The Smart City Promise

At the Smart City Expo 2014 in Barcelona a lot of promises were made by politicians and corporate executives. These promises included financial savings, improved service delivery, a more transparent municipal government, increased participation of citizens, reduced environmental damage and fostering social justice. The list goes on. Essentially, any and all aspects of urban life are improved in the ‘smart city’. Moreover, urban life is allegedly improved for all citizens and residents in the smart city, which suggests that the smart city is somehow also the fair city.

A closer reading of the promises being made reveals themes such as empowerment and opportunity, which are familiar terms to the neoliberal urban climate. This suggests that all urban leaders must do to create a smart city is take neoliberal urbanism, add technology and stir. For one global technology firm, the answer to youth unemployment is to open labs where youth can learn the company’s source code and then build applications for it. The point here is not to be critical of these kinds of initiatives. Providing support to non-profit and educational institutions that help youth develop skills is a good thing even if it leashes the youth’s creative projects to that particular company’s operating system.

What is concerning is that ‘opportunity and empowerment through technology’ seems to be the only way inequality is approached by the smart city movement. One city official proudly presented their smart city solution for residents who cannot afford to pay their monthly utilities charges: give them a free consultation on smart energy consumption. Rather than addressing the political and economic conditions that result in citizens not being able to pay for water and electricity, the solution is simply a dash of ‘smart technology’ with a splash of ‘education’.

The Business Improvement District (BID) model of urban management is arguably the predecessor to the smart city movement. BIDs facilitate the privatization of public space, and the use of public funds to support infrastructural upgrades to attract investment. They also facilitate uneven development in cities by concentrating capital investment in select spaces. BIDs are also known for their enhanced surveillance and security practices, which are focused on ensuring a ‘business as usual’ environment. This often means criminalizing and marginalizing undesirable individuals.

The smart city model is more than a technological upgrade to the BID model. It also represents a change in scale. Promoting a business friendly environment is nothing new for cities. However, technological infrastructure is a massive capital investment that requires financing from the city. This reduces the funding available for programs and services that support individuals and families in need. Hopefully, the smart city promise will pay off, and inequality within cities will decline as smart citizens are empowered by technology to take advantage of new economic opportunities. If that does not happen, then it is almost certain that a new wave of smart urban security and surveillance will be called upon to protect the smart city from failed smart citizens.


Posted in Musings.

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