27 August 2014

The Actually Existing Smart City

The smart city under construction in Philadelphia's Navy Yard, October 2012.

The Cambridge Journal of Region, Economy, and Society recently accepted "The Actually Existing Smart City" for publication in an upcoming special issue on the smart city. Taylor Shelton of Clark University, University of Kentucky's Matt Zook, and I co-wrote the essay this spring between Lexington, Tallinn, and Worcester harnessing online, communicative "relatives" of those very technologies that ostensibly build out the smart city. The pre-press essay submission is available in the Social Science Research Network's scholarly essay repository, and I have posted the abstract and introduction below. Speaking for the three of us, we are happy with the results and the argument we make. 

The 'Actually Existing Smart City'


This paper grounds the critique of the ‘smart city’ in its historical and geographical context. Adapting Brenner and Theodore’s notion of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’, we suggest a greater attention be paid to the ‘actually existing smart city’, rather than the exceptional or paradigmatic smart cities of Songdo, Masdar and Living PlanIT Valley. Through a closer analysis of cases in Louisville and Philadelphia, we demonstrate the utility of understanding the material effects of these policies in actual cities around the world, with a particular focus on how and from where these policies have arisen, and how they have unevenly impacted the places that have adopted them.
Smart Cities and Urban Governance in the 21st Century:
With the majority of the world’s population residing in urban areas for the first time in human history, cities are emerging as key sites of social experimentation and problem solving in the twenty-first century (Lehrer 2010; Glaeser 2011; Katz and Bradley 2013; Grabar 2013). This demographic pressure, coupled with the twin crises of a rapidly warming global climate and lingering economic instability has led to a range of new conceptualizations of the city and concomitant policy prescriptions that place cities at the center of solutions to these problems.

One of the more significant examples is that of the ‘smart city’, a somewhat nebulous idea which seeks to apply the massive amounts of digital data collected about society as a means to rationalize the planning and management of cities (cf. Townsend 2013). According to IBM, one of the major corporate players promoting this particular vision of the future city, policy makers should approach cities as a “complex network of interconnected systems” (IBM 2010), constantly creating new data that can be used to “monitor, measure and manage” urban life by “leveraging information to make better decisions…anticipating and resolving problems proactively… [and] coordinating resources to operate more efficiently” (IBM 2012). This relatively simplistic imaginary of the smart city has been roundly critiqued on a number of fronts, especially around the entangling of neoliberal ideologies with technocratic governance and the dystopian potential for mass surveillance (Hollands 2008; Sennett 2012; Greenfield 2013; Halpern et al 2013; Kitchin 2014; Vanolo 2014). There is, however, a tendency within these critical accounts to see the smart city as a kind of universal, rational and depoliticized project that largely plays out according to the terms of profit-maximizing, multinational technology companies. Ironically, this account has a good deal in common with the celebratory marketing literature produced by the likes of IBM, Cisco and Siemens, among others, which in effect reifies the vision of the smart city they wish to promote (Greenfield 2013).

In contrast, we argue that the assemblage of actors, ideologies and technologies associated with smart city interventions bears little resemblance to the marketing rhetoric and planning documents of emblematic, greenfield smart cities, such as Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, Songdo in South Korea, and Living PlanIT Valley in Portugal. Therefore, rather than focusing on new cities built from scratch in such peripheral locales, many of which have as-of-yet failed to materialize, we find it more productive to examine how the smart city paradigm is becoming grounded in particular places, especially in the more mature cities and economies of the global north. Rather than constructed on tabula rasa according to the centralized plans of multinational technology corporations, smart city interventions are always the outcomes of, and awkwardly integrated into, existing social and spatial constellations of urban governance and the built environment. Far from paradigmatic, greenfield smart cities are the exception rather than the rule, and provide little insight into the ways that an increasing attention to data is affecting the tangible outcomes of urban governance in existing cities.

This paper represents an attempt to ground the critique of smart cities in the historical and geographical context from which these ideas have arisen, connecting the ways these problems are conceived to the material effects of data-driven policy initiatives in actual cities around the world. Adapting Brenner and Theodore’s (2002) notion of ‘actually existing neoliberalism’, we seek to understand the ‘actually existing smart city’, rather than the idealized but unrealized vision that often dominates the social imaginary and critique of what a technologically-mediated city might look like in the 21st century. Rather than valorizing or demonizing the smart city, we demonstrate the complexity of this idea and the ways it is implemented in particular places, in order to counter the notion that the large technology companies are inherently ‘bad’ actors who have despoiled the ‘good’, righteous cities adopting these policies. We instead point toward a more nuanced, situated understanding of how and from where these policies have arisen, and how they are taking root in particular places around the world.

To read the rest of the essay, download it here.

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