This contribution addresses the question of how urban media digital media technologies can help citizens to gain more ownership of their environment. How can digital data, game and new forms of creativity and art make the city hackable, that is, open to systemic changes by ‘smart’ city-makers?
Digital media technologies have become increasingly intertwined with everyday urban life. One only has to think of mobile interfaces, wireless networks and protocols, GPS navigation, smart cards, camera surveillance, sensors, a large number of large and small screens, big data and smart algorithms present in today’s cities. Such digital media technologies affect the spatial use and design, social situations and behaviour in our everyday urban life, and affect how we work, travel, live, spend our free time and meet each other. This interweaving of digital and physical worlds is the starting point for so-called ‘smart city’ policy and design agendas (see for example Hollands 2015). Municipalities, technology companies and knowledge institutions use smart technologies to try to more efficiently organize urban processes and solve problems such as energy and water supply, transport and logistics, health, safety and well-being, air and environmental quality. The hope is that this improves the quality of life of people and city governance. This is a commendable endeavour. However, there are a number of more critical aspects about such visions.
In the first place, the term smart lacks definition and precision. Who or what are actually ‘smart’ in smart cities? Often it isn’t the people for whom all those high-tech solutions are being devised. Take, for example, emblematic greenfield developments like Masdar City in the Arab Emirates and New Songdo in South Korea, smart cities planned on the drawing board in the first decade of the 21st century. In these visions, smart citizens do not have an active role in shaping their living environment. They are allowed to live in an envisioned high-tech utopia designed by companies and city governments for them, not with or by them. By contrast, already existing cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona or Amsterdam tend to take care of this differently. Here, the role of the municipal government is much more pronounced, and attempts are made to allow people to play a much more active role. Still, the question remains: smart city, for and by whom?
A second point of criticism is the underlying idea of cityness. The emphasis on efficiency is rather unilateral. The smart city conjures up modernist images of control, efficiency and control. As a vision on urban future it is rather totalizing and offers a generic template with little space for local and cultural differences. Similar to the ‘creative city’ visions popular two decades ago, as a type of city marketing the smart city offers quite a superficial narrative. Which city does not want to be creative or smart? The smart city denies the messy and unpredictable improvisation character make cities charming and exciting places. This messiness fosters creativity and innovation and is the pedagogical foundation for learning to coexist with others in increasingly super-diverse urban society.
Thirdly, the vision of technology as a solution machine is problematic. Many issues in this complex world are extremely complex, challenging and ‘wicked’ (Rittel and Webber 1973). It is naive to think that solutions come from purely technological interventions. What’s more, technologically driven solutions may have side-effects that counteract initial aims or produce perverse effects. For example, smart parking apps that show free parking places in real-time makes car mobility as a system more attractive. The more complex underlying issue of how urban societies can deal with questions of traffic and mobility remains untouched. This example shows how technological solutions may in effect undermine the public debate about what kind of city we actually want with each other. In addition, the question arises what role we think commercial platforms should play in the current reshuffling of individual, collective and public interests. How desirable is outsourcing decision-making power to computerized systems in which algorithms make the decisions? ‘Smart’ urban technologies reinforce trends that can be labelled as the logics of the three C’s logic: consumption (commercialization of urban public space), control (increased surveillance in public spaces), and capsularisation (retreat in secure private spaces while being in public) (de Lange and de Waal 2013).
In this light, it is hopeful that a growing number of cities look for future scenarios that do not focus so much on smart technologies but on smart urban residents. In this contribution, we look for these human-centred stories about the smart city. These stories are variegated but all entail people-centric perspectives on what makes a city ‘smart’ as well as ‘just’. This way, we can find answers to the question of how we can provide more humane directions to the future of the city under the influence of digital technologies and media culture.