Waiting for the smart city

Nowa­days when we talk about the smart city we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly talk about smart­ness or cities.

I feel like when the term is used it often obscures more than it reveals.

Here a few rea­sons why.

To begin with, the term sug­gests some­thing that is yet to arrive. Some kind of tech-enabled utopia. But actu­al­ly, cur­rent day cities are already smart to a greater or less­er degree depend­ing on where and how you look.

This is impor­tant because too often we post­pone action as we wait for the smart city to arrive. We don’t have to wait. We can act to improve things right now.

Fur­ther­more, ‘smart city’ sug­gests some­thing mono­lith­ic that can be designed as a whole. But a smart city, like any city, is a huge mess of inter­con­nect­ed things. It resists top­down design.

His­to­ry is lit­tered with failed attempts at author­i­tar­i­an high-mod­ernist city design. Just stop it.

Smart­ness should not be an end but a means.

I read ‘smart’ as a short­hand for ‘tech­no­log­i­cal­ly aug­ment­ed’. A smart city is a city eat­en by soft­ware. All cities are being eat­en (or have been eat­en) by soft­ware to a greater or less­er extent. Uber and Airbnb are obvi­ous exam­ples. Small­er more sub­tle ones abound.

The ques­tion is, smart to what end? Effi­cien­cy? Leg­i­bil­i­ty? Con­trol­la­bil­i­ty? Anti-fragili­ty? Playa­bil­i­ty? Live­abil­i­ty? Sus­tain­abil­i­ty? The answer depends on your out­look.

These are ways in which the smart city label obscures. It obscures agency. It obscures net­works. It obscures intent.

I’m not say­ing don’t ever use it. But in many cas­es you can get by with­out it. You can talk about spe­cif­ic parts that make up the whole of a city, spe­cif­ic tech­nolo­gies and spe­cif­ic aims.


Post­script 1

We can do the same exer­cise with the ‘city’ part of the meme.

The same process that is mak­ing cities smart (soft­ware eat­ing the world) is also mak­ing every­thing else smart. Smart towns. Smart coun­try­sides. The ends are dif­fer­ent. The net­works are dif­fer­ent. The process­es play out in dif­fer­ent ways.

It’s okay to think about cities but don’t think they have a monop­oly on ‘dis­rup­tion’.

Post­script 2

Some of this inspired by clever things I heard Sebas­t­ian Quack say at Play­ful Design for Smart Cities and Usman Haque at ThingsCon Ams­ter­dam.

Published by

Kars Alfrink

Kars is a designer, researcher and educator focused on emerging technologies, social progress and the built environment.