January 31: What are smart cities? (And why are they often so dumb and scary?)

Neuebauhaus, Link, via Wikimedia

Lab: 5:30-6:45: Today we’ll be holding a Mock Town Hall regarding the hypothetical implementation of a new “smart infrastructure” in a fictional city.


Supplemental: Plenty more people (mostly guys) to choose from!!

  • Michael Anft, “The New Urban Science,” Chronicle of Higher Education (July 30, 2017).
  • Michael Batty, The New Science of Cities (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013).
  • Armin Beverungen, Florian Sprenger, and Susan Ballard, eds., “Computing the City,” Fibreculture 29 (2017): especially Halpern and Gunel on resilience and Mertia on Delhi.*
  • Dan Hill’s City of Sound and Medium channel.
  • Adam Greenfield, Against the Smart City (Do Projects, 2013).
  • Constantine Kontokosta, “CUSP Quantified Community and Neighborhood Labs,” AEC Technology Symposium (September 25, 2015).
  • Keiichi Matsuda, Hyper-Reality (2016) [film]
  • William Mitchell, Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2003) and e-topia: Urban Life, Jim – But Not as We Know It (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).
  • Brian Nussbaum, “Smart Cities – The Cyber Security and Privacy Implications of Ubiquitous Urban Computing,” Stanford Center for Internet and Society (February 9, 2016).
  • Antoine Picon, Smart Cities: A Spatialized Intelligence (Wiley, 2015).
  • Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel, The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
  • Jathan Sadowski and Frank Pasquale, “The Spectrum of Control: A Social Theory of the Smart City,” First Monday 20:7 (2015).
  • Mark Shepard, Ubiquitous Computing, Architecture, and the Future of Urban Space (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011).
  • Liesbet van Zoonen, “Privacy Concerns in Smart Cities,” Gov’t Info Quarterly 33:3 (July 2016).
  • Alan Wiig, Taylor Shelton, and Matthew Zook, “The ‘Actually Existing Smart City,’” Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy, and Society 8 (2015): 13-25.*
  • Liam Young, “An Atlas of Fiducial Landscapes: Touring the Architectures of Machine Vision,” Log 36 (Winter 2016): 125-34.


8 Replies

  • The friction between “neoliberal re-visioning of city managerialism” and critical debate within smart city “ideology” becomes obvious when Simone Browne shines a light on “digital equity” (Kitchin, p. 133). While Seattle’s Digital Equity Initiative stresses equitable connectivity and accessibility, Browne exposes a possible ramification: “[teaching] black girls how to code so they are more easily exploited in the digital labor force.” Keeping in mind the historical impact of light as a pervasive (and intrusive) means to codify bodies, it’s rather utopic to assume the digital would offer an entirely level playing field – it is made of light.

    Interestingly, while reading these materials on the web, I was presented with a very personalized ad from none other than The New School’s Media Studies program. The familiar red banner asked, “Does media code have a moral code?” The resonating theme among critical thinkers attempting to assess the conditions of smartness within urban infrastructure seems to be one of uncertainty. Reading Wiedeman’s piece, I was reminded of Wendy Chun’s Updating to Remain the Same. Chun asks for “the right to be exposed and not be attacked” (Chun, p. xi). If attacks are inevitable, I might argue for the right to regress.

    • Thanks, Allie! You’ve reminded us that “shining light” on something has variable political implications: it could lend visibility and legitimacy, or it could open us up to surveillance and render us vulnerable.

      Many of the texts for this week discuss urban administrators’ hopes that algorithmicizing governance will transform it into something rote, neutral, insusceptible to human error. Yet, as you note, even computer code also embodies a moral code: human values are built into the machines, and their deployment requires the exercising of value judgments, too.

  • Beyond the shadows of cybernetics and what Paul Edwards terms as the “closed world,” it seems to me that we are living in the age of mandatory innovation. And that smart cities themselves are not just, as Rob Kitchin reminds us, a means to stimulate the economy towards creativity and innovation, but themselves really a product of innovation. This perhaps is nicely encapsulated in what Orit Halpern and her team proposes as “test-bed urbanism,” where cities become testing grounds for urban management. It is now a race, between local governments and huge telecommunication companies such as IBM and Cisco, to build the ideal smart city – whose success lies in its ability to be scaled and replicated across different territories. In other words, we’ve left the space and nuclear arms race of the 60s and 70s, only to arrive at a 21st century global hackathon to build the model smart city. *insert slow clap gif*

    And while I understand Anthony Townsend’s call for more civic hackers to participate in, contest with and complicate the top-down “corporate visions” of optimizing the urban environment, I can’t help but wonder if this merely plays back into the imperative to “innovate.” What happens too if whatever creative efforts made by civic hackers become rerouted, detourned and co-opted by government stakeholders and media oligopolies – aka those who own the infrastructural base of your database? I left these readings wondering – intrigued by Alli’s earlier proposition for the “right to regress” – if a boycott is even possible? If not, might we be better off not merely hacking to democratize the processes of the smart city hackathon, but rather to sabotage and scramble it from within. Are we necessarily better off turning our data into dada?

    • Thanks, Kenneth, for highlighting this fetishization of the novel — and for asking about the political efficacy of resistance. How far “down the stack” — to the depths of hardware and infrastructure — must we target our actions in order to “regress”? Are obfuscation (à la Nissembaum + Brunton) and dada-fication politically efficacious? To be discussed!

  • It was very helpful to read these different perspectives and characterizations on what makes a smart city. However, I was surprised to see analmost complete absence of people, either from individuals who might use the data collected from sensors to determine how to intervene or what problems to address, who is actually constructing the infrastructure to support the smart city (even digital infrastructures require extensive cables to be laid and power generation), and what citizens might actually want out of their city. Sure, Kitchin (2016) does mention that the justification for smart city technologies are usually determined after it is known what they can accomplish, and he suggests that citizen interests should be taken into consideration in shaping what technologies are adopted, but even this perspective is inadequate. Where on earth is it possible to define a singular set of interests or goals within a society? In the few examples where people are mentioned in the literature, they are treated as a homogenous group with shared interests.

    Furthermore, how can we know that the technology will be used as planned? None of these authors speak of the various ways technologies can be implemented outside their intended use. Much of the scholarship on smart cities, whether supportive or critical, seems to assume unproblematic up-take in the society where it is introduced. We need more empirical research (and yes, Kitchin does call for this in his 2015 article) to learn how the smart city technology is incorporated into cities. Existing practices, organizational structures, modes of interacting, policy frameworks, and biases will all need to be contended with to ensure smart cities are implemented as planned. Here Simone Browne’s work is incredibly helpful in showing how racialized ontologies present in the colonization of the new world and the founding of America have carried through policing and surveillance practices, from lantern laws to flood lights in public housing. And finally, when we do eventually conduct research on smart cities, I would argue we have a greater problem than the lack of a hypothesis as Orit Halpern outlines. We already know theory is dead, the data has been speaking for itself since 2008. What is more pressing now is what happens to the replicability of the methods used to analyze the big data streams- especially with AI. How can we test if these smart technologies are solving the problems they claim to solve? Without understanding how machine learning algorithms operate, how can we evaluate if their methods are biased, especially if we have no norm for comparison?

    • Fabulous, Zoe! Yes — where are the people, and what subject positions do they adopt in these smart narratives? And you’re right, too, to point out the unpredictable agency of technology. In order to understand how smart technologies will impact the polis and its populace, we’ll have to develop better mechanisms for discerning their embedded logics and ethics.

  • From this week’s readings, I felt most compelled, unsurprisingly, by the NY Mag piece imagining a vast cyberattack on New York City. It is different from all the other readings not only in the fact that it imagines a chaotic scenario that over-reliance on smart technology might expose our city to, but also in the way it paints smart technology as a series of networks waiting to be compromised. After reading this piece I found the other articles, in which different existing smart technologies and corporate/government initiatives are described, lacking and one-sided. As Townsend points out, “utopian designs” and one-size-fits-all implementations of smart cities do not really benefit anyone—and perhaps they make us all more susceptible to widespread cyberattacks. To Townsend’s point then that we are all capable of helping build a smart city, I must ask: how? Where does the average New Yorker who is unfamiliar with the term “internet of things” or hasn’t yet learned that one can’t physically hold a bitcoin contribute to building a city that makes their daily life simpler, safer? Where do we begin to be conscious of our power to protect ourselves from problems we haven’t even conceived of before?

    • Great, Samiha. Thank you! Wiedeman’s dystopian “fiction” does remind us that each node on the network represents another vulnerability. And you helpfully echo Zoe’s question: how can we, “the people,” contribute to the building of intelligent cities if we don’t understand its logics — or if we’re unaware of our own agency?

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