Dismantling the smart city

By Adam Greenfield

Masdar smart city

Have you noticed how increasingly difficult it is to open a magazine, turn on the television or make one’s daily rounds online without tripping across something called the ‘smart city’? As I write these words, as a matter of fact, it’s right there on the front page of the BBC website, which has devoted some of its prime on-screen space to an article surveying such places around the world, and arguing that these are the “cities of tomorrow”.

What do those words even mean, though? And what might all this interest in the smart city imply for the places we live in?
For clarity’s sake, we should separate out the two complementary but entirely distinct lines of thought and development that tend to get conflated any time the subject of the smart city arises. Originally, the phrase was used to describe a small number of development projects initiated over the past decade – blank-slate efforts like the Korean New Songdo, Masdar City (below) in the United Arab Emirates, and a curious development in Portugal called PlanIT Valley. These are smallish environments, the size of a new town at best, that have been designed from the ground up with information-processing capabilities quite literally embedded in all the objects, surfaces, spaces and interactions of everyday life. The roadways and the lamp posts and the buildings, even the city’s sewerage system: in these schemes, all of these things are to be networked, they all talk to one another in the universal digital language of ones and zeroes, and all of them adjust their performance in real time as conditions change.

There has been no dearth of breathless commentary on these places over the past half-decade. They’ve been held up to us as forerunners and exemplars of the kind of urban environment we might inhabit once the cities of Earth have been decisively colonised by networked informatics, in publications ranging from eager design blogs straight through to The Economist. Although they exist in varying degrees of completion (with PlanIT Valley in particular being little more than a perpetually deferred set of claims and promises), they are collectively offered to us as the prototype, the polestar and in many ways the reference point for the systems undergirding our 21st-century urbanity.

There is, however, something else the phrase ‘smart city’ refers to: the broader and far more consequential effort to retrofit networked information technologies into existing spaces. From sensors in the skip and cameras on the lamp posts to smart-card readers in the London Underground, it’s partly about the deployment of sensing devices throughout the urban fabric – but it’s primarily about the centralised capture and analysis of the data produced by all of these devices.

The intent of all this computational scrutiny is to make every one of a city’s processes visible to its managers, and ultimately to permit the ‘optimisation’ of all the flows of matter, energy and information that constitute a great urban place. This obviously has a certain appeal in times of austerity, when municipal administrators as much as any of the rest of us must learn to do more with less.

The epitome of this approach is the Intelligent Operations Center built by IBM for the city of Rio de Janeiro, a $14m facility that fuses data from weather stations, traffic cameras, police patrols, sewer-mounted sensors and social media into a synoptic, war room-style overview. This might not be as ambitious as the original, from-the-ground-up smart cities. But it will ultimately affect many, many more of us, by serving as a model for the hundreds of municipalities that have embraced some kind of smart-city scheme or initiative in the past few years.

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Hundreds of billions of dollars will be devoted to integrating networked information technology into the management of our cities over the next decade. And virtually all of this activity will take place under the banner of the smart city. For all of the interest and coverage, though, this body of thought remains distressingly short on specifics. Here are a few things I believe it’s important to bear in mind every time we hear the phrase:

There’s no standard or commonly agreed-upon definition of the term.
No matter how expert they may be, no two people you ask will have quite the same definition of a smart city. Oh, sure, as we’ve already seen, it certainly has something to do with sensors embedded in the urban environment, and data collection, and computational analysis applied to that data. But beyond that, there is no consensus at all as to what such an effort should cost, what kind of resources it merits, and what results we as citizens and ratepayers should expect.

It isn’t simply a neutral way of describing information technology in the urban environment.
In fact, it has very little to do with the smartphone. Somewhat unbelievably, almost none of the smart-city schemes bother to incorporate personal devices, except as passive sources of information about where their users are, and possibly what they happen to be engaged in.

Instead, what you’re being exposed to is a very specific discourse about how information-processing systems can be used to streamline the delivery of municipal services and make them more efficient. The keyword here is centralised: these are systems for governments to buy and deploy, and not ones citizens are expected to engage with directly.

This idea doesn’t arise out of any particular familiarity with cities, their problems, or the history of urbanism.
Although this set of ideas certainly has an intellectual ancestry, the current notion of the smart city appears to have originated within global businesses, rather than with anyone recognised for their contributions to the theory or practice of urban planning. It’s as if the foundational works of 20th-century urbanist thought had been collectively authored by United States Steel, General Motors, the Otis Elevator Company and Bell Telephone rather than Le Corbusier or Jane Jacobs.

Ordinarily, the provenance of an idea ought not to matter: a good idea is a good idea. But it is telling that the only parties making a case for the smart city – and, as the BBC, Guardian and Economist coverage suggests, doing so fairly successfully – are those who stand to benefit directly. The further into smart-city literature you get, in fact, the more you realise that it’s unlikely the authors involved anyone with the slightest familiarity with real cities or the ways in which they generate meaning and value.

It places entirely too much emphasis on ‘efficiency’ and an entirely inappropriate model of optimisation.
‘Optimisation’ in contemporary accounts of the smart city is an instance of semantic contamination, in which an idea from the culture of business administration has been ‘copied and pasted’ into a realm where it has no place and makes no sense.

Business processes may certainly be optimised for efficiency; so too may computational processes. So on the surface of things, it may seem reasonable to think cities are susceptible to this approach. After all, it’s an easy conceptual slide from optimising machines, to optimising their management, before optimising the activity to which the management is dedicated. But the blithe language of business masks some sloppy thinking.

What looks like inefficiency on the surface may turn out to have hidden benefits, particularly those relating to a community’s ability to learn from its experiences, or to recover in a reasonably timely manner once disrupted. It’s a city’s seemingly inefficient excess capacity that allows it the luxury of trying various approaches to problem solving, and the freedom to search the total space of possibility for a better solution, even when things appear to be working well.

The same slackness grants individuals the opportunity to develop skills that might not seem useful, but which may one day turn out to be vital to their survival. And it buffers the whole system against the rise of unforeseen circumstances, as for example when otherwise vacant housing stock is used to shelter people displaced by a natural disaster.

The relentless focus on efficiency also overlooks the many simple pleasures afforded by city life that would be utterly unimproved by any notional optimisation. Most of us probably have a favourite example in mind, whether it be the evening stroll so distinctive of the cultures of Southern Europe, the fine art of summertime stoop-sitting in Brooklyn, West Philadelphia and Baltimore, or the impromptu game parlours you’ll sometimes see old men put together on the sidewalks of Seoul, out of little more than a gameboard and a folded piece of cardboard to sit on. These are experiences that have nothing to do with efficiency, that cannot be enhanced by computational analysis, and that would suffer terribly from any attempt to impose it.

The idea that a city is something that can and ought to be managed like a technical system is so obviously flawed that its persistence can be hard to explain. It betrays at best a shallow understanding of the mechanisms through which a city learns, diagnoses and repairs itself, and, as we’ve seen, it utterly fails to account for the qualities that underlie love of place. A city whose interwoven processes actually were “regulated and controlled” as anticipated in the smart-city literature would be neither a healthy nor a particularly pleasant place to live. If nothing else, we should never forget to ask: optimised toward what end, by whom, and for whose benefit?

The smart city’s capabilities are deployed almost exclusively for the benefit of administrators.
If the notion of optimisation makes little sense outside of a system optimised for the needs of a particular party, who might that party be?

A 2012 presentation on smart cities prepared by the Gartner consulting firm furnishes us with a first clue. It lists “inhabitants” as the last and least significant of stakeholders in the urban ecosystem, and even then this category is apparently meant to include “individuals, businesses and NGOs”.

This perspective is far from atypical. Citizens, by and large, are absent from the prevailing visions of the smart city except as generators of data (and, perhaps, as undifferentiated consumers of ‘the ultimate urban lifestyle’). And that sheds further light on just who these massive investments are intended to benefit. The frank aim of all this instrumentation, data collection and analysis is to furnish managers with a not-entirely-metaphorical set of knobs, sliders and dials they can use to modulate the behaviour of the city, and its citizens, as though they were playing an elaborate game of SimCity.

There’s probably no better current example of this tendency than the Intelligent Operations Center itself. IBM intends their offering to “synchronize and analyse” not citizen efforts, but those of “sectors and agencies”. The role of the citizen in this schema is simply to generate data that can be aggregated and subjected to analytical inquiry, with an eye toward refining the actions that matter: those taken by market and state actors. In none of the material I was able to track down does IBM make any practical provision for sharing the “consolidated information” produced by their Intelligent Operations Center with the people whose actions generated it in the first place. Even where there is some provision made for citizen-facing information in smart-city literature, it’s as a paid service delivering synthesized findings in the form of alerts and advisories.

The sharing of raw data or analytical products with the public via open channels is extremely low. It’s therefore hard to interpret its absence as anything but a deliberate exclusion – an explicit statement of belief that administrators are entitled to avail themselves of perspectives denied the public. The smart city sees to the prerogatives of administrators not merely ahead of but to the virtual exclusion of any other.

The smart city provides disturbingly fertile ground for authoritarianism.
Very often in the extant smart-city literature, we find that the obsession with the observation and control of urban processes shades imperceptibly into the desire to observe and control citizen behaviour. But we shouldn’t be surprised by this: the very armature of technical capabilities that makes the smart city what it is easily lends itself to practices of oppression, furnishing would-be authoritarian institutions with a toolkit ready made for their purposes. Among these tools are the ability to identify individuals via the analysis of unique biometric signatures; track their movement through space and time; monitor and assess the things they say and do; and predict likely courses of action, including future patterns of movement and association, based on that assessment. These things are far from incidental to the conception of the smart city ‒ in fact, they are precisely the same capabilities that underlie proponents’ claims about efficiency, optimisation and improved delivery of services. You literally cannot have a smart city without them.

These technologies mesh particularly well with an authoritarian government’s interest in monitoring dissenters, anticipating likely sources of resistance, and forestalling or suppressing acts (or actors) perceived as challenging their claim to legitimacy. It may well be that there are readers who have no particular problem with any of this, provided streets are cleaned, the traffic flows smoothly, the revenue targets are met and the proverbial trains run on time. But however carefully it may be hidden, authoritarian efficiency is always founded on violence of one sort or another. I’m willing to bet that for the greater part of us, the authoritarianism lurking beneath the smart city’s gleaming surfaces will tend to cast the whole endeavour into the darkest shadow.

It’s not at all clear that there’s anything particularly urban about it.
For example, there’s nothing about the software that IBM developed to run its Intelligent Operations Center that might meaningfully distinguish it from an interface one would use to manage the operations of any other large and reasonably complicated system ‒ a hospital, say, or a hotel, or an aircraft carrier. The same goes for Living PlanIT’s Urban Network Appliance, based on engine-control unit software originally developed by McLaren Electronics for Formula 1 racing. There may well be a considerable amount of ingenuity involved in finding these new uses and applications for off-the-shelf components, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves that the endeavour is in any way based on an appreciation of the city’s unique textures or challenges.

What emerges from smart city discourse is a discomfort with unpredictability, a positive terror of the unforeseen and emergent ‒ in short, a palpable nervousness about the urban itself. The technologies mentioned in this essay are explicitly designed to cut down on, and if possible eliminate, the uncertainty we associate with any true city, instead of dedicating themselves to maintaining “an environment where companies can create jobs for citizens, and products and services for citizens and other consumers.”

That’s it. That’s the entire conception of public responsibility as it is articulated in the materials I studied. These particular words are Living PlanIT’s, but they’re virtually identical with framings offered by their peers. The purpose and charter of municipal governance, in this literature, extends little further than the imperative to maximise shareholder value.

quote3When the ambitions at the heart of this endeavour are stated so baldly, of course, they’re not particularly appealing, which is why they’re generally tarted up for public consumption with talk about “enhanced citizen engagement” or “sustainability”. In my view, the deepest truth of all about the smart city is bound up in that particularly infelicitous phrase from Living PlanIT’s material: “occupant support and convenience systems”. Every dive bar and every farmers’ market, every playground or cinematheque or Michelin-starred restaurant, all the bodegas, bike shops and edgy boutiques, the rib shacks and fetish clubs and flower festivals  all of that, and everything implied by them, Living PlanIT reduces to those five fatal words.

Say them out loud: “Occupant support and convenience systems”. You have to wonder about the priorities of an enterprise that can manage to describe everything that gives city life its texture in quite that way. It’s virtually impossible for me to reconcile my most cherished memories of city life  gulping down a midnight doner in a ring of friends at a stand in Mitte, as the most awful Euro House tunes blared; shouldering the happy babble in an arcade off Istiklal Caddesi; or following the sudden smell of toasting tea wafting up a Shibuya Station stairway  with that kind of mindset.

We’ve made these mistakes before.

If just about all of this seems faintly familiar  the cosiness with autocrats, the boundless faith in technology and the horror of the actually urban ‒ maybe that’s because this is a road we’ve travelled down before.

As it happens, virtually every single one of the principles we’ve here identified at the core of the smart-city proposition were originally advanced during the 80 years between 1880 and 1960, a period that saw the gestation and ascendancy of high modernism in urban planning. Certainly, much of the sorrow I feel whenever the concept of the smart city is taken seriously is driven by the sense that we’ve been here before, and ought to have learned these lessons. The refusal to take the living city seriously and reckon with it ‒ as it is ‒ is bad enough, but the specific tragedy of the smart city is that we know better. We’ve been down this road before. We know where it ends: in demolished housing estates like Pruitt-Igoe in St Louis and London’s Robin Hood Gardens, and in dusty, unloved metropolises like Chandigarh and Brasilia. There’s surely a more complicated story here, but there’s no reason to go through this again, unless we really are committed to the masochism of learning things the hard way.

So this is what the smart city is and what it means. I believe that unless this conception of the ‘cities of tomorrow’ is challenged, and alternative models successfully fleshed out, this is simply how our cities will be managed for many years to come.

I believe that the narrative of the smart city as it is currently being articulated represents some of the least interesting and the most problematic scenarios. The time to challenge this body of intellectual production, to develop and advance and debate alternative conceptions, is now.

As citizens and dwellers in cities, ultimately the relevant questions aren’t those of efficiency, or performance on any metric at all, but whether or not we feel we derive benefit from living in the networked city – and most importantly of all, whether or not we like being the kind of person that living there makes of us. That, after all, is the point of technology, and it’s something we must never lose sight of, no matter how convincing the advocates of the smart city.

Adam Greenfield is the author of Against the Smart City, out now at speedbird.wordpress.com