Drones above Amsterdam - studio Drift
Duncan Rawlinson BY-NC

Cooperative city narratives

In this blog series I will examine different ways of using technology in cities, and the corresponding roles these imply for citizens. The goal is to explore alternative narratives to that of the techno-centric perspective of the smart city.

To do so I will take the Smart Citizens Lab at Waag as a starting point, which explores tools and applications that facilitate citizens to make sense of the world around us.

Several central concepts of this lab will be explored that support a more cooperative and human-centered city, such as citizen science and urban commons. The focus will be on cities because they are major sites of innovation, but the topic is also relevant for society as a whole. I will combine academic and public research together with experience from my internship at the Smart Citizens Lab.

The smart city and its origins

Technology is rapidly changing both the physical appearance of cities as well as the way that people live in them. In the last ten years there has been a strong emphasis on 'smart' cities within the field of urban planning. The general idea of the smart city is to use sensor technology and big data to make cities more efficient and sustainable. However, there is no clear definition of the smart city and many have stopped trying to define it.

The concept is thus surrounded by vagueness and its implementations differ greatly. In the meantime voices have grown to move away from the concept of the smart city and advocate for an alternative narrative like cooperative/shared cities or smart society. To better understand the concept of the smart city I will examine its origins from a theoretical perspective in this blog post, and discuss some of its criticisms.

The public-private city model: IBM’s smart city

The smart city generally implies the involvement of large tech companies. As sociology professor Jennifer Gabrys notes, smart city projects often are public-private partnerships between multinational technology companies, together with city governments, universities, and design firms.

These projects are thus organized in a top-down fashion, meaning that a small group of experts decides about and manages city-wide projects. Examples abound, from Cisco’s smart lamp posts, to IBM’s Smarter Cities challenge, and Alphabet’s (Google’s) Sidewalk labs.

Critics of the smart city warn that the public-private model is a trojan horse: public space is privatised by tech companies under the disguise of sustainability, efficiency and safety. The smart city moreover raises questions about who owns the data that is produced, the political consequences of this technology, and the role of citizens in the city.

Where does this 'smart city' come from, and is it really that smart?

One important actor in the smart city discourse is the tech company IBM. An academic paper from 2014 describes how the term smart city started popping up after 2008, together with IBM’s 'a smarter planet' advertisement that framed cities as smart cities. This strategy followed from IBM’s crisis in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, in which it had to move from hardware to software and consultancy due to large annual losses within the company.

The advertisement framed cities as existing out of different systems that can be connected through data. IBM thus positioned itself as an 'obligatory passage point' (OPP), because they could provide the data and improve urban processes.

To clarify the OPP concept, in the smart city discourse networked sensor technologies are meant to optimize processes and resources in the city, such as traffic, electricity, and waste. Both the production of the technology and the analysis of data is done by tech companies like IBM. Hence, these companies are unmissable actors in the smart city, which has become a billion dollar market. 

In such public-private projects citizens are largely excluded from the decision making process. Urban planner and sociologist Richard Sennett refers to this model as prescriptive and closed. In the prescriptive city the complex calculations that are required to make the city function are hidden away from citizens in closed feedback loops.

This exclusion, according to Sennett, will make citizens dumber because decisions are made for them in centralized systems (see also Frank Kresin’s blog). An example of this model is the smart city of Songdo. In this centralized city high-tech steers multiple aspects of everyday live. Here, city residents are passive consumers of the city. Meanwhile, Songdo has become a ghost town with little residents.

A more bottom-up version of the smart city is Amsterdam. On the Amsterdam Smart City platform, for example, there is room for startups and small companies. Still, this vision of the city is strongly technology and innovation driven and does not guarantee inclusiveness. It consists of smaller public-private partnerships from which city dwellers are easily excluded.

Can this exclusion be avoided? In my next blogpost I will explore some inclusive city models.