Author wants high tech to serve human needs

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Author wants high tech to serve human needs


Adam Greenfield at the “Displaying Futures” symposium organized by Merck on Wednesday in Seoul. Provided by Merck

Adam Greenfield, the author of “Against the Smart City,” which is currently the No. 1 best seller in Amazon’s urban and land use planning category, has many descriptions that apply to him.

The 45-year-old from Philadelphia is not only a writer, but also the founder and managing director of an urban systems design practice?called Urbanscale. His resume includes former jobs as head of design direction for user interface and services at Nokia, adjunct instructor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and rock music critic at SPIN magazine.

But above all, Greenfield now wants to called an “urbanist,” which he defines as a person who thinks about the life of cities and the way people experience, understand and use them.

“I pivoted in my career from a focus on technology and designing technology to design work on cities,” said Greenfield, who was in Korea for the German chemical company Merck’s “Displaying Futures” symposium on Wednesday.

Greenfield, who is also author of the best seller “Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing,” is not a stranger to Korea; his wife is the Korean-born artist Nurri Kim.

In talking about Korea, called the most wired country in the world, Greenfield says there is no question that Korea is an extremely advanced nation in terms of bringing technology into the everyday lives of people, but adds that there is still long way to go for the country to reach a state of truly ubiquitous information.

While recording Greenfield’s comments on a smartphone, a phone call arrived and the recording function stopped. Greenfield pointed out immediately that this is an example of how the “ubiquitous information experience” is not about how much advanced technology you have.

“There is a design question there,” said Greenfield. “Does the ubiquitous technology in Korea really work for people? It’s the quality of the experience and whether it allows people to use the technology in the ways that they want to, and [that] it is meaningful to them is what matters to me.”

Greenfield thinks all technologies have a “dark side.” For example, he cites how CCTVs invade people’s privacy.

His work at Urbanscale, he says, is to find processes to make the “dark side” of technology the “bright side.” He founded Urbanscale, now based in New York City, in 2010.

“We don’t start with the technology and say, ‘What can this do?’?” Greenfield said. “We start with human needs.”

Greenfield, who also once worked as an information architect at the Internet consulting firm Razorfish in Tokyo, emphasized democratic control in technology development. He believes that a community should decide democratically, through regulatory and legislative processes, questions such as “Do we wish to have these technologies as a part of our cities?” and “Do we wish to accept these technologies in our daily lives?”

“If you start with the needs of people and you incorporate and account for the will of the community, then I think you have a much better chance of producing things that are valuable for people,” Greenfield said.

In his new book, “Against the Smart City,” Greenfield said that the phrase “smart city” doesn’t refer to a general idea of technology and urban life at all. He insisted that a smart city should not be used in the context of gathering information on people’s daily lives through sensors for the exclusive use of municipal administrators. As information is gathered, intentionally or not, it should be given back to citizens for managing their own affairs.

“What people need are tools to help themselves make better and wiser decisions,” Greenfield said. “They don’t need centralized management of every aspect of their lives.”

As technology develops and ubiquitous experiences expand, Greenfield expects that the nature of commerce will change radically. More organizations will become smaller and more agile, but at the same time they will become tightly linked to one another in flexible adaptive networks.

He called on the Korean government to focus on the fundamentals, investing in basic research and science to become a leader in the future. Greenfield, who previously served in the U.S. Army as a psychological operations specialist, lamented that his country had lost energy in that area.

“In the United States, we have turned our back on the future because, I think, we no longer believe in a public infrastructure, the funding of public science and fundamental research,” Greenfield said. “Don’t make the same mistakes here.”


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