From the curatorial point of view, the combination of three different perspectives on the issue of urban transformation was a tricky venture. On the one hand, we listened to city and media theorists and manufacturers of technological solutions from Western Europe. On the other — representatives from Central European institutions engaging in city related initiatives. In addition, we showed examples of projects (case studies) conducted in Poland, with particular focus on Medialab Katowice. The conference presentations were prepared by people with very different backgrounds: urban theorists and researchers, activists, social and cultural project managers and, last but not least, by people who implement technologies: designers, architects, engineers and programmers. What did we achieve by this highly interdisciplinary mix?
Quite often, I could not help but notice the gap between the research carried out in Western Europe and the problems we face in Central Europe. No, it is not about an inferiority complex towards the West and blind imitation of a certain development model, but rather a different cultural context and the specific nature of the problems that we face. Our perspective is mostly local. Despite using universal tools, we are mainly concerned with what we can do here and now, in our own environment. Our ambitions are not (yet?) focused on repairing reality on a global scale. We must first complete the tedious tasks related to, among others, opening public data, dissemination of information literacy and helping navigate the development of our cities.
At the same time, it is striking how similar to each other are the lexicons used by people involved in new technologies and urban activism. We all talked about sharing, engagement, participation and democratisation.
Of course, some might say that it is just unjustified optimism which stems from naive faith in progress. Be that as it may, it is the healthy optimism of dedicated grassroots activists, as opposed to the technological determinism promoted by technology corporations. The speeches showed that we are now past the stage of blind fascination with new technologies and faith in the potential of smart cities. It seems clear that intelligent technologies will not absolve us from taking responsibility for the city. It is the residents themselves that have to take matters into their own hands (DIY). Is this an early sign of an urban revolution?
If we curb our over-inflated expectations and stop believing that technology can magically change our lives for the better (or worse), perhaps we will be able to notice that in many cases, they are very useful tools that can help us improve the quality of life and promote a better understanding of the increasingly complex processes taking place in the city. Especially, when they are used for the benefit of the residents and not just the city authorities and big business.
And though the conference may have failed in providing a fully consistent picture of the role played by new technologies in the transformation of cities, I do hope that it at least managed to bring these two worlds closer together. After all, every urban activist is a bit of a geek (and vice versa).