martes, 26 de abril de 2016

Smart cities as socio-technical imaginary

Until now I could not find the time to post this English summary of my PhD dissertation (December 2015) titled The smart city as socio-technical imaginary. The prefabrication of the urban digital utopia (La smart city como imaginario socio-tecnológico. La construción de la utopía urbana digital).
The work conducted in 2013-2015 is aimed at reviewing the underlying assumptions at the prevailing discourse of smart cities as technological narrative and its implications for the contemporary urban agenda. The main objective is to provide an analytical framework for understanding the preconceptions that are behind the narrative of smart cities as it has been presented by its leading proponents. This discursive and practical imaginary refers to a series of theoretical concepts and assumptions with crucial implications in shaping urban but have been poorly attended so far in the mainstream storytelling. These elements are framed by the dominant players through a new discursive regime about cities and technology, with some immediate impact on city life and the role of urban policies.

The text proposes an understanding of the smart city narrative from its implications for public policies and in the light of social sciences. We develop a dissection of its explicit arguments and implied consequences typically pitched as self-fulfilled benefits. To do so, the concept of myth as ideological signifiers supporting this narrative is used to detect how the promises of sustainability, optimization, integration, etc. work to legitimate discourses, projects and initiatives. Based on its characterization as a hegemonic imaginary, we depict the ability of this discursive regime to move from the symbolic to the embodiment through projects that are transforming urban relations, spaces and ideologies around cities and technology.

Building upon this depiction of how the smart city discourse works, the text frames possible counter-hegemonic of the connected city and the possibility of finding and building other narratives and other visions that can widen this imaginary to bring it closer to the social conditions of the connected society and make it more meaningful. These under-represented practices in the hegemonic rhetoric offer new possibilities for collaboration and collective organization.

The text is structured into 5 parts, as follows:

Here we establish the object of study, the basis for the recognition of the digital trace of life in cities through different devices, infrastructure, services and flows that characterize the connected society. This serves to locate the context in which the smart city new storytelling emerges as representation of the contemporary city. Its problematization, its features (polysemy and hegemony, mainly) and the reasons from academic literature can be found for questioning are delimited, as well as its significant influence in the shift of the current agenda of cities and urban studies. In the same way, the research problem we wanted to solve initially arises: insufficient and problematic character of the smart city as a paradigm for understanding the dynamics of technological transition.

This chapter is aimed at building a conceptual framework to bring together the various criticisms and questionings that have emerged around the smart city as a generic discursive description of the networked city. This is not purely a descriptive exercise of what a smart city is, or even a compilation of projects or initiatives usually attached to the smart city narrative or self-proclaimed smart projects. We are not facing a recapitulation, a systematic state of the art or a technical assessment of its promises. On the contrary, based on our interest in putting the smart city in the light of social studies, we try to outline how this narrative is influencing urban policies. To do this, we link the smart city to deeper discussions related to the digital society, from new epistemologies derived from big data to the influence of the Californian ideology in the way we consume digital experiences and even activism in the network, through the comparison to other recent utopias or the incardination of the smart city in certain categories such as social representation of the city. In any case, despite what was stated above, this section includes a selective overview of the practical implementation of the intelligent city, as the types of projects selected are those that will help build the next section of the text. Without pretending to be a state of the art on the degree of development of the smart city or a categorization of different types of projects, we aim to depict the projects that have served as mainstream references for setting the imaginary through proposals that have achieved a great media attention. Thus, we draw a panorama that unfolds in both the ideological and narrative field and in the field of project implementation.

This chapter constitutes the main contribution. It implies a systematization of arguments that are usually assumed and reproduced as the foundational features of smart cities and smartmentality. These arguments work as narrative myths on two levels: as explicit proclamations of the benefits of smart projects and as underlying assumptions implicit in the consequences of the smart city realization. The use of the myth here may seem at first glance a subjective or even cynical assessment. However, it helps us understand how social narratives automatically transmit values and cultural representations, promote make self-explanatory promises and hide the possibility of questioning. In this regard, the reference to the myth does not imply a refutation of the possible veracity or relevance of the smart city, but attempts to highlight the way in which any kind of social imaginary works, especially when they entail idealistic views about technology as it is our case. The set of myths presented here aims to provide a systematic overview of different levels of critical argument that the smart city has raised almost since it began to occupy a dominant position. In this sense, the chapter is a contribution by proposing a complete systematic of different positions that have already been advanced by other authors or from specific disciplines but not sufficiently ordered together. These myths, in short, are:
  1. The myth of operational efficiency: the obsession with optimization as the sole objective of urban services
  2. The myth of sustainability: the claim to a weak sustainability thinking based on behaviour irresponsibility
  3. The myth of economic competitiveness: technological accumulation as economic development factor
  4. The myth of integration: the pursue of a perfectly integrated infrastructures and a seamless urban experience
  5. The myth of simplification: reducing urban complexity to simulation models instead of thinking cities as wicked problems
  6. The myth of big data neutrality: the fiction of an aseptic, bias-free, objective and perfect knowledge through data.
  7. The myth of depoliticization: the ambition to reach a post-political scenario of urban management and control.
  8. The myth of technological smugness: identification of technology as the critical factor to solve any urban issue.
  9. The myth of intrinsic desirability: the inescapable and undisputable technological progress.
This chapter intends to approach other relevant layers of discourse in understanding the digital skin of the city and the impact of the connected society in the way that cities work. In addition to offering a vindication of the multiplicity of narratives in pluralistic societies, the chapter focuses on some socio-technical practices in which we note a potential not enough acknowledged (urban interaction deisgn, city-making, media labs, urban media,...) . Thus, having affirmed the hegemonic nature of the smart city, at this point of the research the text proposes some criteria and concepts that build or recognize a counter-hegemonic discursive regime already operating, albeit outside the dominant discursive regime.

This last chapter suggests a number of conclusions and elements for future research of the city in the digital society. This section can be read as an open list of topics for a research agenda that complements the connected city or, where appropriate, exceed myths noted above.

In short, this research is intended as a criticism of a proposal for a new urban model that has established itself as dominant reference to explain the contemporary technological basis of city thinking.

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