Remaking the Agora: Citizen Engagement in the Age of Smart Cities



Urban development

2021-05-05 11:38:02 1719 0

Mass urbanization is an inevitable reality of our time. Everywhere on the planet, existing cities are growing, and new cities are springing up to accommodate increasing population levels. This unprecedented growth in urban communities has recently seen the rise of ‘smart cities’; cities that use technology to improve quality of life. But with the proliferation of these cities comes an obligation to determine how to develop them to be equitable. To fulfill this obligation, we must determine what concepts these new cities should be built around. One suggestion: the right to the city The idea of the right to the city has been around ever since Henri Lefebvre introduced it in his 1968 book Le Droit à la Ville. In it, he is critical of the transformation of urban space and governance into exclusive goods, a phenomenon he traces back to capitalism. Lefebvre saw that cities had not developed into places where citizens could take part in social life and community; the fabled agoras, meeting places where citizens of Ancient Greek cities would discuss and vote on issues, had been reduced to arenas of consumption. It is out of this narrative that the idea of the right to the city emerges; urban space needs to be reclaimed by those that inhabit it. Spatial inequalities emerge when citizens are unable to play a part in shaping the places they inhabit. David Harvey, a distinguished Professor of anthropology and geography at the City University of New York, built on this idea by pointing out that the cities we inhabit should be a direct reflection of our values and of the social ties and lifestyles we desire. If we accept that to be true, then citizens cannot be marginalized when it comes to shaping the process of urbanization; our values should not be dictated to us. For Harvey, not only is this right indisputable, but it is also “one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.” This idea is of significant importance now in Egypt, a country whose past, present, and future are all intricately linked to urbanization and ambitious mega-projects that have fallen short of fulfilling their promises. To understand urbanization policies in Egypt, one has to go back to the 1970s and the presidency of Anwar El Sadat. During his presidency, Egypt implemented a neoliberal open-door policy in the years following the Yom Kippur War. This was the beginning of an aggressive urbanization enterprise that aimed to boost economic growth while simultaneously addressing both the budget deficit and housing crisis. It began with the first generation of urban communities which were inaugurated between 1977 and 1982; built as free-standing cities, they were planned to have their own economic bases. This meant that inhabitants of these cities could live and work there without having to commute elsewhere. These included, among others, the 6th of October and the 15th of May cities. Studies by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Institut d’aménagement et d’urbanisme de la région d’Ile-de-France‏ (IAURIF) criticized this approach and suggested a shift in focus to the existing urban centers. This lead to a change in state policy in 1983, which was accompanied by the launch of a second generation of cities, this time functioning as satellite cities that would absorb the increasing urban population in city centers by functioning as extensions of existing cities. A third generation followed soon after in 2000, with cities being designed in the same fashion as their most recent predecessors. Cities like Obour, Shorouk, and Sheikh Zayed were never meant to stand on their own, but to be auxiliaries to Cairo. Three generations of New Urban Communities have now been built, bringing the total number of new cities to 28. The government agency responsible for these cities is the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA). Established in 1979 as the official body responsible for the oversight of New Urban Communities, a social function is highlighted explicitly in NUCA’s mandate, meaning that it’s projects are meant to benefit the average citizen. Yet a quick look at recent urbanization in Egypt shows that it has fallen short of fulfilling that function. The majority of New Urban Communities remain severely underpopulated, with their lack of success being attributed to unaffordable housing costs and inadequate public services. A direct result of this has been the proliferation of informal settlements on the urban periphery of Cairo. These settlements, while illegal, are the only affordable option for the majority of Cairo’s population. But they are not without their own problems. A recent report by 10Tooba estimates that one third of Egyptian households are deprived of a combination of secure tenure, durable housing, safe water and proper sanitation; all basic necessities of adequate living standards. Yet NUCA has stood firm, launching a fourth generation of new cities. At the forefront is the New Cairo Capital, an ambitious attempt to ease the pressure off Cairo by relocating a big portion of the city’s population as well as a number of state institutions. It is a huge project, with the cost of the first phase estimated to be £30bn and the entire project cost speculated to be almost 10 times that amount. The price tag has driven many to voice concerns, pointing to unsuccessful attempts to relocate people in the past. There are also indications that the New Capital will be characterized by private real estate development in the form of gated communities and exclusive neighborhoods. This is easy to believe, as recent urbanization in Cairo has followed a similar trend. In fact, such urbanization is endemic in the developing world, with the results, as Harvey points out, being “indelibly etched on the spatial forms of our cities, which increasingly consist of fortified fragments, gated communities and privatized public spaces kept under constant surveillance.” Those in charge of the project are quick to defend it; not only will it have a solid economic base but, equally importantly, it will be a smart city. The definition of a smart city will differ depending on who you ask but, according to the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), a smart city is one where some combination of hard infrastructure, digital technologies, and citizen engagement are used to improve living conditions. How does the New Cairo Capital measure up to this definition? Not much information is being disseminated on how exactly it will be a smart city, but the official website gives us some hints. On it, the city is presented as a hub for innovation, with an integrated transportation network and an efficient water supply system. It will also be a place where sustainable technologies will be put in place and modified when necessary. Khaled El-Husseiny, the spokesman for the project, recently remarked that “A smart city means a safe city, with cameras and sensors everywhere. There will be a command center to control the entire city.” This is not much to go by, but it gives an indication of how the state defines a smart city: connected, efficient, safe, and controlled. While these may arguably be integral aspects of a smart city, they all position citizens as users; the city is still something that happens to them, not something they are involved in. In that respect, this is a digital city: one that focuses on digital technologies and hard infrastructure (such as transport services and efficient water networks). Indeed, this is one of the major concerns of modern urbanism, as it tends to emphasize technical solutions and “top-down technocratic forms of governance” at the expense of citizen-centered democracy. That is why the third pillar of smart cities, that of citizen engagement, cannot be overlooked. In Smart Cities of the Future, Michael Batty contends that part of smart city infrastructure should be “technologies that ensure informed participation and create shared knowledge for democratic city governance.” Depending on how it is used, technology can either widen the socio-economic divide or narrow it. This ties back to Lefebvre’s Right to the City and the debate over the role of citizens in cities. Smart technology should not be an end in itself, but a means for the creation of inclusive and transparent cities. The goal of any city is the improvement of the social conditions of citizens; one way to do that is to give them a voice. That was what the former President of the Basque Country, Patxi Lopex, set out to do when he launched Irekia in 2010. At its core, Irekia is an open data platform that publishes government data and facilitates citizen participation in government decision-making. The platform includes a detailed breakdown of the proposed government budget, how it will be spent, and what government body each portion is assigned to. Participation and collaboration happens through posting government proposals on the platform for citizens to weigh in on as well as allowing citizens to post proposals that they consider to be important. The feedback is then used to influence the next budget proposal. The platform is gaining more traction and continuously evolving to complement the vision of a citizen who is “able to think, decide and take responsibility in the joint construction of the country”. Such a platform can be key in bringing to the fore the third pillar of smart cities: citizen participation. It “opens the door to open government, transforming the citizen-government relationship.” The dissemination of information makes for a smarter community, allowing citizens to provide feedback on the policies that affect them. There are many similar open government initiatives around the world, and they tend to be based on three principles; transparency, participation, and collaboration. Transparency includes publishing open data that is easy to understand and use, without whitewashing or removing parts of it. If done properly, this lays the foundation for citizen participation. Citizens are made aware of government proposals and initiatives and can vote or participate on discussions on them. Collaboration refers to citizens suggesting their own proposals to be reviewed by the government. Citizens tend to be more aware of the changes necessary for the improvement of their local communities, and so collaboration offers a way for them to actively participate in shaping it to meet their needs. In this light, open data can be seen as the key to Harvey’s transformation of society through a “collective power to reshape the process of urbanization”. So, when we talk about smart cities, we should be talking about fostering a culture of citizen participation. There is no doubt that modern infrastructure and efficient use of resources is necessary, but we must not lose focus of the ethos from which this drive to build smart cities comes from; the creation of equitable, inclusive, and participatory urban environments. If the upcoming generation of Egyptian cities are to be more successful than their predecessors, then they must be equipped to engage effectively with their citizens. Hard infrastructure and digital technologies on their own are not sufficient for the creation of truly smart cities. As Harvey argues, there can be no positive change in our cities unless they are brought back under democratic control. Open data and citizen engagement offer a way to create modern agoras that bring everyone to the table.