The smart, resilient city: cliché or oxymoron?

The following post was submitted to the Young Academics blog of the AESOP network. You can find the original here. 

And here is it is also:

The smart city concept builds on technological and governance innovations to better enable cities to face up to urbanisation challenges, including the ability to “bounce back” from social, environmental and economic crises and shocks. To become smart is to become resilient and sustainable (e.g. see the SRC repository). Smart, resilient cities are fraught with contention, however, because conjuring contrasting images of urban landscapes equally differing cultural aspirations. To many analysts, the smart resilient city resembles more an “impossible sustainability”, to borrow Erik Swyngedouw’s phrase. The smart city: cliché or oxymoron? I argue: both, and neither. Smartness, like beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.

A snapshot of the future smart city? Norra Djurgårdstaden (aka the Royal Seaport) in Stockholm City, currently under construction. Photo source: City of Stockholm

Siemens is a global technological champion of the smart city. A 2014 Siemens presentation presents their conception of the smart city as resting on six pillars: smart environment, smart living, smart mobility, smart society, smart economy, and smart government. Smart society, for example, denotes “an agile civil society, social inclusion, and e-learning”. The concept echoes with Caragliu et al. (2009, 50):

We believe a city to be smart when investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic growth and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources, through participatory governance.

The smart city as the global panacea to urban challenges? One caveat: global economic crises from the Depression to the 2008 economic crunch and today’s austerity regimes have continually reminded us that “sustainable economic growth” itself maybe an oxymoron, because growth and decay/downturn are mutually constitutive (see for example Serge Latouche’s explorations of “degrowth” or Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth). The smart ecological, inclusive, resilient city may be more carbon-wash (or greenwash) driven by business-as-usual practices than the sign of truly transformative urban development practices. Technological innovation and planned obsolescence go hand in hand, and can be correlated with sustained environmental degradation (especially in terms of waste and resource extraction), poor working conditions in production and disposal facilities, and unequal distribution (i.e. the creation of “haves” and “have-nots”). The smart city is built on such relentless technological innovation.

Deploying the smart city also has explicitly spatial consequences. In India, for example, a recent lecture by Ayona Datta (Nov 2016) at Newcastle University demonstrated that the rehabilitation of existing cities into smart cities has been associated with gentrification and mobilisation of young middle-class values rather than social equity, supported by governance practices that resembled more Foucault’s governmentality (see Swyngedouw 2005) than truly open public engagement. The construction of the smart city could be likened to David Harvey’s account of Baron Hausmanns’ total reconstruction of Paris, a grand socio-technological and political project which channelled massive capital accumulation by sanitizing the French capital both socially and physically, erasing the possibility of future social unrest within the city. As Ayona Datta argued in her presentation, however, there is no one single manifestation of the smart city: only global discourses that take root locally in many different ways, pervaded and appropriated by local socio-cultural and political dynamics.

While laudable, the smart resilient city utopia seems to fall short of its lofty transformative ambitions. Urban resilience faces an important gap between theory and practice, because unsustainable practices have actually been among the most resilient to date (e.g. corruption, unsustainable resource extraction, unequal development…). As argued by Lorenzo Chelleri (2016), the operationalization of urban resilience is affected by: i) short-term benefits and quick-fixes as opposed to long-term solutions; ii) focusing on single measures (e.g. planting urban trees) rather than systematic, comprehensive approaches that address resilience of the whole urban system; and iii) unequal participation of stakeholders in the governance of the smart city. Lorenzo Chelleri argues with a pinch of humour that communities should probably become resilient to carbon-washing… Future research could tell whether the digital engagement practices that support the governance of smart cities (see for e.g. hackathons, mapathons, smartathons, social media and many other digital forms of public engagement) will enable local communities to effectively address climate change, as suggested by Chandrima Mukhopadhyay.

Some cities are beginning to address resilience differently. For the City of Boston, for example, resilience starts by addressing race and equity. Resilience, beyond its co-optation by the global smart city project, refers first and foremost to bouncing back from shocks and crises, which may stand in the background of technological development. Particularly, technological innovation may fall short of supporting disaster relief purposes. The use of newly-launched Google Earth in the Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans: the maps of devastated areas reflected clear socio-economic/racial boundaries in the city. The need to address socio-cultural inequalities is central to the smart, resilient, sustainable city.

Cities are first and foremost about people. Perhaps boding well for the future, the UK government’s Trade and Investment Deparment’s Smart Cities Pitchbook (2016) places the smart citizen at the core of the smart city (ad)venture, divided like Siemens’ strategy in six pillars: smart buildings and housing, smart infrastructure, smart mobility, smart health, smart governance, smart energy and environment. This said, the report’s cover page does feature a rather vaguely “smart”, brightly-lit glass building located by the side of an average road, with the following caption: “Technology is Great”. As local government services are now provided online by default (e-government), this poses equity challenges for the digitally excluded. Does one cease to be considered a smart citizen if one lacks the technology? This comes as a challenging idea for neoliberal democracies: not only do the most deprived suffer most from increased use of digital technology in society, many people with access do not use digital technologies in ways that could improve their socio-economic status, their integration in society or engagement in civic matters.

The “smart city” is not the only template available to make cities more sustainable and resilient. Among others, one can cite the Place Making movement or the One Planet Living sustainability concept, where citizens are implicitly valued, rather than considered “smart” by virtue of their digital engagement capacity. At the same time, there is no one-size-fits-all model for sustainable urbanisation. It should be of little surprise that urban innovation should also reflect human diversity.

Smarter past, smarter future: gazing into the mirror of history

I end with the theme of my next post, and by paying the dues to our forefathers, without whom we would not be so pretentiously smart. As Brian Ablett shared in a recent presentation on the smart city at Northumbria University, societies of the past were just as smart, if not smarter, than we are today. The test of time shows that past civilisations have proven more or less resilient: whether these were fair or ecologically sound societies remains a matter of debate.

We inhabit cities inasmuch as cities inhabit us: today’s governance and technological innovation give us new opportunities to shape the places we live in, which in turn contribute to shape us as individuals and communities. Building a truly smart, resilient city is both an obvious necessity and a great challenge. It requires humility, open-mindedness, and a willingness to learn from others as well as past successes and failures. To this end, gazing into the mirror of history would likely help us reframe our challenges and opportunities in a smarter way, as well as provide a stronger basis for truly innovative solutions.

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