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Democracy and the city: new geographies, new geometries

One of the risks of conventional politics is seeing the world through ideas which are subsidiary to a certain, old way of understanding the geography and the geometry of concepts. Español Português

Image: Wikipedia. John Snow’s original map showing the clustering of cholera cases during the London Epidemic of 1854, drawn and lithographed by Charles Cheffins.

For some years now, we have been witnessing the emergence of relational, cross-over, participative power. This is the territory that gives technopolitics its meaning and prominence, the basis on which a new vision of democracy – more open, more direct, more interactive - is being developed and embraced. It is a framework that overcomes the closed architecture on which the praxis of governance (closed, hierarchical, one-way) have been cemented in almost all areas. The series The ecosystem of open democracy explores the different aspects of this ongoing transformation.

Steven Johnson points out in The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World (2007) how John Snow, a physician working in London’s Soho, demonstrated with the help of a map that the cholera epidemic that ravaged the city in 1854 originated from the water supply and not the air, as local authorities believed. Snow's map (picture above) showed something which to him was quite obvious, but an image was needed – the image of the concentration of death cases in the vicinity of water wells - to change the mentality of the decision-makers.

The map: possibilities and limits

Everything starts with a map – both mental and cartographic: in the head and on paper. Representing something is a way of understanding and substantiating it.

But while maps are useful tools for decision-makers, they are not always that useful when whatr you need is to innovate – for maps, as geographer Jacques Lévy explains, rely on the strength of our mental comfort zones and can thus create rigid knowledge structures which do not allow new perceptions: "We should not get the present wrong: researchers, like everyone else, tend to be lazy and to analyze the present through explanatory models which worked well - more or less - in the past, but which are no longer suitable".

Everything starts with a map – both mental and cartographic. In the head and on paper. 

This is also a major risk for conventional politics: seeing the world - and the changes it undergoes - through ideas which are subsidiary to a certain, old way of understanding the geography and the geometry of concepts.

All the more so at a time when 21st century smart cities are no longer just a territory, a space defined by its administrative boundaries. This is why we can no longer govern cities using only maps - like Dr. Snow -: we must see all the layers of reality if we are to transform it. The layers of relationships, flows, data, links and causalities generated by people’s activities and their dynamic organizational composition. Local and metropolitan administrations can no longer limit themselves to act merely on the physical dimension of reality if they are to cater for the common good and widen the public sphere. A system of regulations (on traffic, for instance, or on land) is essential, but not sufficient to harness the autonomous development of human activity, which always tends to lead to disorder and to jeopardise the future and cleave the present for the most disadvantaged. We need a new conception, a new understanding of the fact that expanding and promoting citizenship is key to seizing the opportunities to generate sustainable cities. Cities which are to be thought of not only in terms of zip codes, but of digital ones. The cities beneath the cobblestones. Let us then talk more about connected cities, complex urban realities, tools adapted to new forms of citizen participation (and not the other way around), about citizen producers and managers of their own digital trail, about the shared property of the data we generate, about the challenge of the digital divide, about technological sovereignties.

Local and metropolitan administrations can no longer limit themselves to act merely on the physical dimension of reality if they are to cater for the common good and widen the public sphere. 

Our knowledge is fixed in images (visualizations) which condition and predetermine our worldvision and our decisions. This is why unlearning actually means freeing us from the pre-established images which prevent us from acquiring new visions and getting into new geographies and geometries. John Gray, in The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013), points out that "a map can represent the physical structures of a city at a given moment in time, but not the city itself, which remains hidden and unknown (...) Graphic representation is an abstraction that simplifies experiences - and experiences are way more multicoloured ".

We should thus try to transcend the superficial vision fixed by the position of ideas, things, and people, to get to the depth of their relationships: position vs relations, nodes vs flows ... "Seeing the world as if it consisted of stable things is a form of hallucination", John Gray says.

New geographies, new geometries

Within this framework of complexity where interconnected cities require new perspectives in order to fully understand their own complexity, my proposal is a holistic observation space from which we can:

  1. Transcend the fixed and unmoving scale of reality and explore it from different points of view and focal points, and apply a zoom opening up to diversity in its full range, from the micro to the macro level: scale vs. focus.
  2. Transcend the static and monothematic morphology of reality, which is typical of the topographer - as Simon Garfield points out in On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way it Does -, in order to introduce the plastic complexity of the different forms reality can take: morphology vs. plasticity.
  3. Transcend the fixed coordinates with which we narrow down reality in order to glimpse the vastness of the massive data which new technologies make available, from flat images to 3D: coordinates vs data.

Democratic cities are thus to be valued for their capacity to generate perspectives that allow a concrete to global reading and for their plasticity in interpreting, assessing and activating the interests of their citizens. For this, they have an essential tool: massive data. As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier argue in Big Data. The massive data revolution (2013), big data provide a prospective look: "Massive data are about to reshape our way of living, working and thinking. The change we are facing is, in some respects, even greater than that derived from other epochal innovations which have sharply expanded the information reach in society. The ground we tread on is a moving one. Previous certainties are being questioned. Massive data demand a new discussion about the nature of decision-making, destiny, and justice. A view of the world that we thought was made out of causes is now facing the primacy of correlations. Knowledge, which once meant understanding the past, is now becoming the ability to predict the future."

We should thus try to transcend the superficial vision fixed by the position of ideas, things, and people, to get to the depth of their relationships: position vs relations, nodes vs flows.

And this surely entails a challenge for governance, since the new layers of information require a new way of thinking that "will be a challenge for our institutions and even for our sense of identity. The only certainty we have is that the amount of data will keep on growing, and so will the ability to process them. But while most people consider big data a technological issue ... we believe that what we must look at is what happens when the data speak".

In short, we must forget the position, the scale, the morphology and the coordinates to focus on relationships, plasticity and data in order to understand the new geographies and geometries that cities demand in the open democracy ecosystem.

"Ways of seeing, ways of thinking", Aristotle said. Let us free our way of seeing reality, delving into new perspectives and approaches, and we will come up with new ideas and perspectives for dealing with the problems of managing the common good. We need new visions if what we want are new solutions. Ways of seeing, ways of thinking. 

About the author

Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí (@antonigr) es asesor de comunicación y consultor político, fundador y director de ideograma, consultora de comunicación que opera en España y Latinoamérica. Colabora habitualmente en distintos medios de España, México, Chile y Ecuador y su blog (www.gutierrez-rubi.es) ha sido galardonado internacionalmente.

Antoni Gutiérrez-Rubí (@antonigr) is a communication advisor and political consultant, founder and director of ideogram, a communications consultancy operating in Spain and Latin America. He is a regular contributor to leading newspapers in Spain, Mexico, Chile and Ecuador, and his blog (www.gutierrez-rubi.es) has won several international awards.


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