“The smart city was the wrong idea pitched in the wrong way to the wrong people,” suggested Dan Hill, of urban innovators the Future Cities Catapult. “It never answered the question: ‘How is it tangibly, materially going to affect the way people live, work, and play?’”
Hill refers to the shiny new technology that has come to embody the smart city concept, and while the smart city can bring many real improvements the corporations running it may have skewed the concept.
This “smart stuff”, Hill told The Guardian, “is no longer just IT – or rather IT is too important to be called IT any more. It’s so important you can’t really ghettoise it in an IT city. A smart city might be a low-carbon city, or a city that’s easy to move around, or a city with jobs and housing.”
In order to bring about these ‘real’ improvements technology can play a pivotal role, but do we need sensors and cameras on every street to bring about these improvements? Is there more going on in the smart city than just efficiency, and does creating these all-encompassing predictive urban computer models bring about a Big Brother-esque world that the people never wanted?
“Is the city-dweller best visualised as a smoothly moving pixel, travelling to work, shops and home again, on a colourful 3D graphic display? Or is the citizen rightfully an unpredictable source of obstreperous demands and assertions of rights? “Why do smart cities offer only improvement?” asks architect Rem Koolhaas. “Where is the possibility of transgression?”
The picture of the future painted by the corporations driving the smart city movement is too perfect. It feels like an advert for that new consumer product that most consumers know sounds too good to be true.
A product that puts us off with its self-indulgent marketing, or least one we’d read some reviews on before committing to. However, the smart city is not a consumer product, it is a centralized social transformation and it is being forced upon us.
The fact is that the smart city will never be the perfect, model city. Driverless cars will crash, critical infrastructure will be hacked or fail, and people will still be mugged on the street. Smart cities for all their utopian ideals still live in the real world and must accept the real problems that come with it.
In his book ‘Cities Are Good For You’ Leo Hollis rationally said the one unarguably positive achievement of smart city-style thinking in modern times is the next train arrival boards on the London Underground. “But in the last decade, thanks to the rise of ubiquitous internet connectivity and the miniaturisation of electronics in such now-common devices as RFID tags, the concept seems to have crystallised into an image of the city as a vast, efficient robot.”
In another book ‘Against the Smart City’ author Adam Greenfield suggests the vision of the smart city originated in giant technology companies such as IBM, Cisco and Software AG, all seeking to profit from big municipal contracts. “The notion of the smart city in its full contemporary form appears to have originated within these businesses,” Greenfield wrote, “rather than with any party, group or individual recognised for their contributions to the theory or practice of urban planning.”
The top-down approach pioneered by corporations and government agencies was soon re-branded as a bottom-down approach due to popular concerns. I say re-branded because nothing really changed about the strategy, this re-branding just hinged on the idea of open data. This data collection that lays the foundation of the smart city is paid for by the taxes of the citizens, it therefore makes sense to make this data available, as we are seeing in the smart city of Bristol in the UK.
But is making data available to the public safe, aren’t there an incalculable number of ways this data could be used malevolently? “There is the potential to see it all as Big Brother,” says Mike Rawlinson of City ID, he asks “if you’re releasing data and people are reusing it, under what purpose and authorship are they doing so?” There needs to be a “reframed social contract,” Dan Hill insists.
The sheer fact that all this data exists will change our society, no matter whose hands it is in. Its existence sanctions its use and its use de-humanises the people whose individuality created the city as we know it today. All-encompassing data, and the predictive models that come with it, will change the very fabric of society and challenge democracy in its most basic sense. Have we, the people, taken the opportunity to consider what these changes will really mean?
“You’ll be able to get to work on time; there’ll be a seamless shopping experience, safety through cameras, et cetera. Well, all these things make a city bearable, but they don’t make a city valuable,” pointed out Usman Haque, of the urban consultancy Umbrellium. “The people it really speaks to are the city managers who can say, ‘It wasn’t me who made the decision, it was the data.’”
The smart city may be a wonderful thing that transports our society into a utopian future. The same was probably said of capitalism and communism. However the path of the smart city being portrayed by corporations today may also represent the beginning of an unaccountable, undemocratic and inhuman dystopian future. Just as the people of the past shaped the cities of the present, the cities of the future must be shaped by the people of the present.
“The City is what it is because our citizens are what they are” – Plato, c.340 BC
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