Cities on the Net

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
22 May, 2018
Editorial: 204
Fecha de publicación original: 29 febrero, 2000

He who buys dear, sells cheap

Nowadays, when it appears that all of the Internet, or rather the whole of the virtual world is being gobbled up by telecommunications operators, banks, large commercial concerns and powerful capital risk enterprises, we feel that we should ask ourselves, “Is there anybody else out there?” Yes, of course, there are loads more, but there is always the risk that they will not develop due to the short-sightedness of decision makers, the overwhelming pressure of large capital and the desire of so many to get involved in the craziness they are creating instead of looking for a proper methodology for doing things differently. Amongst the alternative actors, in the first place, there is the city with its wealth of relationships which has hardly even begun to be explored in the virtual environment. It seems that municipal authorities, large and small, are not even remotely aware that they have in their possession capital equal to that handled by large corporations.

In the first place, the principle that guides this concerted attack on the Internet by the important architects of vertical virtuality, is the clientele. In other words, the possibility of turning its clientele into customers and, seeing if along the way some new ones take the bait. e-banking, e-commerce, e-business and all the rest of the e’s one can think of, are trying to create private ghettoes where their traffic moves, whether money or people. The client lists belonging to telecommunications operators or banks, or electricity companies or transport companies, are the driving force behind this process. Client lists mean traffic, and to obtain this traffic on the Internet there are many prepared to sleep with a machete between their teeth. This alone — the lists, not the machete– creates enormous expectation with short term repercussions on the Stock Exchange.

Where are the cities’ client lists? Obviously on municipal registers. It is, to say the least, surprising that municipal initiatives basing their Net activities on this fact, have yet to emerge. The idea of giving each citizen free e-mail access with the city’s dominion, a way of anchoring them locally in a global world as Ester Schiavo explains so well in the interview with her published in this week –has become an issue of political marketeering rather than a strategy for orientating the presence of the city on the Net. If we take Barcelona, for example, we are talking about two to three million users, an initial figure that more than one of the new Cyberspace Masters would die to get their hands on. And a factor that should impose itself when it comes to negotiating everything from the type of connection people should enjoy, to the extension of necessary services based on criteria of public interest.

So what are the main obstacles? To start with, one is tempted to point the finger at the usual suspect: the lack of cultural vision which prevents taking advantage of the opportunities the Internet provides in all fields. Not just as a tool for the improved running of municipalities (an extremely important step), but also as a platform that places the city, its inhabitants and administrators on the global map. This requires, at the very least, a number of approaches on the part of local governments which we could sum up as follows:

a) The guarantee of universal access to all citizens as a fundamental public service related to urban social welfare.

b) Turning the Internet into a tool capable of assigning resources in the context of the city. Information services which create nuclei of population, activities and services. And the Internet can do this more efficiently than systems habitually in use.

c) Developing urban planning policies (education, health, social, etc.) based on virtual network patterns and the services they carry. Much vaunted social exclusion will be, to a large extent, a political responsibility if the authorities are unable to understand this basic facet of the Internet. People will move to the areas of the city where there is a higher density of virtual services (online schools, shops, local distribution networks, online services for the elderly, etc.). And the authorities have this tool at their disposal now to balance land spatial occupation, incorporate activities, upgrade certain areas and decentralise bureaucracy bringing it closer to the home.

d) Viewing citizens as “interactors” and not as mere “users”. Municipal initiatives should, sooner or later, be backed up by the action of the citizens themselves, by citizens’ networks, for they are after all the people that will appropriate the uses and opportunities the networks afford. However, their needs and demands will not necessarily coincide with those of municipal policies. Quite on the contrary, the Net puts a tool for critical appraisal and the ability to act as a correcting force, in their hands.

e) Finally, the most important thing in every city is the relationships between citizens. Sooner or later, this will emerge as a determining factor in how a city presents itself on the Net, what role it plays in the global scheme of things and what kind of relationships it has with other cities. It is amazing that not even this forms part of public debate on the Net in the urban context.

Possibly all these aspects depend to a large extent on the way the Internet is used within the municipality. Inertia regarding the “instrumental” use of the Internet is inevitable. The Internet rationalises a number of processes that were, until now, so tricky that they became real obstacles between citizens and local administrations. However, the fundamental leap is the conversion of the Net into a spring board for the internal reorganisation of city councils with one main objective: the ability to answer to the people. And, this is not achieved by web pages, a lot of e-mail and chats with famous personalities alone. In the first place, it means establishing relationships between administrators orientated towards reaching the necessary consensus for forging public policies in virtual networks, And, in the second place, that these systems begin to progressively integrate citizen networks in order to generate specific, tangible measures for relating to citizens. Up until now, we all have experienced that tension between virtual administrations and global citizens as a considerable kind of culture shock. It is in the solution to these tensions, the way they are resolved, that the role of cities in the Information Society will be decided.

Translation: Bridget King