Bottom-up approaches are also leveraging the sociability of cities to change patterns of activity. As the booming popularity of local shopping networks such as Groupon and LivingSocial shows, connecting local businesses and city dwellers through mobile social networks is a powerful catalyst for action. These new ways of scripting the city can create more lasting kinds of social touch points, too. The Foursquare mobile social network that Amamou used in Tunis can also turn going out on the town into a kind of mobile game. It crowns the most frequent visitor to every café, bar and restaurant as the “mayor”—a reference to the “self-appointed public characters” described in 1961 by urbanist Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Like the corner gossips that Jacobs argued were so critical to neighborhood cohesion and safe streets, Foursquare’s mayors remind us that even the most intelligent of digital cities are vital because they are filled with interesting and accessible people.
Another way to put citizens in the driver’s seat is to instrument buildings, plazas and even sculptures with embedded sensors and actuators. These devices will create capabilities for passersby to alter how the built city behaves. For example, the Digital Water Pavilion in Zaragoza, Spain, is a public sculpture whose walls are created by jets of water that can display patterns and react to people. As individuals walk through the space, the jets turn on and off, allowing pedestrians to proceed without getting wet.
This programmable world will extend beyond the physical city. Today many municipalities offer telephone hotlines reached by dialing 311 that give citizens rapid access to city government information and services, as well as the ability to file reports about everyday issues. These systems will evolve into wiki-like information repositories that allow citizens to team up and help themselves. For instance, one resident, using Boston’s mobile 311 app (dubbed Citizen’s Connect), responded to a plea for help in removing an errant possum from another Bostonian’s garbage can in less than half an hour—well before the city’s own Animal Control unit could mobilize to respond. On successfully evicting the critter, the Good Samaritan left a comment on the 311 system that the matter was resolved. As government information systems that enable citizens to add and edit information become more widespread, they will support innovation in how services are delivered and funded in caregiving, education and other nonemergency functions. Successes in online social gaming can provide lessons in how to motivate and reward volunteers. Citizens will have to make sure, however, that city government does not view “crowdsourcing” work from the masses as a convenient way to offload its obligations.
More natural computer interfaces will let nontechies, disabled persons and the illiterate participate more fully in civic life, making it smarter still. Although gestural interfaces that recognize individual faces are new, the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California has developed a gestural controller for Gmail that, if combined with speech synthesis and recognition, could allow the illiterate poor, the elderly and the disabled to use e-mail and explore the Web. As these technologies spread to cybercafés throughout poor urban communities, such as the national network of more than 600 Pontos de Cultura (culture hotspots) in Brazil’s favelas, we will see an urban movement emerge for more inclusive smart services.
Part of what makes cities smart is a system of checks and balances, and networked cities are changing the way citizens monitor city hall. Hyperlocal news sites such as EveryBlock aggregate Web content and public data about individual streets, cover local issues and monitor local government more thoroughly than traditional newspapers or television. Web sites such as Oakland Crimespotting in California enable residents to analyze and create interactive maps of detailed crime data by using information mined from ubiquitous, real-time social media streams and government databases. Crime information systems akin to New York City’s CompStat have long allowed police departments to create detailed maps of criminal activity, but better access to crime data will empower citizens to analyze policing and public safety, perhaps leading to different kinds of community policing.