Against the Smart City

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* Book: Against the smart city (The city is here for you to use). Andrew Greenfield.


"From the smartphones in our pockets and the cameras on the lampposts to sensors in the sewers, the sidewalks and the bike-sharing stations, the contemporary city is permeated with networked information technology.

As promoted by enterprises like IBM, Siemens and Cisco Systems, the vision of the "smart city" proposes that this technology can be harnessed by municipal administrators to achieve unprecedented levels of efficiency,security, convenience and sustainability. But a closer look at what this body of ideas actually consists of suggests that such a city will not, and cannot, serve the interests of the people who live in it.

In this pamphlet, Everyware author Adam Greenfield explores the ways in which this discourse treats the city as an abstraction, misunderstands (or even undermines) the processes that truly do generate meaning and value — and winds up making many of the same blunders that doomed the High Modernist urban planning of the twentieth century. “Against the smart city” provides an intellectual toolkit for those of us interested in resisting this sterile and unappealing vision, and lays important groundwork for the far more fruitful alternatives to come."


By Chris Carlsson:

"The information platforms projected to undergird Smart Cities are to be privately owned. No open source or free software here! “The smart city is a place where the technical platforms on which everyday life is built are privately owned and monetized, and information is reserved exclusively for the use of those willing and able to pay for it.” As Greenfield notes in one chapter, the whole model is based on a neoliberal sensibility in which government is stripped down to its most minimal functionality (primarily policing and systems administration), while as much as possible of the surrounding society is privately owned. Most of what people might do with and for each other is to the greatest extent possible monetized and commodified, to be packaged and sold to the residents (clients) of the new towns. Greenfield has looked carefully at the promises and projections of the various corporate plans and nowhere has he found anything to indicate open access to “disaggregated raw [data] feeds.”

It’s hard to believe that anyone in the world is actually advocating for technological efficiency in 2014 as the primary way to evaluate the social good, whether urban or otherwise. Most technical people show more humility when it comes to their own work, realizing as they must that things fail more often than anyone expects, and the human errors embedded in sophisticated technical systems frequently undermine their optimal functioning. But the assumption that human life should be subjected to a standard of technical efficiency is the root of the problem.

The persistence of the idea that a polity is something that can and ought to be managed like either a technical system or a commercial enterprise is hard to explain. Flawed at its very root, it betrays, at best, a shallow understanding of the mechanisms by way of which a city learns, diagnoses and repairs itself, utterly failing to account for the qualities which underlie love of place. A city whose interwoven processes actually were "regulated and controlled" as anticipated in this literature — where all the key performance indicators of superficial function were perpetually maintained within some nominal interval by computational oversight and not one thing allowed to interrupt the drive toward total efficiency — would not be a terribly healthy or a pleasant place to live.

The reality of city life, self-evident to anyone on casual reflection, is that it is a place that depends on countless interactions that go unmeasured and unremunerated. Our lives are based on profound and widespread cooperation and mutual aid, most of which we take for granted. None of these normal activities that go on all day between people in cities is accounted for in the gee-whiz techno-utopianism of the Smart City propagandists.

The presence in a city of technologies of ubiquitous data capture…is likely to suppress or displace activities…such [as]…provisions for housing and self-care, and community arbitration and dispute-resolution processes generally grouped under the anodyne label of "the informal sector." They account for an astoundingly high percentage of total economic activity. They are critical to more recognized economic and social processes, even in what we are pleased to think of as the developed world. And they are entirely absent from the smart city's account of itself…For me, the deepest truth of all about the smart city is bound up in that particularly infelicitous phrase from Living PlanIT’s material, “occupant support and convenience systems.” Every dive bar and every farmers’ market, every playground or cinematheque or Michelin-starred restaurant, all the bodegas, bike shops and edgy boutiques, the rib shacks and fetish clubs and flower festivals — all of that, and everything implied by them, Living PlanIT reduces to those five fatal words.

There is much more in Greenfield’s work worthy of quoting, but I think by now you, dear reader, have the basic gist of it. There is one more juicy bit though, and it’s perhaps the most important contribution of this polemic. Because it’s not just about so-called Smart Cities or even about urbanism per se, but rather about the deeper problem of Public Relations as Public Policy. That is, rarely do we see revealed clearly how manipulated our “permanent (bureaucratic) state” is by the puffery of advertising rhetoric promulgated by developer flacks and product managers of all sorts. Having gone through the absurd claims and embedded ideologies of Smart Cities propagandists in such detail, Greenfield comes to the wrap up and has to face the real question put forward by his work. Why did he spend “so much time and energy focusing on it?” (