Against the Smart City II: Generic Time and Space

Note: Greenfield’s arguments are also easily applicable to any political ideology.

Discussion about this pamphlet started here.

 

Background

Against the Smart City is the first pamphlet in an unfolding series, The City is Here For You To Use. 

The pamphlet is not long, but I’ve been reading it sporadically alongside some other things, so these notes are only for roughly the first third of the work.

Adam Greenfield argues that there are two views of the Smart City:

  • the ex nihilo cities of Songdo, Masdar, or PlanIT valley;
  • the evolutionary view of adaptations to existing cities, the view that will clearly more directly affect hundreds of millions of people in the coming years, and the view of IBM, Siemens, and Cisco.

Interestingly, Greenfield opts to “focus analysis primarily on the sites where the ideology of the smart city finds its purest expression”.

The enterprises enumerated here (IBM, Siemens, Cisco, et al.) are to a surprisingly great degree responsible for producing both the technical systems on which the smart city is founded and the rhetoric that binds them together in a conceptual whole. […] It’s as if the foundational works of twentieth-century urbanist thought had been collectively authored by US Steel, GM, the Otis Elevator Company and Bell Telephone rather than Le Corbusier or Jane Jacobs.

[An aside- point taken, but does he really think those individuals worked in isolation?]

If this body of rhetoric is taken at all seriously by the various decisionmakers, publics and others who are exposed to it, if it in any way informs the allocation of scarce budgetary and attentional resources – and current indications suggests that it is and does- it becomes extraordinarily important to determine just what it is saying.

Fair enough.

 

The Smart City is Built in Generic Space

By that Greenfield means that the Smart City is meant to apply universally, to any/every place. These systems are ahistorical and ignorant of any particularities of the space on which they’re built- Songdo, Masdar, and PlanIT Valley are all literally built on blank slabs of land, like the flat undifferentiated plane in a 3-D modelling program like Blender. Greenfield invokes Deleuze’s “Any-Space-Whatever” to explain these spaces without reference or certainty.

Reading news about Californian drought, one lesson that comes to mind is that the desert is not necessarily a wonderful place to put a city. It is obviously possible, but mere possibility isn’t the only constraint we should be thinking with. 

The Smart City is ignorant to information about the environment it’s built on, and is thus especially fragile.

 

The Smart City is Built in Generic Time

The Smart City is forever spoken of in aspirational tones, using the hedges of “may” and “can” but not “does” or “has”. The cities themselves are under construction, visible but not functional. They are always around the corner, like nuclear fusion.

Actual cities tend to grow out of towns. They are not singularly constructed- and the ambitious projects to do so are usually pretty disastrous. See: abandoned Chinese cities, or the eerily town of Kilamba in Angola, that looks like an unfinished render.

There is no experimental tweaking, no sensitivity to human experience in the developmental history of these cities. They are being built from the ground up on their own in some abstract near-future.

 

The Smart City Positions Technology Itself as Generic

The solutions provided are unactualized: non-specific technologies behaving and interfacing in vague ways. The material offers no discrete examples [note: In recent months, I know that my employer, for one, has been brandishing some new success stories. This point is still an important one in other contexts, though.]

The devil in any implementation is almost always in the details. The Small-Government political movements are always in favor of the idea of Small Government but broadly don’t seem to agree on what needs shrinking or how. Specifics are dangerous to an idea because they generally are falsifiable or arguable- smart ideas propagate themselves by being generic, aspirational, and multi-vocal.

Different technologies or implementations are not necessarily interchangeable. There are different constraints, different realities, measurable metrics, and ethical arguments afforded by particular, actualized systems. Ideas about unactualized, un-specific systems never have to shape themselves this way.

 

Objectivity and the Smart City

The silent ideology of Siemen’s Smart City commercial material, according to Greenfield, is logical positivism. He is taking the marketing copy by their word, by their rhetoric and the image they are apparently intending to convey:

  • “Perfectly knowable, without bias or distortion”: Perfect information capture, perfect sensemaking, perfect decision analysis, perfect execution? Do city-dwellers always act with a singular, decipherable meaning? Can the data be un-jukable?
  • “One and only one solution”: Life in a city is full of trade-offs. Oftentimes an action will favor some people over others.
  • “Arrived at algorithmically”: Algorithms are incredibly useful tools at the right scale and in the right context, surely, but does everything have an appropriate metric? Are indirect metrics (patent-counting for “innovation”, walking speed for “pace”) consistent and does manipulating them necessarily change the important variable they represent? When vague metrics are numerized, are they trustworthy?
  • “Encoded in public policy, and applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics”: Impossible. Humans direct and intermediate the process, and so the process will obviously be political, used as a weapon and a scapegoat and an informational source, as an earnest measuring or as a smokescreen. Even a fully “autonomous” city would be inherently political, in the same ways that Ian Bogost described for simulations.