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The rise of cameras, AI and deep learning is changing urban life. Can this benefit not only banks, tech companies and developers, asks Martijn de Waal, but also residents themselves?

Such a survey may not be innovative, but in this context it is certainly revolutionary. For the first time, data collection technologies are used here to provide a forum for a hitherto voiceless group to bring their wishes and fears into the planning process. One way of doing this is by planning a design workshop around the results with a combination of Dutch designers and local urban planners and policy makers from Shenzhen.

Eyes of the Citizens

Lam sees the app he developed for Dalang Fever 3 as a start. With his companies Impact Hub Shenzhen and Shanzhai City, Lam is working on a new version using blockchain technologies to add new functionalities. Its precise operation is complex, but it boils down to these technologies enabling city dwellers and local communities to draw up so-called ‘smart contracts’. In these contracts you can, for example, stipulate that the contractor hired to construct a public facility in an informal settlement such as an urban village will only be paid once several residents have digitally confirmed that the work has indeed been delivered. “The question is how smart technologies can contribute to the creation of value,” explains Lam. “Not for investors and banks, but for the residents themselves.” 

Such a collective validation system can also be used to pay factory workers’ wages, or even give them the opportunity to build something resembling a CV. One of the problems for migrants is that they cannot develop sustainable labour relations – they move from factory to factory, having to start at the bottom again and again. Lam wants to provide an app that allows fellow factory workers to evaluate each other in terms of specific skills and experiences – say a decentralised version of LinkedIn for migrant workers. This allows them to prove to new employers what kind of experience they have, giving migrant workers the opportunity to regain some of the control over their lives and the city: more ‘eyes for the citizens’ than ‘eyes of the city.’

Of course, for the time being, most of Lam’s ideas are still specualtive. The same goes for most of the work at the biennial: many exhibits take the visitor to a future smart city where traffic is never jammed, and the wishes of the citizen are fulfilled in real-time thanks to smart technology. The tools of Lam, INTI, and Het Nieuwe Instituut will also not be able to solve all the problems urban villages and their inhabitants face. Yet, Dalang Fever 3 does question the future that the biennial explores. It offers an alternative vision for the city of the future that does not start from the technology or profit opportunities of high-tech companies and project developers. Just as in the work of Wajiro Kon, everyday life is the starting point. As Vlassenrood outlined in an earlier project: “A smarter society does not start with the collection of even more data or the development of better technology. A smarter society starts by collecting and understanding the questions and needs that are relevant to that society.”

Martijn de Waal visited the opening of the eighth Shenzhen architecture biennial at the invitation of Het Nieuwe Instituut, and wrote this article on the Eyes of the City exhibition. De Waal is a lecturer in Play & Civic Media at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam and is the author of The City as Interface. How New Media are Changing the City, and, together with José van Dijck and Thomas Poell, The Platform Society. Public Values in a Connective World. He is the general chair of the Media Architecture Biennale 2020 (www.mab20.org) which takes place in November in Amsterdam and Utrecht.