I’ve recently had conversations with politicians and public officials about social software in the context of their efforts to stimulate ‘creative’ cities in various parts of the world. I’ll try to sum up here my observations about how the municipal administration’s approach to technology affects the capacity of a city to function as a platform for creativity.
First, I want to touch on the definition of creativity. I believe that it is more useful to approach creativity as cultural remixing that all kinds of people can do, than it is to label some professions as a ‘creative class’. Culture evolves through the recombination of existing elements into new, meaningful outcomes. Cities, who define creativity in terms of a specific class of professionals, risk turning a blind eye to the creative potential of, for instance, local hobbyists and teenagers, who are especially important creators of new culture.
The creative city discussion could also benefit from a deeper appreciation of the role of technology. During the course of the last decade, computers have become the most important platform for remixing culture. It is likely that computer-based creativity will flourish in places where the ability to remix is supported by 1) a political climate that embraces online conversation; 2) cheap wireless access to the internet; and 3) regulation that sides with the new innovators against the interests of the established corporate elite. City officials can play an important role by launching creativity-enabling initiatives on the political, the technical, and the legal front.
On the political front, cities can start to actively participate in the growing online conversation by establishing weblogs and engaging in dialogue with bloggers. Mayors like Jerry Brown of Oakland, California, are blogging, and there are plenty of local blogs maintained by citizens around the world. For instance, I follow local talk on a blog named Kallioblogi, which focuses on the area where I live in Helsinki, and periodically check the Metroblogs of my other favorite cities. In France, the newspaper Libération recently ran a cover story on how a blogger’s intervention exposed one town’s corrupt local politics. By establishing personal and project-related blogs, city officials could greatly enhance the transparency of local government and perhaps also find new ways to engage with the public. For example, the public officials in the U.S. city of Northfield, Minnesota, have made a joint effort to keep blogs, and discuss their experiences at j-newvoices.org.
On the technical front, cities can promote open access to the internet over Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi), also known as the wireless local area network (WLAN) and in technical articles referred to as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ standard IEEE 802.11. There are at least three ways to create public Wi-Fi hotspots in the city, and a wise municipal strategist would probably combine elements from all of these:
- The first option is to activate commercial operators to establish affordable Wi-Fi networks that cover not only the hotels and airports frequented by visiting businesspeople, but also the places where regular inhabitants spend their time. For instance in Tokyo, the Livedoor company has announced it will begin to offer basic access for less than 5 Euros’ monthly fee in central locations around the city.
- The second option is to treat wireless access as a basic resource just like electricity and water, and set up a municipal Wi-Fi network that covers also the areas that aren’t profitable for commercial operators. The ambitious municipal Wi-Fi strategies of some very large cities, such as Philadelphia and San Francisco, have been met with controversy in the U.S. (For an anti-muni argument, it’s worth reading columnist Larry Seltzer’s article on eWeek.com. For pro-muni viewpoints, see the entries on Harvard Fellow David Weinberger’s blog and investor Joichi Ito’s blog). Here in Finland, on my count at least ten cities have already rolled out muni Wi-Fi networks. Hopefully Helsinki will also join the list soon.
- A third approach is to smooth the progress of a more organic spreading of Wi-Fi by encouraging private residents and businesses to set up their own public hotspots. For instance, in the U.K. the Wireless London initiative is providing information about the city’s free hotspots, and developing free software to keep publicly accessible hotspots secure. The Île Sans Fil group in Montréal, and NYCWireless in New York, are doing similar volunteer work.
Cities also already produce a wealth of information about local news and events online. This information can reach a broader audience if administrators require contractors to build in support for standards like Really Simple Syndication (RSS) and open up the application programming interfaces (APIs) of the databases. Open interfaces allow other web sites, including ‘social event-marking services’ like the non-profit Evnt.org and Upcoming.org, and commercial ones like 43 Places and the Events and Venues Database, to pull out information from a city’s database and offer internet users around the world the means to add socially meaningful metadata, such as tags, comments, and recommendations, to the local places and events. Although this may sound complicated, the investments required are not large when the databases already exist (in Europe, some have been created with EU funding: for instance the KuhuMinna event database in Tallinn, and the Kulttuuri.net information and ticketing service in Helsinki). Cities can also support the innovation of new location-based services by making map and traffic data freely available in both human and machine-readable formats online.
On the legal front, cities can promote the accumulation of an open library of locally produced stories, images, songs, and movies by supporting the licensing of cultural creations under the Creative Commons license. Brazil, for instance, has adopted Creative Commons as a way to promote the independence of its rich musical culture, which has historically been dominated by the commercial interests of the U.S. music industry.
The next few years will be important in defining where the global creative balance shifts, and open technical platforms will play a major role in the process. Cities, who understand how to leverage these technologies, may discover a community of creative practitioners surprisingly close to home. Such cities are also likely to have better success in attracting foreign creative people, who have grown tired of ignorant officials and politicians that in the worst possible case try to mislabel them as criminals.
As for myself, I’m on the lookout for a creative city where to live next!