Facing myriad definitions and mission statements offering promissory yet vague descriptions of innovative urban environments, scholars use the term “nebulous” to describe the contemporary smart city. However, there are common characteristics and goals in these seemingly imprecise descriptions. Although heralded as new and innovative, smart city discourses, technologies, and administrative practices can be contextualized within longer histories of city management and the use of ICTs within urban space. Smart cities raise new incarnations of recurring, fundamental questions about city management: who governs, how, and what aspects of the city are governable? How can cities be planned to create communities, manage growth, and effectively distribute resources and services? Governance and city management are never easy, and technical aids have been employed by planners, administrators, and residents for centuries to organize urban complexity. In this vein, municipal governments are lured by ideals of simplicity and order that computerized systems and data-driven decision making claim to provide.

At present, the smart city concept and even the term itself are almost inseparable from corporate visions of what digital media, data, and urban space might be. This chapter is not meant to bolster or give credence to these perspectives. Instead, the reader should consider the promises and rhetoric described as offering only one perspective on how future cities might be built and governed, a perspective that is currently dominant but already being revised. Consider what is being left out or underrepresented in these urban imaginations, and the role of urban residents in cocreating urban places.

The day after the South Australian cabinet approved plans to continue Australia’s first attempt at smart city development, a writer for the daily newspaper The Advertiser critiqued the term as a “glib phrase” that “carries all the conviction of a spin doctor’s latest wheeze. It smacks of the politics of superficiality.”1 The author avoids a definition of the phrase, but ultimately expresses support for the gift of a project as an “exciting idea.” This 1996 article resonates with popular press treatment of smart cities today. Articles covering smart cities rarely articulate clear understandings of what these cities are, but readily report on decisions made about smart city development or describe technologies to be implemented in these spaces. Robert G. Hollands, professor of urban sociology and oft-cited smart city critic, identifies similar rhetorical trends in scholarly and policy publications, noting that cities often congratulate themselves on being “smart” but rarely define the criteria by which to evaluate this claim or explain why being “smart” is so important.

Definitions and characteristics of smart cities vary, and promotional materials make disparate claims about the value and purpose of these new constructions. Common to most of them, however, is a reliance on ICTs as the foundation and definitive quality of smart cities. Frequently, smart cities are regarded as urban environments where ICTs are aggressively implemented to collect data to support, monitor, and improve urban infrastructures such as transportation, waste management, energy consumption, and emergency response. ICTs are the substrates underlying the management of a multitude of networks; in a smart city they permeate nearly all aspects of everyday life to streamline urban activities and to gather and respond to system and client feedback in real time. At the heart of this understanding of smart cities is the ability to monitor urban activities and behaviors through pervasive, interconnected sensors, sentient objects, and high-speed Internet connections that translate urban activities into data. No more sash windows, no more Windows operating system either - the smart city becomes the window on the world and the door to the future. The desire to read urban interactions as data supports the idea of smart cities as data-based alert and response systems. Beyond being responsive to environmental and behavioral changes, smart cities are envisioned as predictive. Along with surveillance systems, “big data” analytics are touted as a means to predict trends or future urban activities and conditions.

Cities are already “smart” by several measures. Urban environments and populations repeatedly adapt to changing conditions, incorporate emerging technologies, and continually develop policies and social norms for managing complexity at macro and micro scales. Cities attract creative talent as knowledge economy hubs and innovation centers, which implies that the people who constitute the city are also highly intelligent. However, labeling a city as “smart” is a political and ideological choice. The term “smart city” implies a hierarchy in which certain cities are perceived as “smarter” than others and provides a general benchmark or goal for development; to attain this title, products and services can be sold and citizenry mobilized.


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