Dismantling the smart city. Going for the myth, coming with the motto

The popularization of the adjective “smart” for talking about particular conglomerates of things, intending to highlight a new specific technological process, is the triumph of corporate propaganda over what we understand as urban life. Nowadays to talk about “smart cities” is a normalized and popularized attitude from business magazines to technological reviews; from entrepreneurial movements and creative economy to academic circles. Because of its nature and components, this trending notion has also been under the STS gaze as a part of its research agenda.

The smart city concept is part of modern urban mythology that reinforces the idea of positive technical control over any aspect of our collective life. This situation is enhanced by the promotion and hyperbolization of Information communication technology (ITC) logic and devices as active and necessary elements in the assemblage of temporal associations to improve them. The promises of hyper-connectivity, efficiency, closeness, and easiness, as well as of spreading globalization and intelligence took the attention of a wide range of people and institutions that saw on this tendency an exciting opportunity for improving their own activities. 

Summing up the definition and primary objectives of what is a “smart city,” this label encompasses a sort of projects an initiatives that aim to introduce technological developments in urban contexts. Generally, big technology firms are the ones behind the elaboration and implementation of those kinds of projects. Companies like Cisco, Google —through its brand Sidewalks—, IBM, and Microsoft are leading those technological processes in strong collaboration with local governments to improve or supply “smart” solutions to daily life problems.

There are three ways for approaching this situation from a Science and Technology Studies perspective. The first one is taking for granted the smart city promises as well as its validity as an empirical object. Working under the logic of this approach is recognizing and accepting the existence of a “smart-package,” that includes a geographical administrative location, a set of technological elements, a way of governance, and an evolutionary promise of improvement. (See Gabrys 2014, Roche 2014, Takeoka & Reddick 2015), Hong 2015, Meijer & Thaens 2016, Valdez 2018, et al. 2018)

There are also some other scenarios linked to the smart city notion as an interdependent and complimentary “key fields” (smart-cities.eu 2015): smart urban governance (Odendaal 2003, Torfing, et al. 2012, Meijer, et al. 2015), smart economy (Agrell, et al. 2013, Hall & Foxon 2014, Maalsen 2019), smart citizenship (Williamson 2015, Ho 2016), smart environment (Kenworthy 2006, Schaltegger, et al. 2016, Yadav, et al. 2019), smart transportation (Porter 2005, Lyons 2018, Dey 2018, Naik 2019), and smart urbanism (Capriotti 2018, Datta 2018, Schiavone 2019).

A second possibility of facing this issue is taking the “smart city” concept for granted but disagrees with some of its aims, intentions, and processes (Krivy 2016, Cowley & Caprotti 2018) or simple being against it (Sadowski & Bendor 2018). The third and last way for dealing with the notion of “smart city” is going in the opposite direction to the other two ways: it is not taking anything for granted. So, instead of doing that my intention is approaching this concept in an empirical-ontological discussion where the two elements that are composing it are disassembled to take a look at what is inside of each one.

This essay is a semantic approach about a nominative discussion regarding the meaning and content of a nowadays trending concept. Far from being a trivial issue related to whether it is better to refer to something in a specific way or another, the act of naming is an essential process of locating and giving meaning to particular stabilizations produced by the temporal association of elements. When we name something we are defining and delimiting an object, we are saying that this element is A, but it is not B, granting in that way some sense to its specificity. The act of naming turns into a more exciting situation when, like in this case, we are also adjudging a characteristic to that thing we are defining.

So, we have a city being smart. Let us put apart, at least for a moment, the debate about what a city is and let us assume there is something outside we can call in that way. Perhaps we can draw an analogy between a demarcated administratively territory and the idea of “city.” Let us suppose we agree with that definition and we can stabilize all that is happening in an administrative space under the figure of a city. According to Thompson (2006), who is going in the same line I proposed at the beginning of this entry, a smart city is a kind of city “in which information and communications technology (ICT) is merged with traditional infrastructures, coordinated and integrated using new digital technologies.” (p.2)

Eurocities, “the network of major European cities,” defines “smart city,” as well as Thompson,  as a place where ICT plays an important role in improving other infrastructures. Additionally, they focus their strategy on achieving a specific goal: sustainability. “In our view, a smart city must be a good place to live, offering the best possible quality of life with the lowest possible use of resources.” (Smart cities). We have, thus, enhanced structures by the development of technological alternatives either for governing a territory or for improving a specific network. In other words, a city is “smart” in the way it counts with technological infrastructures for solving problems and dealing with issues.

Under that logic, a first temporal definition of a “smart city” could be: an administrative virtual space linked to a territory where some specific associations, in the shape of technical innovations based on ICT, are continually maintaining a process of communication and exchange with other preexisted networks. The logic of a socio-technical controversy frames all this scenario. Nevertheless, these definitions are providing more questions than answers. The first one regards the relationship between those particular ICT innovations and the idea of a city. How is that when we talk about well defined technological networks we are referring tacitly to the concept of a city?

There is a problem of relationship. We are naming something when we want to talk about a different thing. Translating that to the intentions of this post, we are using the notion of “smart city” for referring to the constitution and the movements of an x spatialized network based on ICT. For instance, if we come back to the case study of LinkNYC, we can find there how the implementation of a specific technology materialized in a large metal structure with three screens, and a hotspot is affecting a territory. Also, we can appreciate there how other networks —sometimes outside of the territory— are affecting that technology, modifying its logic and ways of being in relation with its around. How can we match or apply the notion of “city” into this context? Is there a logical reason for doing it?

Well, someone could object me saying that we are talking about a “city” when we grab not only one spatialized ICT network, but when we open the frame to a set of those nets, and we observe how they are affecting a particular space. However, is that possible? From my point of view, it is not. There is not a difference between taking one network, three or ten. The shape and boundaries of a network are always being modified due to the continuous process of connection and assemblage. If we go outside for taking a look we would be able to identify those networks easily, but a city? A city is a metaphor materialized in a map or any other administrative document.

“Smart” is an adjective that seems like an epithet of the term “city.” However, if the city is just a misunderstood, a useless generalization, it does not have so much sense to highlight a supposed feature that an empty concept has. Even the presence and implementation of this adjective results suspicious and not necessary. The smartness is a good and profitable story regarding specific networks being transformed with the presence of other nets and innovations. We are losing an exciting possibility for describing and following the trajectories that compose the world outside.

Using general concepts only produces confusion and hides reality. We should dispense with those kinds of tricky elements that promote certainty but that they are just mottos for selling products and processes. What if instead of keeping repeating and reproducing concepts we are dismantling them to see what they contain? I know it could take to much time and effort to do it, but that sort of reflexivity is necessary when we talk about the elaboration of metaphors for explaining the world.

“The smart city is not equivalent to any single technology or collection of technologies. The sensors, networks, and algorithms associated with the smart city could be deployed in other settings and contexts. What makes them “smart city technologies,” therefore, is neither strictly technical (pertaining to functionality, instrumental causes, or driven by efficiency) nor entirely social (produced by specific actors, reflecting particular incentives, or embraced by certain institutions). Smart city technologies become smart city technologies only by association with the idea of the smart city and the narratives, logics, practices, and symbolism of which it is constituted.” (Sadowski & Bendor 2018 p.2)