Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn?

Smart cities claim to improve the lives, productivity and eco-balance of their citizens. A new collection of essays questions whether the vision lives up to the promise

The notion that technological change benefits citizens and consumers is nothing new. It is a narrative offered by forward-looking entrepreneurs, futurologists, philosophers and politicians. A key focus is the city, the physical space where policies are directly implemented and impact our -daily lives.

Researchers and urban planners have thus plotted technological change into their visions of “smart cities,” the population centers that can be designed and transformed through public planning. Exactly how the debate on smart cities develops, is framed and adopted, is the subject of the book Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn?

Edited by Simon Marvin, Andrés Luque-Ayala and Colin McFarlane – urban geographers from Sheffield and Durham Universities – the collection addresses technocratic governance, corporate influence, security, surveillance and civil rights as filters for examining the evolution of smart cities.

By using “digital technology to plan our urban environment,”  as the book states, smart cities are envisioned as the utopian solutions for many of our social, political and environmental ills. This approach favors technology over democracy or good government.

There are caveats. For instance, the researchers prick the bubble of Big Data, often considered a positive advancement of technology. Without appropriate framing and filters, warn Rob Kitchin, Tracey Lauriault and Gavin McArdle, mass collection of data won’t be responsive to broad public concerns. Even worse, real problems of society could be missed.

Technology alone will not cure our ills, they contend. It’s a sound argument, but in the essay, it gets quickly lost in the cumbersome academic prose aimed only at fellow scholars.

Hand & brain, but no heart?

An interesting question invoked is whether smart cities are inherently ideological. Can technological progress be purely pragmatic and free of bias? Do smart cities develop and grow only through the cold hand of innovation?

Donald McNeill hails the success of visual technologies, like the Intelligent Operations Center (IOC) in Rio de Janeiro, built in 2010 on the eve of the World Cup with software from IBM. Up-to-date dashboards give a visual map of where resources are needed most, a boon to city officials. It’s since been reproduced in “dozens of cities” around the world.

But this view isn’t universal.

Smart Urbanism
Smart Urbanism: Utopian Vision or False Dawn?
Simon Marvin, Andrés Luque-­Ayala, Colin McFarlane; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group (2016)
196 pp.
€41.59 // Cover courtesy of publisher

In the opening essay, Kitchin, Lauriault and McArdle bemoan the “neoliberal visions of market-led and technocratic solutions to city governance and development,” suggesting that private firms have an incentive to be exploitative, or at best, less than transparent. Robert Hollands argues, the “corporatization” of cities benefits large companies at the expense of the public. While these firms fill a void, they don’t address urban problems like poverty, inequality and discrimination.

But with so many innovators let loose in urban centers – adapting public space creatively, starting innovative businesses – it’s difficult to fully condemn smart cities with the evidence the essayist cite.

Capetown’s success, for example, has flowered thanks to a “bottom-up approach,” writes Nancy Odendaal, including civil society initiatives and fostered by private technology firms. Armed with data on how public services work, activists have held local government accountable through social media, decentralizing the democratic model. Smart city efforts have also enabled entrepreneurship, giving young people access to digital cafés and chip technology to launch their businesses.

In the end, the book provides hope that our cities will be able to absorb the innovation. There are areas where technology can make an immediate difference in the life of the city, albeit not enough to solve every issue on the agenda.

So will the impact of technology live up to its promises? This is indeed the challenge for decision makers: to find a role for private industry in city governance, and a role for technology that stays true to the public interest.

Yaël Ossowski
Yaël Ossowski is consumer advocate and writer. He's currently deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center, and senior development officer for Students For Liberty. He was previously a national investigative reporter at has a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE) from the CEVRO Institute in Prague and a Bachelor's in Political Science from Concordia University, Montreal.Born in Québec and raised in the southern United States, he currently lives in Vienna, Austria.

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