The “Smart Cities” movement has received almost universal praise by urbanists and technologists, thanks to its promise to deliver cities from the grips of congestion, pollution and crime through technological solutions such as self-driving cars or limitless municipal data collection. Proponents of Smart Cities (and the larger ubiquitous-computing movement) have proclaimed that we are on the precipice of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—the idea posited by the German economist Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum—where rapidly expanding mobile computerization will fundamentally alter our way of life.
While we are undoubtedly headed towards incredible advancements in technology, what remains to be seen is whether ubiquitous computing will be truly transformative and if that transformation will result in a higher quality of life—or just a more complex one. Some urbanists are beginning to question the efficacy of the claims that a “Smart City” would actually be a better place to live.
Perhaps the most developed critique is the aptly titled book Against Smart Cities by urbanist and information systems expert Adam Greenfield. The concise document soberly deconstructs key early examples of Smart Cities (Masdar City, Living PlanIT, etc.) which have failed to deliver on the lofty promises of their corporate and state sponsors. One of his most damning criticisms is not of the technology itself but of the way its creators have deployed it.
According to Greenfield, creators of Smart Cities are oblivious to, or purposefully disregard, the unique context of what defines a city, and instead propose the blanket application of “over-specified and brittle” technology to define the urban form. The prescriptive, and in some cases totalitarian, Smart Cities obviate the limitless possibilities of an organic city, where human experience, rather than data analysis, is the dominant narrative.
This blasé disregard of context is not a unique phenomenon to Smart Cities—20th century planning history is littered with strategies of urban renewal of similar hubris. The most influential of them is perhaps Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, which promised an optimized life, free from the hassle and clutter of a chaotic city. It would achieve this end by radically reorganizing cities into strict activity zones, siloed within high-rises, separated by highways and vacuous green spaces. Today, most urbanists agree that Le Corbusier’s plans are preposterously unlivable and counterproductive, but his influence can be seen in practically any modern city in the world.
The contemporary torchbearer to Le Corbusier is perhaps architect and theorist Rem Koolhaus, who, in his 1995 essay, “The Generic City,” essentially declared history and its architecture irrelevant. In the essay, Koolhaus posits that “the generic city is what is left after large sections of urban life crossed over to cyberspace. It is a place of weak and distended sensations, few and far between emotions, discreet and mysterious like a large space lit by a bed lamp.” His notoriously apocryphal writings nihilistically accept and even celebrate placeless architecture, while pointing to technology as the defining feature of contemporary urbanism. Perhaps not surprisingly, Rem Koolhaus is a divisive figure, but his embrace of technology is essentially congruent with more moderate Smart City advocates.
One outspoken critic of Smart Cities, who certainly has not written off history, is University of Texas Professor Robert Young, an expert in sustainable economic development and urban ecology. In his words, Smart Cities merely “help good cities do dumb things faster.” Young instead advocates for “Wise Cities,” which are informed by a variety of disciplines and historical precedents to foster a high functioning, low-maintenance urban form that is accessible to all segments of the population. In his essay “From Smart Cities to Wise Cities,” he writes:
“While increasing the efficiency of existing transportation, trash collection, energy, and other systems is the oft-stated [Smart Cities] Holy Grail, the logic underlying such systems remains fundamentally unquestioned. Should cities be seeking more efficient trash collection or to eliminate waste as a concept? Should cities invest in technologies to improve traffic volume efficiencies or in ways to bring production, consumption, and residential life into closer proximity? Absent reassessment of the roots of these issues, [Smart Cities] ironically bring a conservative rather than innovative approach to urban management.”
Young and Greenfield bring up a laundry list of other arguments against Smart Cities, each of which could stand alone as reason to be skeptical. For instance, there is the issue of what Greenfield describes as the system’s “brittleness.” If we invest billions in imbedded “smart” hardware across the urban landscape, what happens when that hardware is broken, hacked, outdated or no longer affordable to service? Or, when it comes to the jobs economy, where will all the service industry workers go when their jobs are taken over by self-driving cars, self-serving restaurants, and self-cleaning buildings? And finally, thinking globally, how will poor cities in developing countries keep pace with the rich techno-utopias of the West if they cannot afford Smart City technology?
Despite the unresolved questions of efficacy, Smart Cities have already become mainstream urban policy. The U.S. federal government officially jumped on the Smart Cities bandwagon in 2015, when President Obama introduced a $160 million “Smart Cities Initiative” to bolster research and investment for Smart City technology, with an eye towards supporting IT infrastructure and increased collaboration between cities and private sector entrepreneurs. In September 2016, the White House added another $60 million to the initiative; however, it seems likely that the funding will be axed by the Trump administration.
Looking forward, the Trump administration’s stance on Smart Cities—if they even have one—remains to be seen. While Trump has proven to be adversarial to anything supported by President Obama or to do with climate change, it seems certain components of the Smart City movement could be included in his tax-credit-funded infrastructure scheme, such as private investment in a network of self-driving cars. While liberals might find common ground with the Trump administration on certain aspects of Smart Cities, the irony is that technologies, such as self-driving Ubers, are meant to eliminate the labor cost (read: jobs) of precisely the people that Trump has promised to help.