Essay Sample on Smart City Concept

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  7
Wordcount:  1751 Words
Date:  2022-12-12


Urban development led by the application of information communication technologies (ICTs) has emerged as an important discourse in relation to the future growth, efficiency and prosperity of cities. Numerous examples abound in both the popular media and in academic discussions. Entire cities, based on smart principles, are currently being constructed in Asia and the Arab world by giant corporate information technology (IT), engineers and building firms, while smart initiatives have become common-place across the USA, Europe and Scandinavia in the last decade. Allegedly motivated by population flows, cities as economic growth hubs and environmental concerns, the smart city is currently being constructed as the solution to many urban problems, including crime, traffic congestion, inefficient services and economic stagnation, promising prosperity and healthy lifestyles for all. In short, the smart city symbolises a new kind of technology-led urban utopia (Kirby, 2013; Townsend, 2013).

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It is counter-intuitive to argue against the idea of a smart city (though for recent critiques see de Lange and de Waal, 2013; Greenfield, 2012; Hemment and Townsend, 2013; Townsend, 2013; Vanolo, 2013; and for an early critique see Hollands, 2008). And there is little doubt that ICTs are significantly transforming urban life (though this is hardly a new idea, see Graham and Marvin, 1995; Williams, 1983). Despite its inherent positivity, in a recent commentary, the renowned urban sociologist Richard Sennett has questioned the logic of the smart city and the largely accepted notion that we should increasingly rely on digital technology to plan our urban environment. Using examples like Masdar, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Songdo, South Korea, Sennett (2012) suggests that the "danger now is that this information-rich city may do nothing to help people think for themselves or communicate well with one another". In a similar vein, a 2008 article concluded "... the smart city generally reflects some of the negative effects the development of new technological and networked infrastructures are having on cities (Graham and Marvin, 2001), and is politically inclusive and culturally creative in only limited ways" (Hollands, 2008, 304).

These critical remarks raise a series of important and underlying questions about the self-congratulatory nature of the smart city and how ideas about this new urban panacea are currently being promulgated. For example, what do we actually mean by the term, and precisely what elements go into making up a smart city? What underlying ideological assumptions are made by invoking the concept, and what are its central social contradictions and problems? Who, and what, is driving our pre-occupation with the smart city, and who stands to gain and lose in the race towards such an urban future? Are there different and more critical ways of understanding current trends and conceptions of smart cities? And finally, are there other more cooperative and participatory uses of new technology that show glimpses of another kind of smartness that might provide a counter-point to current conceptions?

The main argument of this article is two-fold. First, as previously argued (Hollands, 2008), the idea of the smart city continues to be a highly ideological concept, hiding certain issues and problems from view, while assuming that IT can automatically make cities more economically prosperous and equal, more efficiently governed and less environmentally wasteful. Secondly, the way in which this urban panacea is increasingly being packaged and promoted is that it can only be effectively delivered through a corporate vision of smartness, in conjunction with an entrepreneurial form of urban governance (Harvey, 1989) and a largely compliant and accommodating citizenry (Gabrys, 2014). While the rhetoric of the corporate smart city invokes its own limited notion of participation and democratic decision-making, the profit motive of global IT, software, engineering, construction and utilities companies (Haque, 2012; Hill, 2013), in collusion with the trend towards cities selling themselves and being 'open for business', has left little room for ordinary people who live in cities to do anything other than adjust to the conditions of what one analysts has called smartmentality (Vanolo, 2013).

This argument entails a two-fold intervention into the debate surrounding the rise of this corporate-oriented smart city. First, it looks critically at how we currently understand the smart city. While there are clearly different definitions, variations and scales of smart cities and initiatives, this article specifically focuses on the rising trend towards corporate and entrepreneurial governance versions. A second form of intervention concerns considering smartness from a different perspective, emanating from small-scale and fledgling examples of participatory and people-power type of smart initiatives (Brickstarter, n.d.; Chatterton, 2013; de Lange and de Waal, 2012; Radywyla and Biggs, 2013). These modest examples are derived from what Adam Greenfield (2012), founder and managing director of Urbanscale, has called the 'spontaneous order from below' in his writings on the information-based city, while de Lange and de Waal (2013) use the term 'social cities' to refer to cases of using urban technologies to collaboratively solve shared problems.

The purpose of discussing these few examples is not to suggest that they pose a readymade alternative to the corporate vision. The problem in urban sociology generally is there appears to be a distinct lack of an alternative to the neo-liberal city, smart or otherwise (Harvey, 1989; though see Harvey, 2012; also Hudson's 2010notion of resilient regions). Rather, their purpose is to provide a glimpse into different and more human versions of smartness (using technology to realise progressive ideas, rather than see the technology as progressive in and of itself (de Lange and de Waal, 2013)). Really smart urbanism needs to start with the city itself and its attendant social problems, rather than looking immediately to smart technology for answers (Hoornweg, 2011). This will require new participatory urban technologies, greater social and economic inclusion, and a substantial shift in power from corporate business and entrepreneurial city leaders to ordinary people and communities that make up cities (Harvey, 2012).

Understanding the Smart City Concept: Visions, Elements, Trends

Ideas about future urban development are closely entwined with discussions about the dramatic impact ICTs will continue to have on our lives in the 21st century, and nowhere is this more evident than in the idea of the smart city. Note the following futuristic scenario:

Imagine life for the citizen of the smart city: you awake in your sustainably built home, and take your morning shower in recycled industrial waste water, cost-efficiently heated overnight. Eating breakfast, you scan the flat screen, fed by maximum bandwidth internet, where the special, easy click local neighbourhood menu allows you to compare your daily energy use with other houses in the area, confirm your webcam appointment with your doctor, top up the balance of your all-purpose travel card, order your groceries and leave messages for your child's teacher. You can even watch television on it. Outside, your electric car is waiting. On the edge of the central congestion zone, you park in a charging area and, paying with your travel card, get into a three-wheeled utility vehicle which, via a network of special lanes and sensor-controlled pedestrianised areas, delivers you to another parking dock at your workplace. (Kirby, 2013)

Other examples of transformed lives in smart cities come from IT corporate websites, futuristic films and academic and policy-making circles. Fujitsu, a leading Japanese ICT company says it is "... striving to leverage ICT to create a society where people's lives are prosperous and more secure" (Fujitsu, n.d.), while Cisco, which has been involved as the IT partner in the creation of the first smart city from scratch in South Korea, Songdo, says on its website that it "... is a prime example of a new city that brings together the world's best technologies, building design and eco-friendly practices to create the ultimate lifestyle and work experience" (Cisco, n.d.). Finally, the ICT powerhouse IBM on its website claims that "Smart growth can lead to safe neighbours, quality schools, affordable housing and traffic that flows. It's all possible ..." (IBM, n.d.).

Popular cultural images in the form of futuristic films are less flattering and more concerned about the negative impact technology can have on our urban lives. While the Terminator series of movies is perhaps the most obvious dystopic representation of what happens when the machines (computers) take over,1 films like Equilibrium, Bladerunner and Minority Report also raise important issues about IT and its relationship to urban privacy, security and hyper-consumerism. While these movies essentially make a technological critique (that is, technology can sometimes go wrong), equally apt here is the less well-known Indian film Smart City (2006), which is based, in part, on a fictional take on a real but ambitious/Info City plan drawn up by the previous Kerala government in partnership with Dubai Internet City. Interestingly, the film emphasises the conflict between local mafia, builders, property developers and government in building a smart city and is perhaps more in line with academic critiques of corporate and government collusion in creating an entrepreneurial type city (Harvey, 1989; Hollands, 2008).

Discussions about smart cities in academic circles are of course more varied, diverse and complex than these corporate utopian visions or cinematic false dawns. Part of this more complex understanding comes down to the varied ways the term has been employed or linked to related concepts. For example, while the adjective smart clearly implies some kind of positive urban-based technological innovation and change via ICTs, analogous to the 'wired', 'digital', 'informational' or 'intelligent' city, it is not, as has been argued elsewhere, exactly synonymous with these terms (Hollands, 2008). More recently, some writers have begun to talk about the ubiquitous or 'u-city', where smart technology is completely embedded in the urban fabric and all urban systems become linked through IT advancements (Anttiroiko, 2013). Smart initiatives have also been discussed in relation to a range of ideas including e-governance (Van der Meer and Van Winden, 2003), the efficient production of urban services (Comstock, 2012), the learning or knowledge city Campbell, 2012; (McFarlane, 2011), their link to creative cities (Florida, 2010), smart communities (Paquet, 2001), and more recently, open data sharing in cities (Bates, 2013). Additionally, while smart cities discourses were always tied up with issues of environmental sustainability, and often used as an important driver for smart city initiatives (Satterthwaite, 1999), this connection has become both stronger and more urgent with studies of climate change in cities (Bulkeley, 2013), urban transitions to low carbon output (Bulkeley et al., 2010) and increased discussions about eco or green cities as smart (Beatley and Newman, 2008; Joss et al., 2013).

This diversity of ideas creates certain conceptual problems in discussing smart cities, as different writers invoke quite varied aspects in their definition of the term. For example, some view smartness almost exclusively as technology and hardware-" We define the SMART city therefore as 'resources and technology that interoperate in real time across city functions ...'" (Moyser, 2013). Others emphasise urban governance and services...

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