Between my new learning regimen and a big sprint on one of my projects (which will probably continue into another week), I haven’t been keeping up with my usual reading/writing pace. I’ll make for lost time starting next week, I think.

Anyway, more of Greenfield’s Against the Smart City. Very light run-through this time.

Part I (reviews/interpretations)

Part II (“Generic Time and Space”)


Proprietary platforms: “At every turn, [these materials suggest] that in the minds of its designers, the smart city is a place where the technical platforms on which everyday life is built are privately “owned and monetized,” and information is reserved exclusively for the use of those willing and able to pay for it.”

Overspecification: “Overspecification is hubris and brittleness. It is to imply that the designer can anticipate at inception all the potential uses to which the things they create might be put, down through the long future. And it is to set in concrete (in some cases, quite literally) relations that ought to remain supple and fluid.”

The discredited notion of “seamlessness”: Obscuring the meaningful distinctions between “public and private services” makes it hard to people to navigate systems and find the levers they need. Artist James Bridle: “Those who cannot perceive the network cannot act effectively within it and are powerless”

“Inappropriate model of optimization”: Again, missing the logic of the tradeoff, and the concern that “what” is being optimized is important. There are rarely globally optimized solutions. Also, a whole class of behaviors are meant to be disruptive *and vital*, (eg. strikes).

“Optimization, part two”: The party being sold to (i.e. the administrator) is the priority for any “optimization” being sold. Generic “inhabitants” would likely be much further down the stakeholders/decisionmakers list.

“The smart city is predicated on- indeed, is difficult to imagine outside of – a neoliberal political economy.” By neoliberalism Greenfield means a tendency towards privatized essential services (on the argument of responsiveness/accountability), deregulated activity between private actors, reducing friction in global trade, reduction of taxes, and a minimal state, all in service towards encouraging market growth for the ultimate benefit of all. This neoliberal bias is in their rhetoric (efficiency, optimization), in their systems goals, and in their preferred clients.

Authoritarian[/Totalitarian] bent: The private sphere is not particularly robustly defined/respected. The city/system makes decisions on behalf of the people, not necessarily with their consent. It also goes without saying that data on inhabitants is collected by the city and… [etc]

Cargo Cult Urbanism: “[in natural cities] The skylines, bustling street scenes and gem-like little parks are epiphenomenal. That is, they arise as symptoms of other underlying behaviors, the important behaviors with goals that have nothing necessarily to do with the aesthetic beauty of the parts of the city being invoked here”. Building them first doesn’t guarantee that they will fulfill their function appropriately or do anything other than look like the “real thing”, the thing with use. These intensive human-driven processes are what’s really missing from Songdo and its peers. The carefully targeted inhabitants of the Smart Cities (financial workers in Songdo, renewable energy workers in Masdar), are not likely to be a diverse enough mix to spin up the complexity that creates vibrant cities. Cities require metro mice, they require a critical mass of unique tastes to support specialist products and artisanal cultural signalling, to grow scenes and to enable local hacks and shortcuts. Cities are not aircraft carriers, and cannot (or rather, should not) be run like one.

Resurrecting the discredited High-Modernist urban planning techniques: The idea of a functional, technical, managed and legible city is not new. The problem, it was determined, is that cities do not work this way. Simple example: designing a city with different slices devoted to kinds of industry, for example, denies the needs of people who want to travel far less to address their needs.

The same technical potentials that give rise to the smart city can be turned to more responsive ends: (Spending a little more time here)

“Every technology and every ensemble of technologies encodes a hypothesis about human behavior, and the smart city is no different.” The “Smart City” is a “specific rhetorical move within a much larger space of potential.” There are decentralizing technologies for inhabitants as well as centralizing technologies for administrators. There are open-source technologies as well as proprietary technologies. In another branch in the decision space from the Smart City is the “Autocatalytic City“, for example.

“Though it’s garbed for the moment in the seductive language of efficiency, agility and sustainability, we might as well call that current for what it is: the impulse toward authoritarianism, and the will to control over other human beings.”

“The language that encapsulates this body of ideas can be likened to the envelope of proteins coating the surface of a virus: it mutates in whatever way the enterprise response feels to be most congenial to its goal of selling systems and signing maintenance contracts.”

“…We must take exceeding care with the words we use to frame the futures we imagine. That’s why I insist there is no such thing as  decentralized, distributed, community-oriented smart city. Like dry water or a snow-white tan, it cannot be- not when centralization, technocracy and the assertion of power from above are what the phrase means. No: if we are interested in other ends, we must use different language […] But new language alone won’t suffice. We need to develop a fundamentally different idea of the networked city.”

“We can live and thrive there, if we never once lose sight of the people in whom any city’s capability actually subsists, for theirs- ours- is the only kind of urban intelligence that will ever truly matter.”


Looking forward to Greenfield’s next installment.