The Smart City Bubble?

The Guardian recently published an article that offers critiques on a range of smart city visions. The article opens with a claim that the smart city concept is already passé and a question as to what the next big thing will be. Smart city rhetoric is framed in the article as an attempt by global tech firms to provide city managers with digital keys that unlock the potential of urban society. The article goes on to raise questions about ubiquitous surveillance, discount privacy concerns and democracy. While most of the quotes are taken from professional planners and consultants, stuff the issues raised are also being debated in the academic community.

Although the article opens with a question as to what the next big trend will be in urban planning, salve no clear answer is provided. There are, however, ‘promotional links’ to the Resilient Cities project, which, like the Cities section of the Guardian, is sponsored by the Rockefeller Institute. The article concludes with a quote from Shakespeare: “What is the city but the people?” This is all very fitting given the Resilient Cities Framework (published in April) emphasizes vulnerable populations in urban planning and makes scarce reference to ‘data’ or ‘information’ as is common in smart city materials.

The Guardian article provides readers with a tour of several possible critiques of smart city rhetoric. It accurately points to the hubris with which global tech executives and city managers claim to solve all urban plight with digital upgrades. Does this mean the smart city movement is headed for collapse? It seems unlikely that cities will become less entrepreneurial, less interested in developing research and innovation centers, less eager to use information communication technology or less concerned about environmental sustainability. Perhaps it is more likely that the smart city label could be replaced with a new, more fashionable term. However, that would not signal a change in direction for urban governance. It would simply be the next big label to describe recurrent tropes of urban development.

Can Cities be Smart and Resilient?

In my previous post I problematized a common smart city approach to social justice, cialis which sounds something like ‘offering empowerment and opportunity through technology’. This framing of inequality implies that vulnerable populations can pull themselves up by their digital bootstraps to get their needs met. One of the assumptions underpinning this claim is that vulnerable individuals can simply reposition themselves as smart citizens, order reaping the benefits of the entrepreneurial and inclusive civil society that smart cities allegedly foster.

Smart city discourses often speak first and foremost about opportunities for businesses and citizens that occupy ‘smart’ social locations, capsule and somewhere down the list eventually make a gesture towards vulnerable populations. This suggests that vulnerability is a result of personal choices rather than a product of complex and interrelated social systems. A recent partnership between the Rockefeller Institute and consulting firm Arup takes a different tack.

The ‘City Resilience Framework’ was designed as an analytical tool for assessing the capacity of cities to maintain functionality when encountering ‘stresses or shocks’. This is similar to the theme of managing disruptions that appears in the materials produced by the smart city industry. What makes the City Resilience Framework different is its emphasis on giving consideration to vulnerable populations. This is made particularly clear in the description of the City Resilience Index, which assesses the resiliency of a particular city: “The purpose of the City Resilience Index is to provide cities with a robust, holistic and accessible basis for assessment so that they are better placed to make investment decisions and engage in urban planning practices that ensure people living in cities – particularly the poor and vulnerable – survive and thrive no matter what shocks and stresses they encounter” (Rockefeller and Arup 2014:21).

In 2013 the Rockefeller Foundation started the 100 cities initiative, which provides funding to cities that demonstrate a commitment to resilience. Last month, 35 cities were added to the growing project. Interestingly, many of the cities that received recognition for their commitment to resilience also have well established smart city initiatives. This includes Barcelona, which has a global reputation for being a smart city. If the smart city movement continues to focus on ‘opportunity and empowerment through technology’, social justice advocates might find greater traction for their causes by pushing politicians to pursue resilience frameworks as well.

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.