Whose smart city?

The proliferation of 'smart' solutions to a deluge of political and economic problems in today's cities may well serve to reinforce urban inequality at a time when new radical alternatives are in desperate need.

Alberto Vanolo
8 April 2014

Smart City Expo World Congress, Barcelona 2013. Gregorio Fulginiti/DemotixAs a student of cities, I am very much interested in the diffusion and circulation of buzzwords, global slogans and global ideas about cities and their development strategies. In the last decade, I have observed the shifts from debates on technological and information cities, to cultural cities, creative cities, sustainable, green and resilient cities, to our current conjuncture with the rise of the 'smart' cities. But what does it mean for a city to be ‘smart’? What are the implications and rationales behind smart urbanism? Is smart urbanism as positive as the term suggests?

The concept behind smart cities is actually rather vague, there is no common definition of what a smart city is, most commonly the idea relies on the implicit assumption that urban infrastructures and everyday life can/should be optimized and ’greened’ through the technologies and innovations of global IT companies. So, what’s the problem with smart cities? Who wouldn’t want to live in a smart city anyway?

As I have written elsewhere, the emergence and dominance of smart city rhetoric, should be extremely worrying for most. One must always be suspicious, constantly critical of  technocratic slogans and easy solutions for what are overwhelmingly political problems. There are two current conjectures on the role of cities, which inform the deluge of “smart urbanism” in today’s policy environment. On the one hand, in the current ascendancy of neoliberal governance under the stewardship of international institutions, the World Bank and OECD, cities have become engines of national/regional/global development, cities are forced to engage in fierce competition with each other for the attraction of investments, tourists, “creative people”, global events, etc. On the other hand, in the framework of a growing global urbanization, cities are considered strategic sites for coping with and challenging, global change and key environmental problems.

The recent and popular discourse on smart cities can be located at the crossroad between these two different narratives. A great deal of the smart city discourse is disseminated from the US, and in particular from MIT laboratories. The smart city concept has also become a popular option in Europe, frequently forming part of  European calls for projects, the EU itself assigning large amounts of funds to smart city projects all over Europe. To quote an example, Milan has received money in order to implement smart mobility management projects and to enhance the energy efficiency of public administration buildings. However, this is not just a Euro-American phenomenon: China has announced various smart city pilot projects; while in India, BJP presidential candidate Narendra Modi recently pledged to build 100 smart cities if elected this year. Indeed smart city projects can be found in Africa, Latin America, and all over the world.

The idea of smart city is largely indebted to previous debates on smart growth and intelligent cities. The role of academic literature in smart city development, has however been marginal, the bulk of discourse produced since the 1990s has come from ‘smart’ enterprises themselves, such as Cisco, Siemens and IBM. It should be noted that the ‘smarter cities’ trademark was officially registered as belonging to IBM, in 2011. More recently, a number of enterprises –Schneider Electric, Hitachi, Accenture, Toshiba, General Electric, Microsoft, Oracle, Capgemini and SAP – have heavily promoted (and sold) ‘smart’ technologies to cities.

The goal of transforming our cities in green, efficient and sustainable ways by implementing new technologies is persuasively desirable, impressing as it does a kind of conventional wisdom. The semantic construction of the term ‘smart city’ implies a dichotomist distinction between ‘intelligent’ (smart) cities, and ‘stupid’ (non-smart) Luddite cities. There are nevertheless a number of critical issues connected to ‘smart’ urban development projects.

Firstly, the production of smart cities is overwhelmingly in the hands of private enterprises, the smart city is an extremely profitable business. In Italy, for example, there has been a proliferation of public-private partnerships formed to brand cities and formally pursue city-development through the smart city model, take Fondazione Torino Smart City or Agenzia Smart Milano for example. Of course private enterprises by their nature, pursue profits, and generally seek evasion of democratic procedure, rules, regulations and oversight to that pursuit. If recent history is anything to go by, the provision of urban infrastructures (as “smart” as they might be) by private companies has the potential to further enhance urban splintering, mimicking the PPP-global trend to promote well-endowed technological enclaves functionally separated from non-profitable spaces.

Secondly, the vision of the smart city is largely matched to the aspirations and world-views of a very particular, minority section of the population; namely, a well-educated middle class that uses (and can afford) new technologies. In the smart city there is apparently little space for people at the margins, and this is particularly evident in cities of the Global South, where there is the risk of increasing the distance between the smart city and areas which exist off the map, off the grid, the so-called ‘informal city’. Consider, for example, the recent construction of the ‘smart’ gondola air elevator running across Rio de Janeiro, just above the favelas of Alemão, the poorest neighbourhood in the city, home to around 200,000 inhabitants and largely lacking in basic infrastructure. The project cost about 74 million dollars, and it is of little use for local residents. Traffic is of course not as much a priority for the area, as the lack of sanitation, waste management services and security. But, above all, local communities have not been in any way been involved in the planning of the project, which now appears to be as much a project of spectacle than ‘smartness’, likely connected to the forthcoming FIFA World Cup and Olympic Games events. Examples like the Rio’s ‘smart’ gondola bring forward serious questions as to who has the right to produce and legitimize urban visions?


David Mbiyu/Demotix

Thirdly, the smart city implies an oversimplified and stereotyped vision of technology, close to that of old modernist ideologies. Smart city practise nurtures the idea that technologies can and will provide the solutions to all of our multiple problems without fundamentally changing our lifestyles or challenging the structures which enforce and maintain such problems. In the smart-city mantra, the total complexity of our urban ecosystems are reduced to a bunch of data that can be monitored and controlled. The urban question is not considered a social or political one, but as a basic technological one, that may be solved thanks to the technological solutions provided by private enterprises. This technological saviourism is often assumed to be a mobile, global ‘social technology’ that can be dropped into any environment with minor adaptations. The heterogeneity of cities is barely considered, in favour of a single linear vision of the evolutionary path of cities toward technological development.

It may be argued that it is not a coincidence that smart city discourse has grown hand in hand with the outbreak of the global economic crisis in 2008. In a time of a deluge of urban problems, severe cuts to urban financial assets and provisions of social welfare, the smart city operates as an instrument to integrate the private sector in the provision of erstwhile public urban services under the moniker of ‘progression’ and ‘smartness’. The strategy amplifies the role of private actors and private capital in the management and in the transformations of cities, with all the risks widely discussed. From this perspective, the smart city project may not fuel a radically new urban vision for the future, but rather may well reiterate old logics of urban boosterism and urban entrepreneurialism, at a time when new urban alternatives based on radical changes in lifestyles, cultures and economic practices are in desperate need.

For more on the series go to the Cities in Conflict main page.

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