02 April 2015

New essay published: IBM's smart city as techno-utopian policy mobility

A view of Providence's smart city downtown redevelopment at sunset, December 2014. Photo by author. A full set of photos of Providence's smart city project from 2012, 2013, and 2014 can be found on Flickr.

The latest issue of City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action was published yesterday. It contains an essay of mine about the work of IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge to improve urban problems through information technology-focused policy solutions. I'm happy to finally be able to share this work publicly. A link to the pre-press copy of the essay is at the bottom of the blogpost, as are details about contacting me for the final version. The publisher, Taylor & Francis, offers fifty free downloads of the essay here.
 IBM's smart city as techno-utopian policy mobility


This essay explores IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge as an example of global smart city policymaking. The evolution of IBM’s smart city thinking is discussed, then a case study of Philadelphia’s online workforce education initiative, Digital On-Ramps, is presented as an example of IBM’s consulting services. Philadelphia’s rationale for working with IBM and the translation of IBM’s ideas into locally adapted initiatives is considered. The essay argues that critical scholarship on the smart city over-emphasizes IBM’s agency in driving the discourse. Unpacking how and why cities enrolled in smart city policymaking with IBM places city governments as a key actor advancing the smart city paradigm. Two points are made about the policy mobility of the smart city as a mask for entrepreneurial governance. 1) Smart city efforts are best understood as examples of outward-looking policy promotion for the globalized economy. 2) These policies proposed citywide benefit through a variety of digital governance augmentations, unlike established urban, economic development projects such as a downtown redevelopment. Yet, the policy rhetoric of positive change was always oriented to fostering globalized business enterprise. As such, implementing the particulars of often- untested smart city policies mattered less than their capacity to attract multinational corporations.


The smart city has arrived, albeit unevenly and in different manifestations, through the continued implementation of information technologies in mediating urban governance, civic exchange, and the flow of people, goods, and data through cities (Hollands 2008; Luque et al. 2014; Townsend 2013). The critical engagement with the smart city in urban scholarship articulates the problematic role major information technology corporations play in pushing this ‘techno-utopian’ vision of urban change (Luque et al. 2014, 74). This paradigm advances a ‘smartmentality’ (Vanolo 2013) of urban management through data-driven metrics, verging on a new era of ‘governing through code’ (Klauser et al. 2014). IBM has emerged as a leading proponent of the smart city discourse over the last five years, and the global information technology corporation worked at becoming what Söderström et al. (2014) term an ‘obligatory passage point’ delimiting and defining the smart city governance paradigm (citing Callon 1986). And yet, little of this scholarship looks beyond the policy narratives of smart city initiatives to actively ground the work in cities that adopted these policies (Kitchin 2014a). 
The techno-utopian vision of and discourse around the smart city matters, a point Söderström et al. argue (2014), but the agency of this discourse, and IBM’s role in furthering the discourse, must be balanced against the rationale cities gave for enrolling in smart city policymaking to begin with. For instance, IBM’s bombastic and prolific promotional materials, white papers, and policy reports all offer a rhetoric of transformative change that is not necessarily reflected in the outcomes of the initiatives, a point that will be expanded on below. The continued critique of the smart city must be mediated through examinations of how the policies are assembled, adapted, and implemented. 

By charting the evolution of IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge, a three-year event beginning in 2010 where IBM donated their consultation services to strategize technology-driven solutions for a variety of urban problems, this essay examines IBM's smart city policymaking as an example of globally-circulating policy mobilities (McCann and Ward 2011). Via the Challenge, cities adopted IBM’s smart city proposals to achieve what McCann (2013) termed ‘extrospective policy boosterism’ using policy, in this case untested techno-utopian policy, to highlight ambitious economic potential. The smart city acted as a mask for entrepreneurial governance strategies. Instead of improvements specifically targeted to business enterprise such as downtown redevelopment, the policies proposed widespread urban change through digital augmentation. The cities that participated in the Challenge were able to present an image of competitive, creative, and strategic governance immediately following the global financial crisis, a time when municipal budgets were cut by shrinking tax revenues. Successfully enacting IBM’s policies was not necessarily a city’s priority. 

With a case study of Philadelphia’s smart city initiative, Digital On-Ramps, I argue that aligning policy rhetoric with a city’s needs was much more complex than implementing a technological fix. IBM’s Philadelphia initiative called for solving chronic underemployment among 600,000 residents in the de-industrialized inner city through a workforce education software application (typically called an ‘app’) (IBM 2011a). This was a step in the longer, messier process of engaging government, non-governmental organizations, private enterprise, and community stakeholders in creating job opportunities in Philadelphia. This smart city app could be useful to city residents, but as proposed by IBM and celebrated by Philadelphia’s mayor it was successful primarily as a promotional device. Implementation of the smart city policy was secondary to the utility of the initiative in selling the city as a promising location for globalized enterprise to set up businesses. For this particular presentation of the smart city, the intended audience was outward-focused beyond the city and its residents, intended to signify the city as smart much more than to advance a new regime of data-driven urban governance. Smart city policymaking proposed citywide benefit, instead of direct benefit to business enterprise through downtown redevelopment, but the overall goal was to signal the city as attractive to global business. 


To continue reading, you can download a pre-production version here. The final, published version is available at City's website. Leave a comment, reach out on Twitter @alanwiig or email me - details in the About section at the bottom of the page. 

Wiig, A. 2015. IBM’s smart city as techno-utopian policy mobility. City 19 (2-3): 258–273.

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