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<nettime> John Thackara & Sunil Abraham: Can dynamic cities be democrati
Patrice Riemens on Sat, 14 Jun 2008 14:14:50 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> John Thackara & Sunil Abraham: Can dynamic cities be democratic?

In an interview in/ for Cluster magazine (http://www.cluster.eu)

Mind well that most criticism raised by both interviewees point to
an answer of the "it's not a bug, it's a feature" kind. in the way
of a better society, and of a better life in general (never mind the
poor and oppressed) stands the relebntless desire of the decision
makers for intermediation, certification, and control. Intermediation
ensures revenues (fat commissions, hence ban 'havala'), certification
ensures 'your' people come in and not those hated outsiders, control,
prefereably of the absolute type, ensures power, and its absolute form
the ultimate wet dream: extermination (oh boy, there we go again...;-)

Thinking about the fact that supermarkets have only 3 days worth of
food in stock - or so they think (and when the chips are down, it's
gone in three hours) - is really helpful.

cheers or not, patrizio and Diiiinooos!

(original at:

Can dynamic cities be democratic?

Cluster: What role does design play when it comes to creating
democratic cities?

John Thackara (JT): All cities are part of a larger ecology of
resource extraction, energy use, environmental impact, waste flows,
and social networks. The rules that govern how this larger ecology
works - or not - are political rules shaped by an era in which
we could burn cheap fossil fuel while ignoring the ecological
consequences. That era is now over, and its eco-cidal politics (and
economic development) have become obstacles to our survival. The only
meaningful task of design, now, is to help people transform the ways
they obtain food, energy, materials, and water - in cities, or outside
them. This kind of design is of course ?political? in that it opposes
the demands of industrial society for limitless resources in a world
whose carrying capacity is finite. But ecodesign - and hence, eco
politics - is about new ways of inhabiting places; it is not about new
ways of organising representative government.

Sunil Abraham (SA): The state and the judiciary can either build
or destroy democratic cities through policy formulation and
implementation. For example, planners of public works, such as
transportation systems, determine the mobility of the poor which then
determines the extent of their financial and political engagement
within the city. There is a new dimension today as governments turn
digital; participation in the market and in governance will now
depend on the design of the ?information city?. Where the state
or city governments base infrastructures on proprietary software,
proprietary standards, surveillance and censorship technologies, the
result is less democracy. On the contrast, public Wi-Fi, telecentres,
cyber-cafes, municipal broadband and other forms of shared access have
a democratizing effect on cities.

Cluster: What actions are needed to create a city which is tolerant
and open to all citizens?

JT. The drive towards enclosure and privatisation - of knowledge and
ecosystem resources, as much as public space - goes back a long way;
but attacks on the commons are particularly intense right now. The
answer is not to have a leisurely debate about tolerance and city
governance. The answer is to demonstrate, in practice, that openness
and collaboration deliver a better chance of survival. A city food
system is an obvious place to start: growing food in public spaces,
sharing knowledge about how to prepare and store it, and organising
communal meals to eat it, are easy and practical steps that produce
quick benefits at many levels.

SA. Tolerance of everything and openness to everybody are not
universally accepted principles. This is one reason why globalization
and migration have introduced new complications. Most religions
advocate tolerance in theory, but organised religion can be oppressive
in practice. In Malaysia, Muslim lovers, like their Chinese and Indian
counterparts, arrange for a romantic rendezvous in a hotel - only to
be arrested and publicly humiliated by the morality police (or, in
India, by Hindu fundamentalists). I'm struck that in the digital world
there seems to be greater acceptance of diversity. The anonymity and
privacy afforded by the Internet and the emergence of safe spaces for
different online and off-line communities has contributed to this. The
question is: how then can a physical city also provide for such safe
spaces and systems?

Cluster: To what extent do the city, its pace of life and distribution
of facilities condition the behaviour of its inhabitants?

JT. Speed or slowth are not lifestyle choices. Our ways of life
will not become sustainable just because we decide, as individuals,
to ?slow down?. Slowth will, to some extent, be imposed by events:
escalating energy costs will drive re-localisation more powerfully
than attitudinal change. But sustainability does not mean that fast is
bad, and slow is good. Some forms of speed, such as feedback, or the
implementation of lighter solutions, are desirable. Think of the polio
vaccine; it was disseminated around the world in a few years: we need
to innovate our life support systems just as quickly. In the language
of sustainability, this means changing the word ?faster? to ?closer?
in our design briefs for cities. Moving bodies and products fast is
bad; moving information fast is good. Wireless communications have
an important role to play here. They make it possible to reduce the
distance between people who have needs, and people who can meet those

SA. Speed alone does not guarantee efficiency. Sometimes - it
is better to do less. Remember that the pace of a city is often
determined by economic relationships between those who own and
those who do not own resources. This applies to rents charged for
intellectual property and intangible resources, as much as it does
to rents paid on physical property: the pattern is that the poor are
forced into high-pace lives while the elite can afford to purchase
idleness. In a Vietnamese village, the International Fund for
Agriculture Development [IFAD] tried to introduce a package of loans
and proprietary cash crops. This required additional farm labour
during the afternoons. The villagers rejected the project saying
that they prefer to play volleyball in the afternoons. More equal
distribution of resources allows a city to find its own unique pace.

JT. Exactly: and in a light and sustainable economy we will share
resources - including time, skill, software, or food - using networked
communications. Wireless networks have the potential to help existing
systems of sharing scale up - such as Local Economy Trading Schemes
(LETS) in Europe.

SA. Local systems of barter and non-monetary exchange, such as
Jogjami, have existed in India for at least 500 years. A cooperative
distribution system called Angadia, or ?many little fingers?, enables
people to send goods over vast distances without paying...

Cluster: Many cities invest in the quality of their architecture to
show the world an attractive, dynamic face. The big names and big
projects are given the task of conveying the centrality and ability
of cities to attract high-class players. But the dynamic image of a
city does not always correspond to its ability to make room for the
creative energies of its inhabitants.

JT. Show me a city with a ?dynamic image? and I will show you an
unsustainable city. ?Dynamic? usually means high entropy buildings,
financial speculation on a massive scale, and a low degree of social
participation. From now on, the most interesting cities will be those
whose citizens are able to invest their energy and creativity on
?re-inhabitation? within the unique ecosystems of their place. This
approach will often involve adaptive or more intense uses of existing
infrastructure rather than the construction of signature buildings -
and sometimes this approach will mean building nothing, nothing at
all. To live sustainably we need to place more value on the here and
now: a lot of destruction is caused when design is obsessed with the
there, and the next - and the ?dynamic?.

SA. First, the dynamism of a city can be found in the informal sector
which in most developing countries accounts for 70% of employment.
It is also where legal, technical and market limits and norms
are challenged and redefined as everyday practice. The informal
economy also has a much lighter infastructure. Traditional systems
of trust such as Havala have a smaller carbon footprint because
there is no paper work, no management information systems, no audit
trails and so on. There's pressure from the state to monitor and
tax all transactions based on the assumption that complex systems
of accounting, monitoring and evaluation can and should replace
real-life trusted relationships. The so-called global war against
terrorism has undermined these traditional systems. But in most cases
the informal system is better, faster and cheaper than the formal
alternative. For example - money transfers on the global Havala
network are instantaneous which is near impossible across the legal
banking system. In terms of scale, the Havala network is responsible
for handling a large proportion of remittances from illegal and legal
migrants across the world. Which IFAD estimates is approximately 400
billion annually. Third, non-market micro-economies such as gifting,
barter, collectives and commons in developing countries are more
effective than classical development interventions in addressing
problems of social development. For example, home-based care is
cheaper and more effective than hospice-based care for people living
with HIV/AIDS. I would like to see more celebration of the informal
sector, informal practices and non-market micro-economies.

Cluster: What level do we need to work on to enable European cities to
effectively express their innate creative potential?

JT. Survival. Seriously! We'll need to be creative to eat before
too long. The World Bank reckons 33 countries are at risk of social
upheaval because of rising food prices. In the North we fondly imagine
that we won?t be affected, but I can't get it out of my mind that
supermarkets only have three days supply of food in stock at any one
time...or so they think. Their supply chains are so inefficient and
erroneous that they don't really know.

SA. In my opinion, attitudinal transformation will lead to more
creativity in European cities. Western-style individualism needs to
be re-imagined because we have run out of planet to exploit. Sharing
intangible property such as software, films, music and books is not
sufficient. To reduce our collective carbon foot-print we need to
intensify sharing of tangible property.

Thanks to the Internet and mobile technologies - it is now possible to
share tangible property in a much more granular fashion across space
and time. But technologies are insufficient, because individualism has
to make way for traditional systems of trust and creativity.

JT. We have to escape from this absurd idea that ?creativity? is a
specialised profession limited to people like architects and public
relations consultants. For true creativity, go to shanty towns
in Asian cities: these are sites of intense social and business
creativity. Formal (and therefore expensive) networks of technical
support and maintenance simply don't exist as they do in the North,
so people turn to the temporary fixes, or ?jugaads?, carried out by
street technicians and pavement-based engineers who keep engines,
television tubes, compressors and other devices working. The irony is
that bureaucrats in Asia want to get rid of these so-called suitcase
entrepreneurs - whereas I'm certain we'll need systems like this
ourselves in the not-too-distant future.

Sunil: In European cities culture is often viewed as basically a
public function, insofar as it is free from market logic, but this
preconception risks devaluing all spontaneous forms of expression, or
actively discouraging them with regulations and bureaucracy, or even
preventing them altogether.

JT. I'm not sure that formal culture is free from market logic,
even in Europe. Nearly half the people who visit the British Museum
in London go to its cafe and shop without even looking at the art
exhibitions. In many cultural venues, shops and restaurants are
important revenue streams - and an important part of the visitor?s
experience. Is this a crime against culture? I don't think so: people
eat and trade things at pagan festivals too. The bigger challenge
is that cities as a whole - not just their cultural quarters - have
become spaces for spectacle and consumption rather than work or

SA. I am not sure I understand the question. The act of producing
culture and its distribution by ordinary citizens are tightly
controlled by legal and technical systems - for example - digital
rights management on computers and restrictions on community radio.
The state usually uses arguments of cultural protectionism to
interfere with citizen rights.

Cluster: Recent years have seen the implementation of many
participation-based initiatives to foster people?s involvement in
and contribution to urban transformations. Often these are attempts
to construct public consensus around decisions taken prior to
the initiative in question. Regardless of the efficacy of such
initiatives, in any case they reveal the increasing distance between
the public and decision-making processes. Do you agree with this view?
How is it possible to foster more spontaneous forms of participation?

JT. You are right: a lot of the ?consultation? that takes place during
the evolution of major projects is a shame, and everyone knows it. I
would add that many of the least democratically-decided - and most
eco-cidal - developments are driven by design ?visions?. This takes us
to the heart of the political dimension.

SA. Yes, this is often true. In New Delhi the high court is attempting
to ban the sale of street food, and the government has shifted
many slums to the outskirts as part of the preparation for the
Commonwealth Games. We need to redesign classical multi-stakeholder
public-private-partnerships in ways that differentiate between the
votes cast by organisations representing the elite minority and poor
majority. Crowdsourcing of urban design projects might provide an
environment for more spontaneous forms of participation. Crowdsourcing
is based on the principle that many hands make light work. Usually,
a large and complicated job is broken down into small tasks then
completed by a large number of volunteers.

Cluster: The various examples of sustainable cities, such as BedZED
and Dongtan Eco-City, focus mainly on influencing the behaviour of the
inhabitants, reducing movement, and fostering processes of emulation
and social control that encourage responsible behaviour. The types
of buildings and aesthetic models rationally designed for these
initiatives prefigure highly standardized, if not uniform, cities.
This scenario, possibly inevitable, is a little scary: how can we
reconcile individual expressive space with the need to adopt stricter
environmentally-friendly practices?

JT. What makes these models ?eco? is not their aesthetics, it's
the ways they organise space and time, and material and energy
flows. For me, the problem is not the danger of uniformity, it's
that they are not models that can be scaled up on a global scale.
Foster's Masdar project in Abu Dhabi is an extreme example of the
problem: yes, it will be a new eco-city - but it will also be a gated
community for rich people; the 50,000 people who will live in Masdar
are theoretically worth about $17m each, and their fellow citizens
are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than
any other people in the world (apart from David Beckham and John
Travolta). Masdars and BedZeds are useful testbeds - but it's not
feasible to build them in multiples for six billion people. A better
place to look for future models is in marginal communities where
people look after and live with ecosystem services in a practised and
creative way. That's a sample group of half the world's population,
by the way. Living on the edge is about survival, not about personal
expression - but it is nonetheless socially rich in many other ways.

SA. This reminds me of a visit to the Singapore Management University
during the celebration of a ?Bohemian Week?. Each student was given
a 1 foot x 1 foot tile on a graffiti wall. This type of tokenism
toward individual expression is meaningless. At the same time
environment-friendly practices cooked up by centralized policy-makers
may only be a sophisticated excuse to displace and marginalize the
poor. For example, most wildlife conservation efforts transform
indigenous forest populations into slum dwellers. The key to
sustainability is in-situ design expertise and this by definition
is incompatible with large-scale standardization and uniformity.
Standardization and uniformity like the hygiene fetish in western
civilization extracts a heavy price from the environment. The
by-product of super cleanliness is super dirt.

Cluster: The new world order seems to have generated an unstoppable
acceleration in the race towards cities. What can be done to stop the
growth of megacities? Can the things that migrants seek be transferred
out of the city, extending the effect of the urban area? Is it
possible to reduce the negative externalities of megacities?

JT. I don't agree that cities will keep on growing. The race towards
cities will come to an abrupt halt when the high entropy systems
that keep them going start to degrade. At the moment it's better,
just, to be poor in a big city than outside it; but that balance
will change - and fast - as it becomes harder to survive in them.
Would you leave the countryside and go to a city filled with empty
supermarkets and hordes of desperate people? Also, don't forget that
mobile communications are transforming the dynamics of subsistence
economics in many developing regions.

SA. I agree with John. Though I am not sure it will come to an
abrupt halt. It is indeed true that location used to determine the
degree and extent of participation - both in governance and in the
market-place. But the rise of Internet and mobile technologies will
reduce the appeal of cities. But still, as human beings - face-to-face
interactions will continue to be important. The solution, however,
is not to move migrants to the periphery. Stopping the growth of
mega-cities requires addressing the myopia of city-based policy-makers
and planners. Hopefully Internet and mobile technologies will amplify
the demands of the rural poor for a greater share of state resources
and attention.

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