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- The smartest cities rely on citizen cunning and unglamorous technology
We can see this most easily by considering just who it is the smart city is intended for – by seeking to discover what model of urban subjectivity is inscribed in the scenarios offered by the multinational IT vendors that developed the smart city concept in the first place, and who are heavily involved in sites like Palava. When you examine their internal documentation, marketing materials and extant interventions, it becomes evident there is a pronounced way of thinking about the civic that is bound up in all of them, with rather grim implications for the politics of participation.
A close reading leaves little room for doubt that vendors like Microsoft, IBM, Siemens, Cisco and Hitachi construct the resident of the smart city as someone without agency; merely a passive consumer of municipal services – at best, perhaps, a generator of data that can later be aggregated, mined for relevant inference, and acted upon. Should he or she attempt to practise democracy in any form that spills on to the public way, the smart city has no way of accounting for this activity other than interpreting it as an untoward disruption to the orderly flow of circulation. (This is explicit in Palava’s marketing materials, as well.) All in all, it’s a brutally reductive conception of civic life, and one with little to offer those of us whose notions of citizenhood are more robust.
|This is NOT a smart city! The image is from Masdar City, United Arab Emirates|
Where’s the technology in all of this? Beyond canny use of Twitter and Facebook, and an online calendar of activities, there isn’t much. That’s the point. The benches and platforms of el Campo aren’t festooned with sensors, don’t have IPv6 addresses, don’t comply with some ISO wireless-networking standard. The art walls aren’t high- resolution interactive touch surfaces, and the young people painting on them certainly haven’t been issued with Palava-style, all- in-one smartcards. Nevertheless, it would be a profound mistake to not understand el Campo as the heavily networked place it is, just as Occupy Sandy’s distribution centres were.
These are intensely technologised sites, places where the shape of action and possibility are profoundly conditioned by what I call the “dark weather” of the network – that layer of information that swirls around the physical environment, intangible to the unaided human sensorium but possessing terrific potency. It’s simply that in both these cases, the sustaining interactivity was for the most part founded on the use of mature technologies, long deglamorised and long settled into what the technology-consulting practice Gartner refers to as the “trough of disillusionment”.
|Here we see a TRUE smart city! The image is from Delhi, India. Photograph: Bernat Armangue/AP|