- To plan or not to plan: The socio-technical Shaping of future Cities    click here to open paper content60 kb
by    Firmino, Rodrigo & Camargo, Azael | rodrigo.firmino@pucpr.br   click here to send an email to the auther(s) of this paper
Short Outline
This paper aims to explain some challenges posed to planning, as it is systematically disengaged from public administrations. This has resulted in a fragmented treatment of space and the use of outdated planning instruments to deal with new progressive urban and technological interventions.
Writing about augmented reality is no longer novelty. Increadibly miniaturized technologies are becoming increasingly common, and what Mark Weiser (1991) called ubiquitous computing is forcing us thinking about not just a reality that was expanded but also about an augmented space (Manovich, 2002). As many commentators argue (Virilio, 1994; Levy, 1998; Graham and Marvin, 1996; Page and Philips, 2003, among others) interactions triggered by ICTs are not replacing other traditional types of communication, but rather expanding them.
This expansion of our ability to communicate has been compared to unlimited extensions of our own bodies and boundaries (Mitchell, 2003). Particularly within urban studies, concepts, ideas, predictions, models and metaphors have been mushrooming, as researchers have tried to re-conceptualise the city under the information revolution.
However, according to Michael Batty, the uncertainty about the relation between ICTs and cities ‘is increasing at a faster rate than our ability to adapt research methods to these new circumstances’ (Batty, 1990: 130). This scenario of incapacity for fully comprehending our ongoing reality has left margin for crucial questions about our ability to plan and manage contemporary cities, such as: What are the challenges posed to urban planning and governance? How much involvement and commitment from planners and local authorities has been dedicated to urban technology? How seriously has the role of ICTs been taken into account within planning activities?
Planners and planning departments are increasingly loosing their importance within contemporary public administration, as exaggerated reliance on technical and design practices continues to fragment the public treatment of space. This process is being affected in such a way that only urban design, transportation and infrastructure issues are entrusted to planning departments, with little or no consideration of social and cultural implications. Koolhaas and Mau (1995) argue that planners and, in fact, urbanism are outdated, and that both failed to keep pace with the rapid modernisation of urban space.
Many studies (Graham and Dominy, 1991; Spectre 2002; Aurigi, 2005; Firmino, 2005) show that ‘proactive’ planning initiatives related to ICTs, tend to appeal to the ill-grounded utopianism of technological deterministic approaches. This, in turn, tends to create more distrust and scepticism from other municipal departments and civil servants about the involvement of planning in urban-technological strategies.
Interestingly, studies by Aurigi (2005) and Firmino (2005) show that some visions for the use of ICTs within urban strategies have been more common than others. Economic models that emphasise the entrepreneurial imperative of public initiatives seem to be a very common driver. Infrastructure and ‘visible’ elements of ICTs, then, gain more relevance than those elements and infrastructure which cannot be seen. Invisibility plays its part on the way ICTs are generally interpreted by planners and local authorities.
The symbolic meaning of ICTs is so powerful that even ‘fake’ projects are built to exhibit a high-level use of ICTs in the attempt to attract companies, business people, funds, or simply attention. Graham and Marvin prefer to call it a ‘cosmetic reason’.
Recently in many municipalities around the world, there has been a wave of public initiatives regarded as best-practices of policies for a so-called digital inclusion strategy which, local authorities argue, is to be followed by a broader process of social inclusion. Public participation is one of the main elements in such policies, and is one of the first assets to be cited in local authorities’ discourses. As ICTs have become an economic competitive advantage for attracting inward investments, many of these initiatives tend to be supported by Graham and Marvin’s cosmetic reason. And so, possible strategic roles of ICTs within the urban agenda would be compromised by a more immediate and superficial application.
This is what a cross-national research with four case studies (two European and two Brazilian cities) on the sociotechnical shaping of urban-technological development policies has shown. This study focused on the way local authorities and planners are looking at ICT issues in terms of visions, physical and digital initiatives, and policy. The elements of public participation as well as consideration to physical public places were regarded as two of the main issues researched from within initiatives related to ICTs.
Previous results point towards the global tendency of using ICTs as economic competitive advantages, as shown in other studies, and the immense difficulties of planners in dealing with invisible and rapid-changing elements of the contemporary city. The Brazilian cases are even more symbolic in this sense, as the initiatives being marketed for investments attraction are, in most cases, directed for tackling of the digital divide. There is, then, an interesting paradoxical relation between the main drivers of public ICT strategies. On the one hand, digital and social inclusion as well as public participation in decision-making processes are said to be broad objectives while, on the other, local authorities market such initiatives as competitive advantages for attracting people and companies wanting to move in to these particular places.
Therefore, this paper aims to explain, first, the challenges posed to planning and governance in the way these activities are historically being fragmented and dismantled across public administration, while missing the pace of technological developments in the city. Our ability to manage the contemporary city is what is being questioned. Second, we move on to observe some concrete cases in which planners and local authorities of well-developed cities in Brazil, Belgium and the UK have been faced with these challenges, and how they have managed to cope with it, while dealing with public participation and designing public places. Finally, a third part draws some conclusions and recommendations that might help us understand and better plan the contemporary city.
Urban-technology, urban planning, public policy, Information and Communication Technologies
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