Against the smart city is a sort of The Emperor's New Clothes outlook on smart cities: it is brave enough to put into words the feelings of the discontents of the smart cities rhetoric and dares to be incisive in a way that could be understood as provocative. Some may accuse this pamphlet is anti-technologist, but this would be a false and unfair impression. On the contrary, just because Greenfield wants to explore the role of technology in cities, understanding the narrative in this sharp way is the way to be realistic about that role.
The pamphlet is apparently based on language dissection, as it´s been composed analyzing literal claims, commercial brochures, presentations and reports by the main companies protagonist of one of the best examples of agenda-setting in public policies. But it is not a semantic scrutiny, but a profound discursive scanning, which is not the same. So what?, can you think. Is there any use in taking the time to read between the lines of the channels that are serving to widespread a particular, concrete, partial and specific notion of what role can play technology in our cities (the hegemonic smart city narrative)? Yes, sure, definitely, more than ever. We need to take the time for this. Precisely because we have the option to make the best use of technology for better cities, a wiser discourse is needed to shape the way we design, create and deploy technology in our cities in a way that serves people to enjoy the benefits of them. Accordingly, this work is a great contribution to deconstruct the fundamentals of smart cities assumptions in order to find a more meaningful vision (and I guess the complete The city is here for you to use will be the answer for that).
In case you are one of those discontents not buying into the banalized vision of smart cities, the text will give you a complete map of why you get nervous when you hear the "S" word. This is my case. For years, the smart city discourse has been to me a permanent confusing set of terminology and concepts linked to premises I do not really find their place in my idea of urban living. During the last few months I have been working on six underlying assumptions of the smart city discourse, but Adam´s work frames this critique into a complete set of premises that make up the canonical smart city, from the generic use of the idea of cities to the subjacent political ideas smart cities comprise, but he also explores the pretended neutrality or the flawed pursuit of efficiency. And, as an overarching conclusion, propositions 12 and 13 really hit the nail on the head: smart cities have little enough to do with cities and are associated with the modernist urban planning features of the twentieth century.
In fact, I find techno-enthusiasm vs. techno-scepticism is a wrong dichotomy, in case you approach Against the smart city in such a way (and, obviously, anything related to the implications of technology in our daily life). It is the kind of surface accusation if you raise concerns, warning or just new questions when dealing with the widespread notion of smart cities. Then you feel like a killjoy in the celebration of the smart city. To me, the option –if there is really a dichotomy- is about adding or not a sense of conflict, critique, dubious mindset to have a full picture of it, instead of assuming the spectacularization of cities through a superficial understanding of the consequences of smart technologies in terms of political priorities, privacy and security concerns, inequality, citizens´ freedom rights, public spaces, democratic accountability, etc. This is what cities are all about, constantly, permanently throughout time. Hiding these questions behind the curtain of an apparatus of de-ideologised language, bird’s eye view renderings from Songdo, Masdar and PlanIT Valley (the three cases that epitomize the ideals of smart city proponents), and the way this narrative reproduces itself seem to be functional to add obscurity to an always open public debate on the kind of cities we want and the implications of technologies in our society.
“Every technology and every ensemble of technologies encodes a hypothesis about human behaviour, and the smart city is no different”, Greenfield claims. And this almost obvious cautious statement should be enough to read the pamphlet and explore it as a way to understand “what kind of place the smart city is” and what options do we have for our collective life in cities. And to do so, we need to dedicate more efforts to critically examine what kind of society we want to build and what contribution from networked technologies can we expect. You don´t need, of course, to agree on Adam Greenfield´s whole proposition to read this work. It clearly serves as an open invitation to step back for a while in the overblown and speedy machinery of smart cities.
BTW, with this one, after Anthony Townsend´s book, my plan reaches two out of three. Now it´s time for Martijn.