the city (in the sense of political and administrative structures) and its inhabitants is. There can be no doubt here—in both models, more markedly in the smart city idea, inhabitants are clients and the role of the city is to serve those needs of the clients as efficiently as possible. It is an obvious rejection of the idea of the city as a Polis, as a self-governing community living within a defined territory. This is a bastardisation of freedom, its reduction to freedom of choice, against freedom of the Polis, which is freedom to shape and invent one’s fate.

Large international corporations, such as IBM or Cisco, have been involved in the development of the smart city idea, so we should not be surprised that the model they are trying to promote is based on the provider-client relationship and the city is perceived as a kind of business enterprise. The logic of enterprise and entrepreneurship seems to be the only thing that the proponents of the smart city see: “How can a country, community and I emphasize, an integrated regional ecosystem, step beyond political boundaries, to release the power of enterprise and entrepreneurship. In short, we need to rethink our definitions, develop resilient communities, and those that are developing new models for public and individual entrepreneurship,” writes Shane Mitchell from Cisco in the text What is a City and how does it get smarter? But entrepreneurship is not the only “obsession” we are dealing with in the discussion on the smart city; much more alarming is the desire for an almost total control of the city and its inhabitants. Brutz Katz from Brooking Institution, at a meeting organized by the World Bank, Urban Age Institute and Cisco in May 2011, said unambiguously, “We have to follow the example of these areas where analysis and using huge amounts of data were employed by cities in the past—I am thinking here about institutions protecting order in the cities…”

I am not trying to say that the smart city is in fact some satanic plan of building a Fascist author itarianism out of Orwell’s 1984. Shane Mitchell co-authored the report Participation, Collaboration, and Community from October 2011, where he paints a new vision of a new model of democracy and participation. And I am sure that his intentions are honest—he invokes the ideas of open source (free software) and peer production (that is a grassroots, “horizontal” city building), to realize immediately that it poses a serious threat to the model of city as an enterprise: “Peer production for commons or commercial use not only presents significant opportunities, but also some threats to existing market and organizational business models. The challenge for both public and private sector leaders is to determine the commercial impact of peer production and decide whether to drive disruptive change or exploit commercial opportunities.”

Where Shane returns to the business model of the city, it would probably be useful to go further and find out if the smart city can offer something more than an improved machine of control and exploitation. We should also consider the question if this idea could be adopted in Poland and other countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

First of all we should note that although both the creative city and the smart city models are centerpieces of capitalist, technocratic thinking about the city, both models contain elements of transgression, going beyond the accepted paradigm.

The creative city idea is by no means about raising the status of minority communities (homosexual index, bohemian index etc.) contrary to conservative visions of community but about the fundamental observation—alluding to the famous phrase by Shakespeare—that city is people. In some opposition to the “capitalism of influence”, based on financial speculations, or on the “traditional” model of attracting outside investment and investors, creative city focuses on attracting and keeping creative and revenue-producing inhabitants. Putting people over capital is significant and may serve as a starting point for building integrated, more inclusive urban strategies. Of course only potentially, depending on how we define creative class and its needs. So despite all reservations we should not unthinkingly discard Richard Florida’s idea.

It is similar with the smart city idea. Although its sources are partly poisoned (control and treating the city as an enterprise/machine), it contains some interesting elements. First, they regard environmental protection—one of the elements shaping or inspiring the smart city is the question of minimizing carbon emissions and pollution (I have also signaled that above), the smart city involves the idea of common access to information and outsourcing the city’s tasks to its inhabitants, so it creates conditions for a genuine democratization of the city.

To what extent can these ideas, developed in Western cities, be used in Poland and cities of our part of Europe? There is no clear answer to this question. The experiences with the creative city idea do not bode too optimistically. The wave of interest in Richard Florida’s work arrived in Poland when in the West his star had already started to fade. The reception of his idea was superficial and slightly arrogant, for example the mayor of Wrocław, Rafał Dutkiewicz, concluded that Florida’s 3Ts (tolerance, talent and technology) require adding a fourth T—identity [tożsamość in Polish]. Also in Łódź the reception and the attempt to “build the brand” of Łódź as a Creative City (the City of Creative Industries), except for spending a lot of money on the strategy itself, has not brought (perhaps it will) any significant changes in the way the city functions and is managed. And one can seriously doubt if the aim posed for the strategy (“In the case of the strategy for the brand of Łódź the aim is to extend and develop the creative sector, thanks to which a strong image of the city will be shaped”) really is an implementation of Richard Florida’s idea or rather a kind of simulacrum where the city just pretends to be a creative city, while in fact it returns to the model rejected by Florida, that is to a strategy based on attracting direct investment.

The smart city has one more aspect, which we cannot ignore—technology is a fundamental factor of change, without a technological revolution (involving companies supporting the idea) the smart city will never emerge. And again it is not just the problem of a certain (unquestionable) technological backwardness of Poland, but also the question of how you can empower cities when the necessary tools are provided by global corporations. For if we treat the ideas of Internet of Things and Peer Production seriously, IBM and Cisco would have to offer the initial impulse and infrastructure, and then gradually lose it for the sake of the inhabitants. Otherwise, we would be dealing with a structure remindful of a colonial arrangement based on dependency. Can we count on such a withdrawal? It seems very dubious.

Does it follow from the above that all ideas concerning the development of cities worked out and tested in the countries of Western Europe (but also in the USA or Asia) are of no use in Poland and other countries of our region? Absolutely not. We should rather learn not to be just imitators (usually inept) but to creatively adapt and develop ideas of others.

So how could such a creative adaptation of the creative city and smart city idea look like?

Some suggestion is perhaps contained in an anecdote told by Jaime Lerner, the famous mayor of Curitiba (the city sometimes regarded as the original model of the smart city), who transformed this city by means of his unconventional policy. One of his most important projects concerned public transport—instead of building a metro, for which there was no money, he extended and strengthened the system of public buses, which started to run more often (in some cases every three minutes). Bus stops were designed to facilitate rapid ascending and descending. It meant that buses had to stop in a precisely defined spot. To guarantee this precision, various companies offered technologically refined and expensive solutions. Jaime Lerner trusted the bus drivers and he chose a strip stuck to the pavement by which the bus has to stop. The former mayor assures us that the system works unfailingly.

So if I were to propose a direction in which a Polish (or Central European) Smart/Creative City Model should go, I would suggest focusing on effective solving of inhabitants’ problems, on (another advice of Jaime Lerner) raising the quality of life for all inhabitants (and not just on generating profits—expressed in the sum of the budget—by some abstract “city”). Such a city would be economical and learning from experience, but above all it would trust its own inhabitants, it would be a city where anyone could be and was “creative,” where people living there (and visitors) were the most valuable capital. This is, in my view, the most transgressive and emancipating potential contained in both ideas and it would be extremely foolish not to make use of this potential.

Krzysztof Nawratek

Krzysztof Nawratek is a theoretician of the city, lecturer on architecture, director of M.A. studies at the Plymouth University, UK. He published three books: “Ideologie w przestrzeni” ([Ideologies in space], Kraków 2005), „Miasto jako idea polityczna” (Kraków 2008, English edition, City as a Political Idea, Plymouth 2011) and “Dziury w Całym. Wstęp do miejskich rewolucji” (Warszawa 2011, English edition, Holes in the Whole: Introduction to Urban Revolutions, Washington 2012). He writes a blog: http://krzysztofnawratek.blox.pl .

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