Going Beyond Smart Cities

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Since urban regions currently hold more than half of the world’s population, it is more important than ever to develop citizen-centred urban settings. Furthermore, it is imperative to cast off the idea that everything should be ‘smart’ and focus instead on what it will take to gain the trust, participation and contribution from the people living and working in our cities. In contrast to the gleaming images of cities of the future that we see on Google, in reality, our cities are chaotic, organic and self-organising. Thus, technologists need to collaborate with a wide and diverse group of stakeholders to learn how, together, we can create technologies that respond to the everyday ethics, values, and practices of the environments in which people live.  

Whilst smart city solutions typically focus on digital enhancements to existing urban infrastructure, in this article, we propose to go beyond just optimisations. We are entering the next phase of the open internet, where blockchain, distributed ledgers, and smart contracts will play a key role, and data is the new fuel of cities. Fine-grained information from mobile phones, social media platforms, and a wide variety of open data sources can help us understand the complex choices that people make to help us build liveable urban communities which are more inclusive of their citizens

What do current smart cities look like?

Some visions of the urban future are found in the early development sites like Masdar (UAE), Songdo (ROK) and PlanIT Valley (Portugal) etc. These were the original smart cities. But there is more to these places than the landscapes and environments in which they are comprised; they also have a discourse, which is a system of ideas and norms that has strong underlying values and beliefs. Spearheaded by a series of large global corporate enterprises, describe precisely what they think of these smart cities. For them, it is to embed networked informatics, which is to say, digital network information processing systems in every object, surface and relation of the city. So, all of the infrastructures, vehicles, things that surround us in the built environment and even our relations with one another and the natural world occur in this environment. The smart cities these corporate giants envision for our future looks like the intersection of networked information technology and our cities, and this notion of a smart city is partial, incomplete, and unsatisfactory.

From these current tides of development, we can say that the above is a thoroughly technocratic vision. The goal of these smart cities is to establish an optical order, dedicated to the needs of watchfulness from above, and consecrated to the prerogatives of administration. This is what IBM created for the city of Rio De Janeiro – an intelligent operation centre, a fusion centre that runs all of the operations of the city, where all of that information is brought into one place and rendered in visualisations, which are then turned around for the exclusive use of the city’s administrators.[1] Once they had gathered that information, they could have re-offered it to the public through an application programming interface (API) at essentially zero cost. But they chose not to, which suggests that they don’t believe we, as members of the public, ought to have access to that information. A similar centre was built by Cisco for Abu Dhabi.This vision has some major problems, primarily the idea that information is being gathered solely for the use of decision-makers when, after all, the very meaning of democracy is that each of us should, ultimately, be the decision-makers with responsibility for determining the shape of urban life. The most disturbing part of these visions is that they describe these cities as having a goal.[2] How could anything as multi-voiced, multi-sided and heterogeneous as a city ever have a single unitary goal? It’s nonsensical to speak of a city having goals. These companies are capable of taking everything beautiful, meaningful, and valuable about a city, everything that generates experience and memory, and thinking of it as occupant support, and convenience system – as if it were some air conditioning duct on a space station. It should concern us that these people are proposing to intervene in our cities by describing smart cities as the missing link between the sectors of real estate and technology.

The issues with the current smart city model

The goal of the current smart cities, in one sentence, is ‘the computational extraction of value from everyday activity,’ and not merely the extraction of value, but the preservation of that value for a tiny minority. Not value that is shared with those of us who are generating it.

Another goal of the smart city is to optimise resource utilisation and minimise disruption. The idea is to use the population of a city as the raw material. The smart city has no way of accounting for these very salient activities which make up so much of the meaning and culture of cities on earth. It has no way of accounting for activities like informal housing or practices, informal mobility or the delivery of informal services. The International Labour Organization acknowledges that more than 60% of the world’s employed population is in the informal economy.[3] So, we ought to be concerned about a model of economic activity that does not account for the informal sector at all.

The example above of a smart city has no way of accounting for these very salient activities either, such as protests. The smart city conceives the practice of democracy as a disruption. That is precisely what IBM means when they say minimise disruption. They mean minimising the practice of democracy. In their developer guidelines for the intelligent operation system manual, IBM explicitly have questions like – “which streets will require the most troops?” The special operations police battalion of Rio de Janeiro – is a police force that has been cited by amnesty international with multiple violations of human rights abuses and civil liberties.[4]

What subjectivity is the smart city intended to reproduce? What vision of everyday life is encompassed by it? Well, in the marketing materials that these vendors offer us, we see a very clear and consistent vision – it is to be a lifestyle of consumption, convenience and security, but that too, also, for a very few, and a permanent state of exception for everyone else. The real problem with the current smart city is that, as a discourse, it has nothing to do with cities. It treats our urban environments as terrain or a market. It speaks of these bizarre ideas, such as that a city might have a goal. Or that everything that gives meaning, value, texture and resonance to our lives might simply be occupant support and convenience systems. This is the smart city – that is utterly predicated on a neo-liberal political economy. Something that is disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism and control from the top down. Something that is evacuated of content, evacuated of history, evacuated of politics, hence evacuated of urbanity itself.

The Future of Smart Cities

The good thing about it being discourse and a rhetoric production is that – it is not an inevitability. It is just one selection from the sheaf of techno-social possibilities available to us. What we ought to be building together is not a smart city at all but a conscious, aware, and living practice of networked urbanism. When we speak about data-driven urbanism or networked cities, we need to ask ourselves questions about the provenance and data. If we want to design smart cities that truly respond to the conditions of our lives, we need to be asking ourselves – who made that data? Who gathered it? How can we as citizens gain access to it, and what can we, as communities and as individuals, do with it?

We need to have a different set of values guiding our work. In setting out to design the technologised cities of the 21st century, we must ensure that where the public generates data, it has meaningful access to/ownership of that data. We ought to be resisting concentrations and asymmetries of network-derived power and knowledge. We ought to be preventing the capture of the commons by private interest. Most importantly, we need to inscribe a robust conception of the right to the city in networked objects, services and relations.


[1]https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/04/business/ibm-takes-smarter-cities-concept-to-rio-de-janeiro.html 

[2]https://www.twi-global.com/technical-knowledge/faqs/what-is-a-smart-city#:~:text=The%20main%20goal%20of%20a,how%20much%20technology%20is%20available

[3]https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_627189/lang–en/index.htm 

[4]https://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-04/amnesty-accuses-rio-police-of-killing-with-impunity/6670688

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Animesh Jain

Animesh Jain

Animesh Jain is a Senior Manager, Government Relations & Policy at MKAI. He has completed his MA in international security with concentrations in China & East Asia and Diplomacy from Sciences Po, Paris. He has previously worked with organizations including Kubernein Initiative, Tianjin Intertech Corporation, AI Policy Labs, National Skill Development Corporation and Observers Research Foundation in different capacities.

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Going Beyond Smart Cities