‘Cybernetics in City Hall’ and the Challenge of Real-Time Urban Management

Periodically I come across an old article that seems very relevant to the present, such as the article about public sector innovation I posted in January.

IBM Rio Operations Center 1The ongoing expanded use — and declining cost — of sensors and computing technologies has sparked a renewed interest in using them to solve persistent urban problems. A similar wave of interest occurred during the early history of digital computing. In his influential 1950 book, Norbert Wiener popularized the term “cybernetics” to refer to the emerging science of communication and control of organized systems. If the city is an organized system, then cybernetics in city hall would involve creating information feedback loops to be used by the manager (or “actuator”) to minimize the effects of disturbances and maximize achievement of urban goals. Sound familiar? It should: IBM inked a multimillion dollar deal to open a real-time “public information management center” in Rio de Janeiro (right) as part of their smarter cities initiative, and Wired magazine is keeping up a drumbeat about the power of feedback loops.

In an astute article published in Science in 1970, E.S. Savas considered the challenges this approach might face in the real world of New York City government. I don’t doubt the importance of real-time control for management tasks like transportation system management and emergency response, but the article describes some important challenges such a system would face if applied more broadly. Savas described how the five elements of the cybernetic loop would play out in the city: (1) dynamics of urban government, (2) information system, (3) administration, (4) goal setting, and (5) disturbances.

1. Dynamics of city government: The election cycle faced by big city mayors would limit the range of solutions considered, resulting in smaller goals and visible acts, which “may be more symbolic than effective.” Government itself is very slow-moving and one solution — delegating power — may have unintended consequences.

2. Information system: Arguably today much more information is available than was in 1970 about what’s happening in the city. But another crucial input is as tricky as ever — gauging the will of the people.

3. Administration: Making a decision is one thing, but implementing it requires an administration with appropriate personnel and structure, a well-known weakness of big-city bureaucracies.

4. Structure of government: Not only are city governments organized in anachronistic ways, the article omits another key fact: the fragmentation of powers. In Boston, for example, in addition to municipal fragmentation itself, separate entities manage many utilities, the transit system, parks, etc.

4. Goal setting: Identifying a common set of goals may be impossible. The chief executive can use judgement, but it is for good reason that power is delegated to elaborate systems of commissions, boards, and advisers on many topics.

5. Disturbances: These are unpredictable, often external to the city, and often not visible to the public (who sets the goals) until it is too late to prevent their impact. (e.g., climate change)

There are, in general, two responses to most of these concerns. Savas himself took one approach: give up on city government and advocate for privatization of service delivery. Presumably the cold logic of the profit motive would sweep away administrative, regulatory, and decision-making quirks of city governments. The other approach is to attempt to reform the government. In fact, IBM staff have admitted the “challenges” that will face a contemporary agenda for cybernetics. I think the need for contemporary urban government reorganization and reform is acute in many cities, but interest in it seems limited.

Notably, neither of these approaches truly addresses the challenges posed by the short time-horizon of elected officials, difficulty setting goals or forming consensus, and unpredictable disturbances. These three point to the need for planning to solve urban problems: a multi-stakeholder process involving analysis, deliberation, and solution design that both forges a consensus about the definition of a public problem and crafts a desired solution. It seems to me that in the face of the enormity of the challenges we face we need both smart planning and an efficiency-driven smart cities movement willing to push for reform but respectful of democratic systems.

> E.S. Savas in Science magazine, 1970: “Cybernetics in City Hall

Author: Rob Goodspeed