City Cynic: ‘Against The Smart City’ By Adam Greenfield (Book Review)

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Opinions expressed by Daniel Nye Griffiths on Forbes Contributors magazine

In many ways, the ideal of interconnectivity, expressed individually by the smart phone, the driverless car, or the lenses beaming turn-by-turn navigation advice into welcoming eyeballs, finds its communal expression in the dream of the smart city.

That is, roughly, a city in which those individually connected devices inform and are informed by a massively connected, real-time updating urban computer, which allows the moving parts of the city to function with the greatest possible efficiency – no traffic jams, no wasted energy, no dark corners or hidden dangers.

Urbanscale’s Adam Greenfield, while notable for work with Razorfish in the frontier days of the World Wide Web and at Nokia during its days of design primacy in the mobile space, is perhaps still best known as the author of Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing.

As such, it is no surprise that he is returning to the concept of the networked city – a focus of Urbanscale’s practice, and one of the most visible and media-friendly applications of networked technology – in a tightly-argued short book, Against the smart city. Indeed, this pamphlet – which also serves as the opening section of the upcoming The city is here for you to use – could be seen as a continuation of the themes explored by Greenfield and his fellow urbanist Mark Shepard in their dialogic Urban Computing and its Discontents.

Smart dust, smart dreams

There are various injections of smartness into contemporary urban spaces – often piecemeal agglomerations of data collected or repurposed for a specific service. In London, automated camera data is cross-referenced with lists of those who have paid for the right to drive in the centre of town, in order to find and punish transgressors. Public and private services can provide at least some sense of the most efficient way to get from A to B, and ideally also what unique circumstances might affect that judgement from minute to minute, and deliver that information to a mobile device.

Greenfield, however, keeps Against the smart city focused not on these slow accumulations of connectivity – although real-world examples are cited from the idealism of Chile’s Project Cybersyn to Rio’s “war room” monitoring station – but rather the ideal of the smart city being proposed by three major urban developments.

These are Songdo City, a $20-40 billion development for a 500,000-person city built on reclaimed land by the Yellow Sea in South Korea; the embryonic “eco-city” of Masdar in Abu Dhabi, which is marketed as a future home for 40,000 residents and a place of work for 50,000 commuting workers; and “PlanIT Valley“, a $10 billion collaboration in Portugal planned to accommodate 225,000 citizens in an area “about the size of downtown Boston”.

To say that these cities are being studied would be misleading – to a considerable extent, these cities as envisioned in the literature do not currently exist. Greenfield, however, argues that the marketing materials and promises of their sponsors, however imminent their ribbon-cutting plans may be, provide a valuable insight into how large corporations with an investment in this kind of top-down, data-rich urban management system will position – and budget for – the ideal, greenfield smart city.

(To quote the Futureheads song of the same name as The city is here for you to use, ”These extra expenses make brilliant senses”. The smart city is big business, and big players are involved – IBM, Cisco, Samsung, Intel and others are operating in the automated city space.)

The bad best fit

These projects are not in an advanced state, and it is arguable whether they will look much like the advertising and promotional materials when they are completed. Greenfield finds worth in these materials, however – and specifically finds a series of precepts, implicit or explicit, about the conception of the smart city that are more or less consistent across all three, differing primarily in degree.

These ideas are not only consistent, to Greenfield, but consistently in error – based as they are on the belief that “the smart city” is a turnkey installation – a collection of technologies that, once deployed, will function consistently and uniformly. Cities, he argues, are rather products of specific geographies, social milieus and inhabitants. We do not live urban informatics lives divorced from the physicality of the city and ourselves; instead that other “smart” technology, the smartphones, has smashed physicality and data-presence together by its ubiquity and regular reporting of data to the network.

Sometime between the Clinton Administration’s 2000 decision to offer a clean GPS signal to non-military operators, and the rise of Facebook as a clearing house for unitary identity circa 2008, the virtual was folded back onto the physical fairly decisively. Far from dematerializing the self into a permanent state of “bodyless exultation”, our technologies of biometric recognition now increasingly moor it in and to the individual body.

If I read this right, the thrust is that the individual, not the metropolis, must be the atomic unit of urban data, and smartness resides in the unique systems of a city, which are formed by accommodations and alterations made in response to the unique circumstances of that city and its citizens.

Conversely, the visions of Masdar, Songdo and PlanIT are new builds on hitherto unurban ground – and often do not identify the specific technologies to be applied, talking instead in generic terms of “smart walls” and “iris recognition door systems”. This is important because the products offering these potential are not themselves interchangeable.

Where the plans are more specific, Greenfield goes on, is when they are talking about the sponsors’ proprietary systems – and the core technologies of these model cities are some variant of proprietary, for reasons of security or lock-in (and that argument feels like an Apple versus Android in the making). At one point, the pamphlet relates, the Portuguese project talked of introducing its own social network purely for the city, despite the fact that third parties such as Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare are already tied into the social systems of those rubbing physical elbows in the city, not to mention services elsewhere in the urban navigation stack such as Yelp. Greenfield homes in with a hunter’s eye on what he sees as wooliness or hubris – and, given that this is essentially marketing copy, the hunt is not a fruitless one.

Copy, right?

Which raises a query: since much of the material being studied is marketing copy, should we expect it to be wholly representative of what might happen, in these locations or anywhere else? Greenfield’s skepticism that these grand projects will actually be completed does not, by his lights, invalidate the close examination of their self-representation.

Against the smart city is certainly a focused work – a piece of targeted analysis which does not overstay its welcome. It might, in fact, make an interesting companion read to Anthony Townsend’s Smart Cities (I say this more as a note to self as a recommendation, since I have yet to get to Townsend’s far larger work). Where urbanist works often feel like concept albums, Against the smart city is more like a punk song.

And, like punk, Against the smart city is unashamedly political. Not party-political, but infused with a strongly argued mistrust of the bedrock of the doctrine of the top-down, turnkey smart cities. That is, the proposition that a smart enough city – for example one built from scratch with a single dominant supplier or alliance of suppliers and no existing infrastructure or accreted urban culture to deal with – will provide perfect knowledge of the needs of its citizens and be able to meet them perfectly. This is depicted as a recipe for disenfranchisement for those who are now subject to “smart” processes they do not understand, and for exploitation by those with sufficient knowledge to “juke” the system – Greenfield here deploying the trenchant terminology of The Wire.

The last part of the pamphlet, where Greenfield moves from a reading of specific texts to a broader identification of the historical context and overarching concept of the mechanistic city, contains some fine passages of disapprobation. The claims that one of these ideal cities will have the best features of many other major cities – the skyline of Manhattan, the walkability of Boston, the green spaces of London – are smacked down as “cargo cult urbanism”. The ideal of the smart city is tied into the high modernist ideal of urban development as the creation of self-contained units applying consistent architectural precepts, to which the inhabitants must bend, and the grisly example of Pruitt-Igoe, St Louis’ unhappy flirtation with the ideals of le Corbusier.

At times the picture Greenfield is painting, of these semi-independent city states divorced culturally and architecturally from the nations in which they are housed, may have a whiff of Peter Thiel’s seasteading ambitions – in this case, the city does not float, but the prioritization of wealth generation, and the creation of an environment with the minimum of regulatory barriers to it, is not unfamiliar.

As I read it – and I may be misreading – there is a particular critique of an approach that privatises profit and makes risk public , often by absorbing civic resources in pursuit of corporate goals. The greatest condemnation Greenfield has for this conception of the smart city is, ultimately, that it has little as a concept to do with cities – complex masses of emerging properties in which the inhabitants of the streets as much as a centralized “war room” decide how it will function.

For those interested in the smart city – and in particular in the marketing of the smart city – this is a book worth reading – tight in focus and often very entertaining in its dismantling of what are, admittedly, often easy targets. Those who broadly align with its ideological thrust are likely to find it invigorating, those who do not may feel at times as if their counterarguments are not being treated with respect – but this is, as I said, an unwaveringly politically engaged piece, and Greenfield makes no secret of his own preferences for engagement with the imperfect over subjection to the perfect – or the dream of the perfect.


Against the Smart City is available from the Amazon Kindle Store

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