The Smart City – A Dystopic Possibility

Smart Cities now dot the globe. Among them can be counted Amsterdam, Barcelona, Eindhoven, Nice, Copenhagen, Vienna, Columbus, Mexico City, New York, Missouri, Kansas City, Palo Alto, Rio de Janeiro, Portland, San Diego, Seattle, Adelaide, Dubai, Meixi Lake, Bhubaneswar, Melbourne, Moscow, Singapore, Yinchuan and Wuxi. Not only will cities the world over continue to make the transition to being smart, but by 2040 it is estimated 70% of the world’s population will be living in Cities (Barlow and Levy-Bencheton 2019). In other words, it’s time we become accustomed to the idea. But what exactly is a smart city?

The admittedly vague term essentially implies ‘a superior state of urban development and urban life…[and] captures concurrently the technological meaning of the intelligent, digital city and the socio-economic meaning of the regenerated, internationally competitive city (Simon Joss 2019, xvi).’ Smart cities have ‘networked ICTs [that] are positioned and utilized to solve urban issues, drive local and regional economies, and foster civic initiatives (e.g., intelligent transport systems, urban control rooms, smart grids, sensor networks, building management systems, urban informatics) to manage city services and infrastructures and to govern urban life (Kitchin, Coletta, Evans and Heaphy 2019, 1).’ What are the benefits of living in a smart city? For the economy, citizens, governance, mobility, environment and living?

Smart economies promote competition through ‘innovative spirit, entrepreneurship, economic image and trade-marks, productivity, the flexibility of labour market, international embeddedness, as well as the ability to transform.’ For citizens, belonging to a smart city entails a higher ‘quality of social interactions regarding integration and public life’ including ‘affinity to life long learning, social and ethnic plurality, flexibility, creativity, cosmopolitanism/open-mindedness, and participation in public life.’ In terms of governance, benefits include greater ‘participation of citizens in decision-making processes, transparency of governance systems, availability of public services and quality of political strategies.’ From a mobility perspective, it entails ‘the accessibility of local and economic information, availability of information and communication technologies, modernization and sustainability of the transport systems.’ Environmentally, we are talking about ‘attractive natural conditions, pollution, and sustainable resource management…Smart living covers most aspects of living qualities such as cultural facilities, health conditions, individual safety, housing quality, educational facilities, touristic attractivity, and social cohesion (Lieu, Huang and Wosinsk 2017, 40-2).’ This all sounds positive but surely there are some potential drawbacks?

In a recent Forbes article, physicist Hatem Zeine suggested that despite the unquestioning optimism over smart cities, (‘No more traffic! Renewable energy for all! Fewer fires and disease outbreaks! Billions in savings! Automated vegetable gardens on roofs!’), a future of utopian urbanism is far from secure. First of all, there is the immediate issue of energy. As Zeine points out, smart cities are built on data which in turn requires a number of sensors (trillions in fact) that we simply cannot power. Not only has humanity not cumulatively manufactured a trillion batteries but connecting sensors to wires would also be unfeasibly expensive. Although tech companies are working to bridge this gap, smart cities will require a form of unwired power distribution which as yet they do not have sufficient access to.

A second issue lies with mass data aggregation, or more specifically, the capacity of elected officials to interpret this data. Doing so will require an adequately thought out answer to the eternal question of ‘what is the good life?’, an answer which has been wanting since antiquity. In other words, ‘we could create a dystopia just as easily as we could create a utopia. The dividing line is deceivingly thin.’ Things like data ownership, privacy and security ‘will become major issues as people become more generally aware of the risks associated with continuous surveillance and monitoring (Barlow and Levy-Bencheton 2019).’ Finally, there is the matter of access, because not all people have equal access to cyberspace, and the availability of data does not automatically guarantee the enhancement of knowledge and ensure integrity.’ Despite all this, it is evident that ‘making cities smart is an obligatory point of passage in our development to face the challenges of the 21st Century (Rochet 2018, 188-9).’

Our best bet, then, is to become engaged as early as possible ‘in the process of smart-city solution development, as well as in later trial and roll-out phases.’ If smart cities are to deliver on the good life, the ‘most important driver of [that] success [must] be a collective effort–the sum of many individual actions taken in pursuit of a shared goal.’ The transfiguration of our cities must, in the final analysis, be an eminently democratic process.

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