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That Smarts: Against the Smart City

The zeitgeisty narrative of the smartcity is breathlessly positive - but what lies beyond the PR talk and press releases?

Over the last 20 years, the use of certain narratives has dominated our understanding of cities. The term ‘narrative’ means story. These are the stories which are used to shape the way we see the urban environment and they are invariably promoted by corporate interests, in particular developers and the marketing and PR departments that work for them.

The narratives are ubiquitous. Even the term ‘regeneration’ has a narrative attached to it, based on the etymology of the word which means rebirth, rather than the more prosaic term ‘redevelopment’ which it replaced. This notion of the regeneration process as akin to a phoenix rising from the ashes of the old industrial economy was promoted enthusiastically by PRs and developers in the 1990s, as the empty spaces left behind by heavy industry − warehouses, factories and docklands − made way for the privatised financial centres, shopping complexes and luxury apartments of the new economy.

The transformation of old industrial space in the centre of cities was also called ‘the urban renaissance’, another narrative which posited that while people had left the dirty and dangerous industrial city in favour of suburbs and green fields, new ‘clean and safe’ developments − another narrative − were encouraging a return to city centres.

Adam Greenfield’s recently published book, Against the Smart City is a diatribe against today’s zeitgeisty narrative on the urban environment which is the notion of the ‘smart city’. Greenfield makes it clear that the breathlessly positive tale we are told of the highly networked city and the discourse around it has been framed and driven forward almost entirely by the corporate interests which stand to benefit from it.

Chief among these are IBM, Cisco Systems and Siemens AG, the companies that are at the forefront of the production of ‘smart city’ technology and the hyperbole which promotes it. Samsung, Intel, Philips and Hitachi are also increasingly active in this sphere.

In the words of a particularly chilling statement from Siemens: ‘Several decades from now, cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption and provide optimum service.’

Greenfield deconstructs this vision of the ‘smart city’ by focusing primarily on what he calls smart cities in their ‘purest form’. These are the blank slate development projects of Korean New Songdo, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and PlanIT Valley in Portugal, effectively smart city laboratories which have information-processing technologies embedded in them. Although only a tiny minority will ever live in these places, he argues that what is intended for them will determine the application of smart city technologies in other places and therefore should be studied closely. His investigation of the subject is based on a forensic reading of the reams of PR guff produced about the technology, which he accurately describes as self-interested press releases, fawning blog posts and lite reporting.

Terminology which he takes particular aim at includes the notion of seamlessness, where users live ‘unaware of the network’ which is making their lives so much more convenient. But this sense of effortlessness comes at a price, offering consumers little insight into how the technology works and leaving them powerless should the iris scanner fail to work or the security gates break down.

It also has political implications, with the seamless integration between public and private services removing democratic accountability. The smart city is not only a highly networked place, it is an increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic place, aimed at users and consumers rather than at citizens. These are invariably privately owned and privately controlled places, albeit ones often propped up by public subsidy.

Greenfield’s analysis is spot on but his focus on the blank-slate, contemporary new-town projects is a little limiting. In his critique of places like Songdo and Masdar City he points out that these ‘overspecified’ places, with their vision of sensors in the pavements, bus stops and recycling bins, have been superseded by the arrival of smart phones and tablets.

What would move the debate on is an equally forensic investigation into how highly networked places will interact with networked individuals with their smart phones and tablets. Highly networked places are not limited to Songdo and Masdar City, the contemporary city is already chock-full of them, especially in privatised estates, from finance centres such as Canary Wharf to open-air malls such as Liverpool One and Stratford City in London.

Private, highly networked spaces such as malls are already monitoring the presence of passers-by through their phones and bombarding them with targeted marketing material as a result. Greenfield’s investigation provides a refreshing and much needed counter to the dominant smart city narrative. But the story is moving on and he should widen his scope to include this. Perhaps that could be the topic of his next book.

Against the Smart City (The City is Here for You to Use Book 1)

Author: Adam Greenfield

Available on Kindle

Price: £5.16

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