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How do Smart Cities transform politics?

We live through an age of rapid techno-social transformations. Changes in technoscapes indicate also transformations of defining categories that are at the basis of our social fabric, and governing structures. The public and private use of new aggregates of technology has a direct impact on notions of legality, rights, citizenship or governance, and they all need to be rethought in the light of new possibilities opened up by new tech. Moreover, we constantly redefine the ways in which we interact among us and with the material environment, constantly questioning fundamental notions such as time, distance, nature, or biology.


Technologies are never developed in a vacuum, they are part of a constellation of socio-cultural, economic and environmental relationships acting as networks. One of the units that makes this networks visible is the urban space.


With the majority of the world’s population living in urban centres (WHO, 2014), demographic and environmental pressures call upon us to rethink and strike a new balance between urban productivity and democratic governance. Located at the nexus of urban design, technological innovation, and social entrepreneurship, the smart city suggests a series of technological solutions aimed at “sustainable prosperity”. While current definitions of the smart city are often nebulous, they tend to agree that at the heart of every smart city lies a network of interconnected data collection mechanisms, including surveillance cameras and sensors, whose output is aggregated, analyzed and reported to city managers, and then used to support decision making.


A critical view on Smart City may start with the simple question: for whom are the cities built? If Ebenezer Howard’s “garden cities”, the new urbanism of the 1980s, or Jan Gehl’s “cities for people” centered on humans, suburbia on cars, and sustainable cities on the environment, how does the shift towards the data points of the smart cities affect both the analysis of the urban phenomena, and urban politics? What new forms of socialization are enabled or foreclosed in the data-centric city? What becomes of the surprise, productive tensions and social solidarity when mobile, pervasive technologies (and the internet of things) mediate all social interactions?


With over 400 smart city projects currently taking place worldwide, there is little doubt about the program’s appeal. From the IBM driven initiative in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to futuristic new cities such as Songdo, South Korea, cities worldwide have partnered with large conglomerates such as IBM, Siemens, and Cisco, to become “smarter”. In Canada, many municipalities have adopted the smart city program, with cities like Saint John, NB, Kitchener, Vancouver, Toronto and Edmonton leading the way. However, despite the considerable volume of funds, energy and labour invested in advancing the program, and with very few exceptions, there has been little critical reflection on the wider meaning and implications of the smart city program. While this lack may reflect the program’s irresistible appeal since “it is very attractive to be a smart mayor”, as Rem Koolhaas puts it, it is also important to understand possible implications that may go against the initial enthusiasm. (check out the illustrating photo of his article entitled “Are Smart Cities Condemned to Be Stupid”?)


Koolhaas expresses important concerns regarding the rhetoric of smart cities that implies: the displacement of the interest from “building for humans” to “building for finance”, the narratives of imminent apocalypse utilised to to justify top-down models that eliminate civic participation, the replacement of classic democratic values of “liberty, egality, fraternity” with “comfort, security, sustainability” or the dispersion of the generalized surveillance and its legal implications. To sum up, the famous architect states: “I would prefer my car not to be a court of justice”.


It seems like smart cities are run on data: all the sophisticated mechanisms put in place utilize large volumes of data, raising questions about privacy and the security of that data. Thus there are two main areas of tension when implementing Smart city strategies. For the moments, these areas raise questions more than offering solutions.


First: access, ethics and governance. This is a timely matter for Vancouver — my current home — , as the City of Vancouver has signed a contract with Telus to allow the latter to use city infrastructure to shore up its wifi network in exchange of allowing better access to the network for all. The fetishism of data may possibly obliterate the undeniable issues regarding privacy, the decision making process and attribution of responsibility, or the simple understanding of how a city functions. How are we to respond to the needs of the administration, the quest for sustainability and resilience, and the desire for healthy economy, while keeping the citizens part of the process without infringing on the democratic rights. In this context, the question is: what will be the role assigned to technology in the process of decision making, and how civic responsibility and legal liability will be distributed, from the level of individual citizen to that of city administrators — from “driverless cars” to “mayorless cities”?


Second, the socio-economic impacts. To what extent are the financial, economic and environmental benefits of smart cities (see work on supply-side management, GHG reductions, etc.) promoted to the exclusion of question about social inclusivity, equality and justice? Local economies, sharing economies, co-ops, etc. — are all urban mediations of the two imperatives. How will they develop? What is the potential role of municipalities in mitigating these tensions? Are urbanism and economical success stories that have technology at the forefront, such as that of Stockholm, which is the only city under 1 million inhabitants that generates “unicorns” (start-up companies with a valuation that exceeded 1 billion dollars), a good reproducible model for Canada? How can municipalities reorient their strategies to take into account possible medium- and long-term developments? What are factors other than technology that generate success when combined? — inclusive access to education, health, and social services for example.

As Vancouver still decides what kind of city it wants to be, and since being smart sounds alluring for a brand, maybe a good look at the values shared (or not) by its citizens may determine Vancouver to take intelligent steps towards its future, and be less likely to fall in a branding trap — no matter how smart that branding is. The question is then: what kind of smartness Vancouver — or any city — would seek to embrace in order to be intelligently successful?

NOTE: This article contains some ideas generated in conversation, and while working on a project with Meg Holden and Roy Bendor

Downtown Vancouver. Photo by the author.

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©2019 by Alec Balasescu