A Reaction to “Technology and the Future of Cities”: Uneven Development and Expertise in the ‘Smart City’

By Taylor Shelton and Jennifer Clark

Smart City parking in Montreal, from the author’s files


On February 23rd, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released the report “Technology and the Future of Cities.” The report outlines a federal strategy to guide investment and engagement in ‘Smart Cities’ initiatives. Although the definition of a ‘Smart City’ remains nebulous in “Technology and the Future of Cities,” what matters more than any formal definition of the term are the ways that PCAST’s analysis and recommendations influence the production of the Smart City as it is. That is, the PCAST report is likely to have significant ramifications for many Smart Cities initiatives currently planned and deployed across the country.

Although the topic covered in “Technology and the Future of Cities” is understood as critical to US economic competitiveness, the future of cities report itself has been met with mixed reviews. One prominent player in the Smart Cities space has called the report “a rambling, sloppy embarrassment that fails to capture even the basics of a smart city.” On the other hand, Richard Florida’s assessment at CityLab is much more positive about the potential for this exercise to place cities at the center of federal technology and innovation policy.  This later view is consistent with the recent efforts of advocates of federal investment in technology to link cities to innovation policy more explicitly.

Rather than focus on the definitional or public management issues in the report, we highlight here two key elements worthy of closer attention.

The first issue of interest in “Technology and the Future of Cities” is also the most explicitly geographic: a focus on the creation of ‘urban development districts’ as test-beds for the implementation of smart city ideas and technologies. It is important to highlight the report recommends that the development of Smart Cities happens not at the scale of the city, but rather in ‘discrete regions within cities,’ where “[a] district does not necessarily have a predefined scale, nor must it fall within the political boundaries of a single city” (p. 2).

The report focuses on these ‘urban development districts,’ arguing that “[d]istricts offer larger cities the chance to take on these challenges in bite-sized stages” (p. 8).  It is true that smaller scale, test-bed or ‘living lab’-style implementations are useful for assessing the utility and interoperability of certain technologies or approaches. However, it is important to recognize what an urban development strategy built entirely around these spaces means for cities as a whole: continued uneven development.

In short, these test-beds aren’t problematic only because of issues related to combining and interlinking incommensurable systems that are, and will continue to be, developed in isolation from one another. The focus on specific intra-urban territories risks reinforcing and deepening the social and spatial inequalities within cities. Even though American cities have long since given up on what Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin called the ‘modern infrastructural ideal’ of pervasive and integrating infrastructural connections, the targeting of smaller districts within cities is likely only to create new forms of ‘secessionary network spaces.’ These kinds of ‘smart enclaves’ will be highly connected both within their boundaries and to quite distant places through networks of fiber optic cables, but will likely be functionally distinct from the surrounding neighborhoods and urban area that lack such advanced infrastructure and technology.

Although the report recommends some of these targeted districts should be located within low-income communities, a vision of the Smart City promoted by a district-centric implementation remains one of significant socio-spatial fragmentation and differentiation. Some places are inevitably privileged over others in the provision of new technology services, and it is unclear whether places neglected in the first rounds of these programs will ever see similar levels of investment.

It is also worth noting the broader context of these district-level implementation strategies in the history of urban economic development. Recall the evolution of various ‘zones’ -– ‘free trade zones,’ ‘enterprise zones,’ ‘empowerment zones,’ ‘promise zones’ -– designated for special services or tax advantages intended to drive development into such territories (and, necessarily, away from or out of others). Literature on this matter records mixed results and significant debate (indeed, this was one of the “great debates” in urban policy between Peter Hall and Bill Goldsmith, among others). In any case, provision of special technology services in some neighborhoods, but not others, raises serious concerns about fairness and justice in our cities. Unfortunately, the PCAST report places minimal emphasis on such matters, meaning that the significant planned investments into new infrastructures and technologies are more likely to deepen these longstanding inequalities.

The second issue of interest relates to the type of expertise that is (or isn’t) present in its construction and the formation of its conclusions. This involves recognizing and understanding the history of inequality and cities. A small number of the 100+ listed contributors to the PCAST report represent the perspective or expertise of the social sciences focused on cities and the urban scale. The technoscientific orientation of the report instead privileges experts in the sciences and engineering from both academia and from industry. Indeed, the burgeoning field of ‘urban science’ — founded on the principle that the conventional urban social sciences have been insufficiently scientific — occupies a prominent place in the content, as well as construction, of the report. This prominence of ‘urban science’ contrasts with a conspicuous absence of established disciplines such as urban geography, urban sociology, urban history, urban economics, urban anthropology, and urban planning.

This report is yet another signifier that the production of urban knowledge, especially that which is deemed useful for governance and administration, is increasingly disconnected from the last century of in-depth urban scholarship. Today, instead, urban knowledge is increasingly focused on the ability to gather, process and analyze massive datasets about any number of urban (or not-so-urban) phenomena. The role of the urban social sciences in the development of the federal government’s smart cities initiatives is given scant mention in the report, except to mention that “[g]iven earlier discussions regarding the interplay between technology and norms of behavior, it will also be essential to integrate social, behavioral, and economic sciences with these more traditional infrastructure sciences” (p. 41).  

Ultimately, the likely substantial financial investments in smart cities that will be made by the federal government represent an exciting opportunity for anyone interested in US cities. It remains to be seen, However whether the preoccupation with new technologies obfuscates the critical issue of whether provisioning fundamental services is dictated by efficiency or equality. Given the general absence of perspectives from the urban social sciences in the current conversation, it is difficult to see how investments will be equitably targeted. Instead, failures to attend to the ways urban spatial inequalities are produced means contemporary smart cities initiatives, like those advocated for in “Technology and the Future of Cities,” will simply fall into the trap of exacerbating uneven development.  Or, as has often been the case, the report and its recommendations — like US cities themselves — will be ignored.


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