The Smart City is a huge, vague and ubiquitous idea. The phrase—so insistent yet so slippery—suggests a way we can understand how cities work and how we might get them to work better. But deep down it raises serious questions of what we think cities are and what they could or should be. And the idea that it suggests—of the relationship between the physical and digital attributes of the city—is far too important to outsource to corporate providers.
Every age has its own idealized image of the city. From the ancient Athenian polis that invented the notion that we are citizens of a political and social framework, through the 19th-century vision of the city-as-body that gave us the “circulation” of traffic as if it were blood, to the 20th-century conception of the city as fabric of the welfare state, these ideas and metaphors have shaped, first, how we understand the city, and then helped make the city in that image.
The Smart City is our own era’s idealized image of the city. It imagines the city as an ecosystem of data, nature and culture. The image it suggests is of information gently collected as we cycle through a park, the soft whirr of a sensory device embedded in the fabric of the city tracking us. Smartness suggests the city itself gaining a kind of intelligence, an intelligence that is responsive and interactive with its citizens.
It’s the kind of benign techno-utopian fantasy that we’re well familiar with, sharing as it does so mush of the optimism of early Internet culture. Indeed, the Smart City is a post-digital phenomenon. It’s the city as framed by the digital—the physical fabric of the city plus all the flows, velocities, trajectories, systems and networks that pulse through it.
Early Internet culture promised to evolve new, brick-less, pixelated, virtual worlds that would liberate us from traditional hierarchies, power structures and societal definitions. But now digital culture is part of the physical world: Bricks and pixels are tightly interwoven.
Brickstarter used digital platforms to develop a suite of new participative municipal strategies
The promise of the Smart City is of efficiencies, of data collection and number crunching, of algorithms performing dexterous maneuvers. It promises, too, to re-negotiate our individual relationship to the city, offering new forms of interaction with services that suggest a new kind of city-democracy. The examples of this are myriad: apps that allow citizens to “adopt” city property like trees and fire hydrants; dynamic touchscreen kiosks distributed throughout a metropolis; Brickstarter, developed by Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, which used social media and digital platforms to develop a suite of new participative municipal strategies, legislative frameworks and political structures. All these alongside the out-and-out commercial apps like Uber and Airbnb that interface with traditional city services. In the immediate postwar period, if you were really smart and wanted to change the world, you’d apply to work for municipal planning departments. Now, the smartest urban-aware minds are more likely to be developing apps. It’s software and interfaces with the city—rather than the hardware of traditional urban planning—that’s now the frontier where it seems the city might be reimagined.
But just like all of those early promises of the Internet—of the dissolution of traditional boundaries, the disruption of vested interests, the freedom of inventing new paradigms—we are right to remain suspicious. In part, precisely because of the failures of digital culture to deliver on those freedoms. Instead, the Internet has increasingly become the domain of gigantic corporations whose morality and sense of duty has often been called into question, on everything from issues of tax “efficiency” to privacy.
The Smart City comes to us through these corporate interests. It comes hand in hand with the privatization of public space and the privatization of public services that once were the responsibility of municipal government. It comes as a solution to the shrinking capabilities of municipal power and the decline of local governments’ own ability or willingness to administrate or provide services.
In the UK, the joke goes that whomever you vote into City Hall, you’ll get Serco—or one of the other outsourcing companies providing everything from public and private transport and traffic control to aviation, military weapons, detention centers, prisons and schools. Many of the things a city once did—or things we still thought it did—are now contracted out to the private sector. As Serco explains on its website: “With rising service expectations, finite resources and budget deficits ... Serco helps governments and corporations across the world deliver better services for less.”
As the conception of the municipal authorities are broken up and privatized, and their tax revenues reduced, a new raft of companies are positioning themselves to take on these roles. Companies such as Serco, Cisco and Siemens offer cities and their mayors a range of services, from infrastructure “solutions” to urban planning. The demand for these services is huge. But that is also because cities right now have nowhere else to go.
The Smart City is the gloss that’s applied to this fundamental shift in the nature of the city. It’s a way of describing these changes without having to acknowledge the failure of the late-20th-century model of the social-democratic city, and without having to declare the market-oriented ideology of the 21st-century city.
And that is the biggest danger of the Smart City. Of course, we’d all like our cities to be cleaner, smarter, greener—even more "livable," if that is something one can still say without conjuring the image of bland city-ranking surveys. And, of course, new technology, big data and interactivity are ways of helping to rethink the city.
The Smart City is a way of describing these changes without having to acknowledge the failure of the late-20th-century model of the social-democratic city, and without having to declare the market-oriented ideology of the 21st-century city.
But the only way we can really achieve "smarter" cities is to stay smart to the fact that cities are political and social entities as much as they are technical problems to be solved. Really being smart would mean articulating a clearer idea of what contemporary cities actually are. For that we need to draw on the thousands of years of urban culture, on the history, theory and practice of the city itself. We need to draw on the expertise of the old roles of city-making—of architect, planner, developer, municipal authority and politician, roles that are increasingly eclipsed by the corporate logos of Smart City consultancies. Instead, they should be joined at the table by coders, software developers, data wranglers and a whole host of new roles that can weave the digital into the fabric of the city.
A real smarter city would be one that openly acknowledges the inherent politics of the city. One that has a fuller understanding of the texture and depth of what life can be. One that recognizes the sheer difficulty of the idea of the city and, most importantly, its fundamentally democratic nature.
We should beware the takeover of urban culture by management consultants and technology firms. The city is us: nothing less than the summation of our collective desires made real, the physical precipitation of the abstract ideas of society and culture, democracy precipitated into stone. The question we should ask in the face of the rising ubiquity of Smart City culture is: Who is the city for? And there isn’t an app for that.
For more on Jacob's work, read his answers to our Core77 Questionnaire from last November.
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This article is part of the Core77 Tech-tacular, an editorial series exploring the myriad ways that technologies are shaping the future of design.