We’re listening to Adam Greenfield speak AGAINST THE SMART CITY

17 Dec

Tim Maughan reports from New York.


Against the Smart City (The City is Here for You to Use)
Adam Greenfield
Kindle, £5.16

New York, like any major city on any continent, is pockmarked with monuments of change; the scars and stretch marks of urban conflict and rebirth. The New Museum is one of the most notable. This Japanese designed contemporary art centre – named one of the architectural New Seven Wonders of the World by Conde Nast Traveler – sits just a few doors down from the Bowery Mission, the city’s most famous shelter for the homeless, in a neighbourhood that was for centuries associated with flophouses, brothels, dive bars and pawn shops. As such it was the perfect venue to hear Adam Greenfield talk about what could be seen as a new form of gentrification – one that seeks to repopulate and upgrade information and infrastructure as opposed to property and community. He was launching Against The Smart City, which he’s calling a pamphlet, and is actually the first third of his still-in-progress book The City is Here For You to Use.

Like gentrification itself, the (still highly nebulous) concept of the “smart city” is an over-used buzzword that might yet deliver on its promise (or threat), becoming a space-reshaping global trend. Before launching into the detailed – and highly critical – analysis that Against The Smart City’s title promises, Greenfield attempts to flesh out a definition based on what, at times, feels too much like marketing speak for a loosely connected cloud of technologies and urban management policies. In simplest terms, the “smart city” can be seen as an attempt to build an “urban-scale environment designed from the ground up with information processing capabilities embedded in the objects, surfaces, spaces and interactions that between them comprise everyday life”. In plainer English, the city of what Greenfield calls “the proximate future” is a place where every footfall is heard, every vehicle movement is recorded, every consumed resource is monitored, and where this vast, seemingly unknowable glut of data is fed back into some centralised digital management system that is able to not just somehow understand it all, but also to learn and anticipate the sort of problems pesky human populations impose on urban spaces. It’s the merging of a whole bunch of all-too-familiar tech rhetoric – cloud computing, big data, ubiquitous computing, the internet of things – into one solid, apparently killer application.

It’s this bundling together that forms the basis of one of Greenfield’s most interesting criticisms: that the concept of the smart city is largely a commercial opportunity for multinationals like IBM, Siemens and Cisco to off-load a bunch of off-the-shelf products that can be sold to both the builders of new cities and to those trying to retrofit existing ones. It’s the ‘off-the-shelf’ part that is the most problematic for Greenfield – it’s a one-size-fits-all solution for cities that are of a near-infinite number of shapes; a business model that likes to think that the city is somehow a generic space. It’s a painfully ludicrous notion, and one that Greenfield illustrates deftly with the story of a group of French parkour performers flown to London to film a commercial “who spent two days’ preparation simply wandering the streets, wedging feet between curb and sidewalk, sidewalk and lamppost, bus shelter and building wall. They were literally taking the gauge of the place, getting their bodies acclimated to its grain. For the ways these athletes desired to use the city, minuscule variations in these quantities could mean the difference between a successfully performed manoeuvre and a broken collarbone, or worse. The success or failure of a technological intervention is no less sensitively dependent on margins like these.”

The “smart city” idea treats spaces generically. It does the same thing (makes the same mistake) with time, technology and populations: “in the just-so stories we’re told about the smart city, the technology of everyday life advances, but everything else somehow magically remains the same. From family size and structure to work arrangements to the conception of the self, everything proceeds as though sequestered, serenely untouched by the radical discontinuity in the technics of the daily.” It views the city as a set of values and beliefs that are somehow universal and unchanging; that would have failed to predict that The Bowery could become home to world class architecture, that systems can be affected by fads, fashions, and other factors beyond technological progress, or that communities can and will shift and mutate. In fact it is this last assumption – the dismissal of the role of urban populations to be anything beyond teachable statistics – that makes up the crux of Greenfield’s argument, as he asks who – beyond IBM, Siemens, Cisco et al – the smart city is really for.

For Greenfield, the tech provider’s commercial imperative to pander to the potentially oppressive policies of city and state governments leads to the most disturbing aspects of the brave new smart city. He points to promotional material for the “Intelligent Operations Center built by IBM for the city of Rio de Janeiro, a $14 million facility that fuses data from weather stations, traffic cameras, police patrols, sewer-mounted sensors and social-media postings into a synoptic, war room-style overview…[that] will help municipal governments ‘monitor and manage city operations pro-actively [sic] and…respond rapidly and effectively to emergencies.’ But the specific ‘emergencies’ contemplated in the case of Rio de Janeiro apparently include demonstrations by favela residents for their own right to autonomy and self-determination…IBM’s own materials specifically contemplate the use of the Center’s capabilities, instead, to guide favela pacification operations, going so far as to suggest ‘Which streets will require the most troops?’ as a question an administrator may wish to submit for computational consideration.”

Greenfield hammered this point home most effectively during his New Museum talk with a series of slides from recent uprisings and protests – Tahrir Square in Cairo, Taksim Square in Istanbul, Zucotti Park in New York – all urban spaces that held host to events that are fundamentally incompatible with the smart city philosophy, and that it would, by its own definition, attempt to quash as unprecedented examples of the very kind of chaos and disruption it is designed to negate. The smart city may not have been conceived as an intentionally oppressive tool, but in its eagerness for some kind of idealised, unobtainable efficiency it attempts to reduce citizens to generic, agency-less statistics – and hands unscrupulous regimes the tools to clamp down on any citizen’s attempts to prove otherwise.

While Against The Smart City presents a thorough and biting take-down, Greenfield takes care by the pamphlet’s end to embrace the idea that The City Is Here For You To Use and to provide glimpses of more positive alternatives. He points out that ‘“the orthodox conception of the smart city says virtually nothing about the prospect that its inhabitants might be equipped with the smartphone,” a platform he sees as offering potential for an open, less proprietary, decentralised, and more citizen-orientated use of urban data. “The same infrastructure of data capture, visualization and analysis that feeds an Intelligent Operation Center can be harnessed by citizens for their own use and edification, to raise issues of equity in the distribution of municipal resources and to open up other questions of power and access…if we are to embrace ubiquitous data collection and the other technics of computational oversight, we must do so under the condition that they be placed at the full disposal of an engaged citizenry, with the understanding that such tools should be used to provoke debate rather than forestalling it.”

Over all, Against the Smart City presents a compelling and thoughtful argument that the inevitable, steamroller-like deployment of smart city technologies and policies requires not just pause, but a greater understanding by the populations who it will most directly impact. The biggest issue this and all similar books face is: who is its intended audience? Academics? Architects? Urban planners? Politicians? Futurists? Tech developers? All of these may be important players in determining the future implication of smart city technologies, but by Greenfield’s own rationale they are not the most important ones – it is a city’s populace that must be at the centre of the debate, “the people in whom any city’s capability actually subsists, for theirs – ours – is the only kind of urban intelligence that will ever truly matter.” Can Against The Smart City break free of the echo chamber of intellectual debate, and make itself heard on the street?


Read Tim Maughan’s story “Limited Edition” in Afterparty Overdrive (Arc 1.3), out now.

Also on the blog: sound artist Duncan Speakman leads Tim through a parallel Bristol.

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