“ Smart cities” merely want to be perceived as smart, when what they actually need is quite different. Cities need to be rich, powerful, and culturally persuasive, with the means, motive, and opportunity to manage their own affairs. That’s not at all a novel situation for a city. “Smartness” is just today’s means to this well-established end.
The term “smart city” is interesting yet not important, because nobody defines it. “Smart” is a snazzy political label used by a modern alliance of leftist urbanites and tech industrialists. To deem yourself “smart” is to make the nimbyites and market-force people look stupid.
Smart-city devotees all over this world will agree that London is particularly smart. Why? London is a huge, ungainly beast whose cartwheeling urban life is in cranky, irrational disarray. London is a god-awful urban mess, but London does have some of the best international smart-city conferences.
London also has a large urban-management bureaucracy who emit the proper smart-city buzzwords and have even invented some themselves. The language of Smart City is always Global Business English, no matter what town you’re in.
So if grand old London is smart, with its empty skyscrapers, creepy CCTV videocams, and sewers plugged with animal fat, then we probably needn’t fret about the Elon Musk sequins and stardust of digital urbanism. Better to re imagine the forthcoming urban future as a mirror of Rome, that “Eternal City,” where nothing much ever gets tech-fixed, but everything changes constantly so that everything can remain the same.
These tedious yet important digital transformations have been creeping into town for a couple of generations. At this point, they’re pretty much all that urban populations can remember how to do. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent—these are the true industrial titans of our era. That’s how people make money, that’s how they make war, so of course, it will be how they make cities.
However, the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.
I used to imagine that time was on the side of the internet’s infrastructure providers—that we were in for a flat world of torrenting, friction-free data. That could well have happened, but it didn’t pay off fast enough; instead, today’s surveillance-marketing business model set in, and with it the realization that “information about you wants to be free to us.”
This silo-izing and digital balkanizing is sinister and unfair in many ways, but it also tends to add regional character. It’s about as flat and fair as a billionaire’s penthouse.
This year, a host of American cities vilely prostrated themselves to Amazon in the hopes of winning its promised, new second headquarters. They’d do anything for the scraps of Amazon’s shipping business (although, nobody knows what kind of jobs Amazon is really promising). This also made it clear, though, that the flat-world internet game was up, and it’s still about location, location, and location.
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I didn’t expect to see this, but neither did city planners. Back in the internet days, the fact that everybody had broadband and cellphones made it look like city government would become flat, participatory, and inclusive. You still see this upbeat notion remaining in the current smart-city rhetoric, mostly because it suits the institutional interests of the left. Community leaders, grassroots activism, the people who want to “participate”—to point, click, and fix the potholes—there are plenty of such people around. However, they’re always the people who think a city-council meeting or a labor-union rally are interesting. They’re not interesting. They’re important, but they’re dull.
That’s why smart cities, in this new digital era of Big Five and China-BAT industry consolidation, drift away from open public websites and popular comments. Instead, they’re adopting that new surveillance-marketing paradigm of “data extractivity.” Why trouble to ask the “citizens” what they want from urban life, when you can accurately surveil the real actions of city’s “users” and decode what they’re actually doing, as opposed to what they vaguely claim they might want to do?
Smart security services may see, on smart video, that their populations get restive—but that doesn’t mean the wretches actually stop. You could say much the same for smart air-pollution sensors, which are deployed all over the toxic winds of China, yet are ceremoniously ignored because the truth’s so inconvenient.
So what future cities have in store, I surmise, is not a comprehensive, sleek, point-and-click new digital urban order, but many localized, haphazard mash-ups of digital tips, tricks, and hacks. These half-baked smart-aleck cities will require the arcane knowledge that any local townie knows—that he or she considers habit, a second nature. But the tourist and the émigré will be automatically skinned.
This may sound cynical from the point of view of my American hometown of Austin, Texas. Austin is a high-quality-of-life, high-tech, overeducated city that consistently preens itself about its “smartness.” However, Austin has a remarkably odd and quirky set of regional technical allies. These typical “Golden Rut” Austin techies are remarkably advanced, only nobody who matters has ever heard of ’em.
I appreciate that prototypical Austin situation, but I also spend much time in Belgrade, Serbia, a city that locals say was burned to the ground 19 times (at the very least, it’s been sieged, assaulted, and conquered that many). From the urban point of view of Belgrade, a smart-city “advancement” deeper into crabbiness and quirkiness actually sounds pretty good. Because it’s an urban situation that has Belgrade’s own fully flavored, small-language, weird ethnic, formerly Ottoman atmosphere. It means a Byzantine, kinky town that doesn’t have to fret too much about being outworked by Shenzhen or outschemed by Silicon Valley.
If you look at where the money goes (always a good idea), it’s not clear that the “smart city” is really about digitizing cities. Smart cities are a generational civil war within an urban world that’s already digitized. It’s the process of the new big-money, post-internet crowd, Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft et al., disrupting your uncle’s industrial computer companies, the old-school machinery guys who ran the city infrastructures, Honeywell, IBM, General Electric. It’s a land grab for the command and control systems that were mostly already there.
The GAFAM crowd isn’t all that well suited to the urban task at hand, either. Running cities is not a good business fit for them because they always give up too easily. America’s already littered with the remnants of abandoned Google Moonshots. Amazon kills towns by crushing retail streets and moving all the clerks backstage into blind big-box shipping centers. The idea of these post-internet majors muscling up for some 30-year urban megaproject—a subway system, aqueducts, the sewers—seems goofy.
These Big Tech players have certainly got enough cash to build a new, utopian town from scratch, entirely on their own software principles—a one-company Detroit for the Digital Initiative. But they won’t do that because they’re American. The United States hasn’t incorporated a major new city in almost 70 years
There are some brand-new cities in the rapidly urbanizing world: Oyala, Equatorial Guinea; Saihoon, Tajikistan; Rawabi, Palestine; Astana, Kazakhstan—but you never hear about them in the context of “smart cities.” Even though they’re new, and they have shiny modern infrastructure, they’re not “smart.” Even though Astana is a genuine political capital, and also a very interesting place, it doesn’t have enough “political capital” to become a player in the smart-city sweepstakes.
“Smart cities” merely want to be perceived as smart, when what they actually need is quite different. Cities need to be rich, powerful, and culturally persuasive, with the means, motive, and opportunity to manage their own affairs. That’s not at all a novel situation for a city. “Smartness” is just today’s means to this well-established end.
The future prospects of city life may seem strange or dreadful, but they’re surely not so dreadful as traditional rural life. All over the planet, villagers and farmers are rushing headlong into cities. Even nations so placid, calm, and prosperous as the old Axis allies of Germany, Japan, and Italy have strange, depopulated rural landscapes now. People outside the cities vote with their feet; they check in, and they don’t leave. The lure of cities is that powerful. They may be dumb, blind, thorny, crooked, congested, filthy, and seething with social injustice, but boy are they strong.