(Published also today at shareable.net)
I started reading Adam Greenfield’s new book, Against the Smart City, with the expectation that it would be a critical view of the ways our urban lives have changed during the past half decade with the massive adoption of so-called “smart phones” and the rest of the ubiquitous technosphere. But it turns out he has a rather different target in mind. His polemic, delivered by EPUB and kindle only (so far), is directed at a techno-utopian fantasy promulgated by large multinational corporations and their government client-sponsors.
Specifically, he spends most of his book going point-by-point over the absurd claims of efforts to build cities in “empty” spaces; that is, brand new urban complexes built from scratch in reclaimed mudflats in the sea, or in one case in an “undeveloped” rural valley in Portugal. The three targets of Greenfield’s scathing critique are the Korean New Songdo, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, and a planned small city in Portugal called PlanIT Valley. “These are putatively urban-scale environments designed from the ground up with information-processing capabilities embedded in the objects, surfaces, spaces and interactions that between them comprise everyday life. They are held up before us as forerunners and exemplars of the kind of urban environment we might inhabit once the cities of Earth have been decisively colonized by networked informatics, at some point in the undefined but not-too-distant future.”
The three big corporations at the heart of this below-the-radar industrial fantasy are IBM, Cisco Systems, and Siemens AG (of Munich, Germany). These companies are very familiar with large-scale projects and like to imagine they are capable of re-engineering life itself (IBM’s hubris-filled slogan these days is “let’s make a smarter planet”). They have all brought software- and hardware-linked systems to the market, offering urban planners a turnkey “solution” for everything that faces a generic municipal government. As Greenfield ably shows, the rhetoric, vision, and reality of these corporate schemes depends on an alarming amnesia and disregard for both history and actual knowledge about how cities really function.
While trading in the grand claims of cyberspace and seamless integration and frictionless futures, the urban life these corporations are trying to manage actually depends on real people moving through real environments, using everything from their feet to bicycles to cars and trains. Their sales pitch depends on a flattening of layered realities and omitting complex knowledge from more than a century of urban planning, history, and analysis:
Of the major technology vendors working in the field, Siemens makes the strongest and most explicit statement of the philosophical underpinnings on which their (and indeed the entire) smart-city enterprise is founded: “Several decades from now cities will have countless autonomous, intelligently functioning IT systems that will have perfect knowledge of users’ habits and energy consumption, and provide optimum service…The goal of such a city is to optimally regulate and control resources by means of autonomous IT systems.”
We act in historical space and time, as do the technological systems we devise and enlist as our surrogates and extensions. So when Siemens talks about a city’s autonomous systems acting on “perfect knowledge” of residents’ habits and behaviors, what they are suggesting in the first place is that everything those residents ever do — whether in public or in spaces and settings formerly thought of as private — can be sensed accurately, raised to the network without loss, and submitted to the consideration of some system capable of interpreting it appropriately. And furthermore, that all of these efforts can somehow, by means unspecified, avoid being skewed by the entropy, error and contingency that mark everything else that transpires inside history.
Soon after plunging into Against the Smart City I began to wonder why so much analytical effort had been spent debunking what seem to me to be patently absurd assertions by corporate PR departments. While I appreciate Greenfield’s detailed rebuttals to the Smart City propagandists, I found myself bogging down. I can’t really believe these plans are being built or will ever come anywhere near to their claims. Greenfield’s critique leaves little room for anyone to suggest that these “smart city” plans are anything but self-evidently ridiculous.
For all of the conceptual flaws we’ve identified in the Siemens proposition, though, it’s the word “goal” that just leaps off the page. In all my thinking about cities, it has frankly never occurred to me to assert that cities have goals. (What is Cleveland’s goal? Karachi’s?)…By failing to account for the situation of technological devices inside historical space and time, the diversity and complexity of the urban ecology, the reality of politics or, most puzzlingly of all, the “normal accidents” all complex systems are subject to, Siemens’ vision of cities perfectly regulated by autonomous smart systems thoroughly disqualifies itself. But it’s in this depiction of a city as an entity with unitary goals that it comes closest to self-parody.
As I read along I kept feeling like I’d seen all this before. And finally, about 75% into the book, Greenfield confirmed my suspicions. In his chapter on “overspecification” he points out the brittleness of their vision, the bizarre lack of flexibility, the sheer hubris of their overdetermined plans. For the Portuguese PlanIT Valley the designer
Appear[s] to allocate commercial, residential and retail sectors around a central public space, in a radial scheme as inelastic as Disneyland’s…The city’s functions are dispersed among discrete Retail, Residential, Research and Entertainment quarters, there to remain…the strict functional segregation of activity into designated, single-purpose districts is a hallmark of high-modernist urban planning, finding its earliest pure expression in Le Corbusier’s unbuilt Plan Voisin of 1924 and reaching an apotheosis in post-war plans like those for Brasília and Chandigarh.