by Chris Thayer, Center for Urban Innovation
In 2014, my CUI colleague, Taylor Shelton wrote an article entitled the “Actually Existing ‘Smart City’,” which discussed examples of the idealized smart city, typically in the form of generating and installing new technologies and forms of data-gathering, which may be intended to support a particular civic purpose or might also apparently be for the sake of the technology itself. The article problematized the exclusively technical orientation of much of smart cities practice, but overlooked a deeper question that many researchers and policymakers in the emerging industry have ignored: what is, and more importantly, what should be the definition of this “smart city” that is thought to perhaps “actually exist” among current cities?
When such a question is proposed, of course answers will vary based on the background and experiences of the expert consulted. Mostly commonly, the smart city is held to be an urbanized district — not necessarily the entire city itself — with closely integrated technologies, such as sensor arrays and other data-collection tools and hi-tech efficiency boosts to existing systems. Those with a more public-minded bent may bring up civic hackathons and the ideal of greater connection between governments and the governed, though both the technological know-how (discussed here by CUI contributor Thomas Lodato) required to participate and the sometimes moribund nature of governments in an era of neoliberal devolution makes the enthusiasm for such efforts perhaps misplaced. For those with an eye to the oft-neglected physicality of government provision, international smart cities development calls into sharp relief the risk of prioritizing “hot” (and often invisible) smart city interventions with expensive, time-consuming, unpopular infrastructure construction, even as other experts call for additional infrastructure emplacements in order to support further smart city developments. However, these approaches seldom consider the existing structure and nature of the cities upon which these new technologies are grafted.
This is hardly the first age in which an influx of new technologies, driven forward by commercial interests, drastically reshaped urban life as we know it. Certain changes are well-known and oft-discussed, such as industrialization’s reshaping and intensification of the density and bustle of city life, coupled with new high-quality steel, inspired everything from the dumbbell tenement to the beginnings of the city planning profession. Likewise, we are still feeling the ongoing effects of the changes begun a scant handful of decades later, when the personal automobile began exponentially accelerating the streetcar-driven stirrings of suburbanization, creating previously unimaginable, and perhaps fundamentally ungovernable, urban sprawls. Indeed, not only did cities create the original information technology of writing, as Townsend noted, but they were also undone by technology — and government mismanagement thereof — as early as 1788 B.C.E. In Ur (in Mesopotamia), a poorly-executed government crackdown on predatory lending practices (enabled by the financially sophisticated cuneiform-on-clay contracts of the time) resulted in major international trade haltage and an accompanying permanent loss in city wealth and status from which it was unable to ever recover. The pace and extent of technological integration has only increased since those earliest known foibles. Therefore, we must be cautious when considering our responses to — and integration of — the increasingly speedy, invisible, and powerful technological interventions associated with the current “actually existing” concept of the smart city, and our redefinition of the same, and the qualities of the city that currently exists in fact.
In this tension between the practical city as it stands today and the technological improvements the “smart city” concept advocates, we may see an echo of the divide between analog and digital signals. Indeed, much like cities, analog signals transmit information via continuous change. Cities aren’t finite, as digital signals are, and neither are they degradation-proof. What’s more, cities are capable of infinite variations, making the addition of “noise” all but guaranteed when attempting to digitize them, just like any other organic source of information. What remains to be seen is if the replicability of digital signals will carry over into the digital city — will we at last be able to see smooth, lossless policy transfers between these new technological marvels, or will their signals be blurred with metaphorical quantization noise, their efficiency reduced? The advocates of “smarter” cities must take care that their playground’s unique profile not be lost to homogenizing forces of universalized best-practices in the name of transnational interoperability divorced from practical necessity. Part of that mandate necessitates integrating all the functions of a currently existing city into the “smart” plan, not just the mechanical.
The recent PCAST report on smart cities echoes the industry-wide trend of smart city proponents privileging the technological over the social and exhibiting disinterest towards equity concerns and established urban studies fields in favor of “gadgets” and new datasets. Smart cities’ technocratic bent parallels the auto orientation of 1940s sprawl into suburbia, and is in particular similarly being pushed by the titans of industry best positioned to benefit, with little regard for the potential for scattered, incoherent “city-let” fragments left in the wake of the improved “urban development districts” (eerily similar to other “district” approaches that have floundered previously) they advocate. The reformers of the previous century — and it has been just about a century — also chased the City Efficient, though they had less sophisticated tools if no less enthusiastic a will. Without a careful consideration of what we do — and what we should — mean by the term “smart city,” however, we are liable to repeat their mistakes as we favor rapid progress over beneficial progress. It is wise to recall that, in some conceptions, government exists to “polish off” the rougher edges of the market, and that it is unlikely the watchman can watch itself in this instance — that is, to employ unmodified technological approaches taken directly from market solutions. Therefore, we must always keep in mind the need to broaden the definition of the smart city beyond the merely technical — indeed, perhaps directly into the kind of “education, healthcare, or social services“ delivery that PCAST handily dismisses.
Finally, in seeking a fuller definition we must consider how much of this smart city proposition — from the specific availability of data on up to the identification of the city as “smart” — is just so much more booster-istic smoke and mirrors? City machines have been lying to their constituents for centuries, generally with the very best kinds of lies — things that are technically true and also completely devoid of meaning. What’s more, one of the best ways to conceal something is to leave it out in the open, data dumped in the name of “openness” left in some forgotten corner languishing amongst so much more digital detritus, and it seems likely that many smart city transparency mandates — and smart city efforts in general — risk this eventual fate. This is where careful policy and outreach may step in for positive change, above and beyond the debatably effective civic hacking seen thus far. Despite Smart Cities author Anthony Townsend’s tidy definition of the smart city as a “[place] where information technology is combined with infrastructure, architecture, everyday objects, and even our bodies to address social, economic, and environmental problems,” in implementation it is not so simple. Even leading practitioners of smart city interventions such as sensor array testbeds and “sentient” homes have struggled to define this ambiguous term — and this difficulty need not be a negative. On the contrary, the moment of ambiguity that “smart city” is experiencing represents a unique opportunity to introduce intentionality to the definition and broaden it beyond its technocratic derivation. By remembering the lessons of our analog past — be it Mesopotamian or merely BetaMax in patina — we can shape a city that is not only “smart,” but truly wise in including the voices of and satisfying the core needs for all its citizens.
This article was originally written in response to a course assignment in a graduate course in urban policy analysis and practice offered in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy every Fall (PUBP 6604).