Who We’re Listening To…Caesar McDowell and the Intelligent, Equitable City

Not too long ago, at a forum sponsored by the National Building Museum, the Rockefeller Foundation, and IBM on “Intelligent Cities,” Caesar McDowell delivered a presentation touching on three projected trends of future global cities: exponentially growing populations, the rising role of technology, and an increasing wealth disparity.  His research question: knowing how future cities are likely to look, what do we need to know and what practices do we need to examine in order to create a better outcome – that is, an intelligent and equitable city?

To probe at this question Caesar exposed four modes of practice that must be engaged and, in his words, “disrupted” if we want a more equitable outcome.  Those modes of practice are: ownership, design, intelligence, and framing.  While I recommend that you view the presentation (concise 20 minutes followed by Q&A) to see the real-world examples of “disruptive practices,” below are the four patterns and an excerpt from the speech to give you a sense of what he means:

Ownership –> Personal Digital Commons

who is actually supplying all of the information from where the value is coming?

Design –> Designing for the Margins

we have to be purposeful about it – it’s not enough to say we’re going to design something and we hope other people will be able to benefit from it

Intelligence –> Inclusive Knowledge

how are we going to incorporate and engage with all those different ways of knowing and making meaning out of the world?

Framing –> Collective Framing

you have to meet people where they are, you have to reflect back to them their own intelligence, and you have to do it in a powerful way for them

It’s important to note that Caesar is a Professor of the Practice of Community Development.  His primary focus is in examining how technology can be harnessed to create real democracy and community engagement.

Yes, you read that correctly – Caesar is a professor of community development practice.

While learning how to practice something may be implicit to learning about the thing itself, Caesar doesn’t risk leaving meanings to be inferred.  He describes design as “not a neutral thing; it’s intentional,” exposing its implicit values, and he believes that we “have to be purposeful about it.”  He asks community developers to be clear, as in, “what is it, the value, that we operate out of right now, that we have to pay attention to as we look at this new city?”

I couldn’t agree more that the implementation of a particular community development initiative – that is, its “end product” — is but a small piece in the practice of community development.  And this needs to be explicit.

Implementation in its pure sense is concerned with putting the necessary resources together and identifying the skill sets required to create and maintain the product/plan/project. How community development is practiced determines who participates and how, who sets the agenda, and what information is considered legitimate.

The practice, therefore, is concerned with questions (addressed or not), such as: who will be a participant or partner, what role will they play, will there be a pre-set agenda, which sources of information will be used to determine needs and demand, will final implementation be held accountable and by whom, how and when will it be re-evaluated, and is there a desire to use this process to achieve other goals beyond product/plan – such as relationship or skill building?

Many civic leaders believe that they “don’t have the time” to engage thoughtfully in the practice of community development – even if they believe (or maybe especially if they believe) their intentions are progressive.  In places that are particularly impoverished, elected leaders just want to achieve results.  (Even in more affluent places, like Washington DC, the single-minded drive for results caused former Mayor Fenty to lose re-election.)  And this motive is understandable considering term limits and the sense of urgency to impact chronic poverty or an unsustainable fiscal situation.

So how might cities be helped by a much greater devotion to the practice of community development at a national level?  What form might that take?  Who would be involved?

In the sphere of technology, Caesar’s work again fills a gap that many aren’t addressing.  Certain technologies, in particular the Internet and mobile devices, have been conceived of as great tools for democracy – a means for increasing access to information and the ability to provide input and perspectives from any location.  To some extent this is true, but there is slim evidence to show that it has disrupted inequitable patterns of wealth distribution, residential segregation, or political power.

Caesar’s work isn’t thinking about technology as simply an input that achieves greater efficiency and accessibility; he sees technology as a way to shift power.  How can technology eliminate the need for representational public processes and support direct public engagement at a city scale?  How can people be compensated for, or at least empowered by, the data their existence provides?  How can technology help us measure the effectiveness of programs based on the things people care about but are hard to measure?

Again, I recommend that you watch the video to hear more directly from Ceasar and to see some of the great real-world examples he cites. While the Richard Floridas and Ed Glaesers of the world offer up their recipes for urban vitality, we ought to pay more attention to the thinkers and practitioners examining how we practice community development.  That’s if we want to see a different outcome.