by • 9 Jan, 2019 • Inspiration, StrategyComments (0)518

The role of culture and community in the development of smarter cities

“Without cognitive deconstruction and analysis, cultural events, knowledge products, and intellectual achievements run the risk of being reified to little more than signifiers of a market economy.“

We may underestimate the role of culture in the effective development of societies and cities. On the individual level, the impact of cultural expressions is often crystal clear. Sergei Polunin’s famous interpretation of Take me to church, for instance, is creating a life-long fascination for ballet in my young son. On any other level, alas, the impact of culture is more opaque. When positioned within a framework, however, cultural development can go beyond a series of symbolic events and gain systematic importance in the development of smarter cities.

In their paper The Triple-Helix Model of Smart Cities: A Neo-Evolutionary Perspective, authors Loet Leydesdorff and Mark Deakin propose the triple helix model as this framework. I first became aware of the work of Loet Leydesdorff when I heard him referenced at a culture and innovation conference. As he is also my father in law, I have been especially keen on studying and understanding his work, which regularly relates to my work and interests.

The triple helix model of innovation refers to a set of interactions between academia, industry, and governments, to foster economic and social development (says Wikipedia). The model goes beyond simple market dynamics. Instead of the market, communities of policymakers, academic leaders, and corporate strategists are the drivers of innovation. When these communities are successful, they can help cities to become smarter.

Thus, to develop smarter cities, policymakers need to create the conditions that enable communities of different people to be successful.

The extent to which the triple helix model is successful is the degree to which the interactions that are at its core can iterate on each other. When actors within the community interact, they create knowledge, which builds on previous interaction and grows with each interaction. As the authors state, “The selection processes involved are knowledge-intensive because they can only be improved by appreciating the information which becomes available when they operate.”

The interactions, including the selection processes, are a form of communication, and therefore culturally defined. How people respond to each other’s ideas is not biologically inherited, but cultural (stated Lewontin, 2000, in the paper). A community’s culturally-defined communication potential shapes its ability to innovate and help itself and its environment (cities) to become smarter.

Culture is a complex, multidimensional concept. The word has different and evolving meanings. Building on Williams’ Culture and Society, we can distinguish agriculture and horticulture, cultured people and cultures of bacteria; a culture of the mind, and culture as the intellectual state of society; culture as the material, intellectual, and spiritual way of life of communities, and culture as the general body of the arts. In Quantum Culture, we define culture as the values, ideas, and practices that people share, and the expressions these inspire, which seems to come close to the culture referred to by Leydesdorff and Deakin.

The ability of a community to successfully organize its culture, be it through museums, libraries, theatres, cultural participation or cultural development, then is a quantifier for its ability to innovate. A cultural event, therefore, can be so much more than an activity that stimulates the local economy or celebrates a political achievement. Placed within the right framework, culture makes cities and communities smarter.

Importantly, these processes cannot only be initiated top-down, as the authors show in the second part of the paper. “The reinvention of cities currently taking place under the so-called “urban renaissance” cannot be defined as a top-level “trans-disciplinary” issue without a considerable amount of cultural reconstruction at the bottom. (…) the highly distributed and local character of this reconstruction has to be appreciated as the driver of the transformation.”

Take for instance the innovation potential of Montreal. From a pure top-down perspective, “The only thing offered to explain the growth of Montreal as a leading exponent of cultural events(…) hitherto been a list of enabling conditions, such as: a strong research and technical development ethic whose shared enterprises are underpinned by leading university involvement.” This perspective falls short, as it does not take into account the interactions between various actors in a community and their (bottom-up) contribution to the system. Instead, “The triple-helix model allows us to recognize that cultural development (…) is not a spontaneous product of market economies, but a product of the policies, academic leadership, and corporate strategies that need to be carefully constructed as part of an urban regeneration program.”

The role of culture and communities in the development of smarter cities is considerable. Cultural events and development are not a byproduct of a market economy, but an enabler for more innovative communities and smarter cities when placed within carefully constructed policies and networks. 

Or, as the authors state, “For in order to be more than intelligent and smart, and in that sense, “smarter,” cities need the intellectual capital required to not only meet the efficiency requirements of wealth creation under a market economy, but to become centers of creative slack distinguished by virtue of their communities having the political leadership and strategies that are capable of not only being culturally creative, but enterprising in opening-up, reflexively absorbing, and discursively shaping the economic and governmental dimensions of their corporate management.“

Header image: Seville’s City of the Future (Expo 92).

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