Being “smart” about Smart Cities: Some elements for discussion
The ‘smart city’ concept is no paradigm shift. But with the potential for real-time data to both transform governance and perpetuate social inequalities, the technology-centred projects associated with it warrant critical examination.
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This article also appears in Spanish on LA Network.
An earlier version of this piece previously appeared in QUBO.
Urban planners often use resonant terms to reframe the urban agenda. From ‘global cities’ to ‘cities of information’ – not to forget ‘creative cities’, ‘sustainable cities’, and ‘resilient cities’ – we have witnessed several attempts to repackage concepts with the goal of rejuvenating certain policy discussions and urban practices. This seems to be the case with ‘smart cities’ – a term embodying today’s hegemonic urban practices, strongly driven by corporate agendas and supported by political leaders and international agencies.
The concept of the smart city emerged in the 1990s, but it was only after 2010 and a push from IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge that it started to circulate globally. Thus, today’s emphasis on smart cities neither signifies a new era in global urbanism (Shelton, 2015), nor does it create a radically different way of ‘doing cities’ (Hollands, 2008).
Yet while it is easy to assert that smart cities represent nothing but a superficial, corporation-driven repackaging of existing products – which, by the way, is the position of a number of important urban theorists (Borja, 2015; Hollands, 2015; Vanolo, 2014) – such a perspective would be perilously reductionist. Smart city projects do exist and are helping to reshape important urban planning practices. One example is the use of real-time data to help visualise information for surveillance, transport and waste management purposes - as is happening in Dublin and London.
These phenomena require our attention. We run serious risks if we ignore or even underestimate the changes they can entail for our daily lives. Concerns over privacy and data sovereignty are particularly common. As a result, scholars are developing a critical approach to smart cities, facilitating public scrutiny over basic questions such as: Why? By whom? To whom? With what? When? and Where? (Luque-Ayala and Marvin, 2015).
Calzada (2016) argues that the narrative of the smart city risks mirroring a three-act Shakespearean tragedy. First, there is the dream of a utopian future. Technology is viewed as a powerful force. Apolitical, technocrats prevail, and corporations are the facilitators. In act two, confusion proliferates. Whether due to technical or financial infeasibility, it is not clear how to scale pilots into lasting urban infrastructures. In the third and final act, one of two models of transition emerge: one in which the city becomes a platform for urban innovation and collaboration; in the other, an entrepreneurial dream co-opts these efforts and business prevails over the common good.
When it comes to smart cities, such scholarship suggests the need for a three-prong critical response:
1. First, it is necessary to closely observe how digitisation of everyday life gives rise to new forms of governance (Kitchin, 2014). As data travels through different entities, it assembles networks and creates potentially transformative ways for power to deploy.
2. This calls for a critical approach to understanding data-intensive projects in the smart city (Dalton, 2016). We must identify the origin of data, the interests of those who are facilitating its flow and using it, and how these actors are dealing with privacy and personal security. More information may improve urban planning decisions, but not at the expense of the safety and freedom of citizens.
3. Finally, we must examine the implications of using technological infrastructures for the provision of public services, recognizing their potential to reproduce or even worsen existing inequalities. Ironically, even projects aimed at enhancing inclusivity through new forms of participation and digital services can amplify social division. (Listen to an NPR podcast on ‘Automating Inequality’; read a HuffPost commentary on the potential for Smart Cities to favour the rich.)
We must evaluate smart cities – or, better said, the technologies associated with them – based on their capacity to improve citizens’ quality of life. We must also revisit ethical issues concerning inequality and social exclusion. Addressing the conflicts between safeguarding fundamental rights and encouraging global urbanisation will be crucial in this endeavour.
Technology can be an important force for good. But amidst the momentum surrounding smart cities, let’s not fall into thinking that it is the only, or the most important, means of progress.
Ignacio Pérez is a sociologist and urban planner currently pursuing a DPhil at the University of Oxford. His current research focuses on how digital technologies influence different processes of decision-making, redefining the way in which knowledge is created in urban contexts. Prior to Oxford, he was Research Director for TECHO, a Latin-American NGO focused on alleviating poverty in informal settlements. He has also worked on issues of urban mobility, urban poverty, and metropolitan governance. Ignacio holds a Bachelors in Sociology from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and an MSc in Urban Development Planning from the Development Planning Unit at University College London. You can reach Ignacio at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Borja, J. (2015). Smart cities: Negocio, poder y ciudadanía. Smart cities, 8.
Calzada, I. (2016), (Un)Plugging Smart Cities with Urban Transformations: Towards Multi-stakeholder City-Regional Complex Urbanity?, URBS, Revista de Estudios Urbanos y Ciencias Sociales Journal.
Dalton, C. M., Taylor, L., & Thatcher, J. (2016). Critical Data Studies: A dialog on data and space. Big Data & Society, 3(1).
Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977 (1st American ed). New York: Pantheon Books.
Hollands, R. G. (2008). Will the real smart city please stand up? Intelligent, progressive or entrepreneurial?. City, 12(3), 303-320.
Hollands, R. G. (2015). Critical interventions into the corporate smart city. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 8(1), 61–77.
Kitchin, R. (2014). The data revolution: Big data, open data, data infrastructures and their consequences. Sage.
Luque-Ayala, A., & Marvin, S. (2015). Developing a critical understanding of smart urbanism?. Urban Studies, 52(12), 2105-2116.
Shelton, T., Zook, M., & Wiig, A. (2015). The ‘actually existing smart city’. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 8(1), 13-25.
Vanolo, A. (2014). Smartmentality: The Smart City as Disciplinary Strategy. Urban Studies, 51(5), 883–898.