In this talk, I’d like to ask a simple question: in what ways does the smart city differ from the city as it is has appeared throughout history? By using the work of Lefebvre, Halpern, Lukacs, and others, I will offer a provisional answer. Following this, I will then seek to sketch out a loose future history of the smart city, in which the utopian dream gives way to the nightmare of weaponized intelligence, endocolonization, and inter-urban war.
The smart city breaks down into several threads that are militated towards the construction of a cohesive grand narrative, or an ideology of intelligence. This ideology constructs itself along three axioms: the economic, the political, and the spatial.
Let’s begin with the economic character of the smart city. Cities, free market proponents love to point out, are massive economic engines. The city as we’ve known it in Europe and the United States has historically been presented as an industrial center, and therefore the home of industrial labor. An individual laborer is not an artisan, but rather occupies a discrete point in the overall continuum of production. The laborer’s contribution to production is not measured in material produced but in time given, or quite literally, labor-time expended in the production of commodities. The technological innovation of the clock allows for a revolutionary control of production at the point the human enters the process. These commodities are then sold and used in a process we will refer to as consumption.
The arrival of the ‘smart city’ may prove to be similarly inversionary. The ‘first wave’ of the smart city in which we currently find ourselves appears in the form of sensors and highly specialized instrumentation—water and air quality analyzers, smart lightbulbs, fitness trackers, digital assistants, and so on. These devices are important in their ability to track personal consumption—how much energy, how many calories, how many opportunities. The tracking of consumption is now possible down to the merest quanta. It is in this basic premise that the smart city begins to take shape.
Jennifer Gabrys and Shannon Mattern open up a possible line of thought with their identification that increasingly tighter control of consumption is not something that happens to citizens, but a predicate to being considered a citizen in general. “Computational materializations distribute power through urban spaces and processes”, Gabrys writes.
Citizenship as a question of identification—who belongs and who does not. In this formulation, those who belong are those who are computational. Friends are interlinked, that is, they offer up their data. Enemies are those outside the network. The mediation of consumption appears to those in power as the ability to more acutely monitor behavior. There is not so much a question of “who is the smart city for?”—we know the answer to that already. The real question is, “what is the smart city doing for power?” What does it mean, as in the case of Zaha Hadid Architects’ newly announced project outside Moscow, that the designers claim to have investigated “happiness” as a design principle?
The person-citizen, happy or not, dissolves away in the smart city, replaced by quanta—an assemblage of sensors and data inputs that circumscribe the sum total of actions and effects that person has. Consider Sidewalk Labs’ ad copy: “By combining people-centered urban design with cutting-edge technology, we can achieve new standards of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.” The “people” are the ostensible “center” of this statement, but they are not the subject—they are a vehicle to “people-centered design”. The person is only an emptyness around which the objects and data of smart city are set in motion. This is a crucial turn: subjecthood devolves from people to prostheses. Smartness begins by locating the citizens’ inputs and outputs and then amputating them. As a result, the citizen is alienated from themselves. As Lukacs notes: “rational mechanization extends right into the worker’s ‘soul’: even [their] psychological attributes are separated…into specialized rational systems and their reduction to statistically viable concepts”. The age of the smart city is, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, “life in the time of hell”, wherein the human is surrounded with and luxuriates in the instruments of their own tortured dispossession.
Don’t count on hearing this anywhere, of course. The great mystification of the smart city is not politics, but ecology as achieved through technological efficiency. Orit Halpern succinctly states that “…sensor-based ubiquitous computing across urban infrastructures and mobile devices [will be used] to achieve greater sustainability”. If economics, as discussed previously, is the means of the smart city, ecopolitics is its end. The time of hell arrives neatly packaged, wearing the mask of radical environmentalism. It is in the name of planetary survival that the smart city is truly born.
This can take the form of urban-park integration or, more commonly, as an insistence that a scientific viewpoint can and should be applied to everyday life. The rendering here is of Jeffrey Burns’ Innovation Park, a “blockchain city” in the Nevada desert, which shows distinctly what I mean—deciduous trees in the desert garden, and the blockchain approach that underpins it.
Eco-smartness is something that can be achieved, says the ad copy. Our lifeboat in the Anthropocene will be a synthesis of city cybernetic and city beautiful. This is the city as commodity. If smartness begins with the commodity, it soon graduates to commoditizing space, and urbanity itself. The argument is simple: smartness defines itself in relation to a pre-existing stupidity.
Amalgamated and executed on the scale of a street, a neighborhood, a district, or a city, the smart city operates on the principles of what Orit Halperin calls “test bed urbanism”. Though she coined the phrase in particular reference to Songdo City in South Korea, it can be generalized to nearly all smart projects. The urban test bed pulls urban space away from the state and into the supposedly neutral sphere of the laboratory where all decisions are not made by fiat, it is claimed, but by a reasoned attempt to solve problems. However, to achieve the “laboratory” effect, requires several theoretical leaps in the representation of space.
Lefebvre identified what he called abstract space as a dominant spatial representation in 20th century Europe. Building off of the concept of reification, abstract space is the foundational myth of the urban as test bed: space is hollowed out and becomes delimited, quantified, and altogether empty. This can most easily be seen in a building that changes owners or falls suddenly under a different type of zoning: the spatial character of the building is a void that can be overwritten. It is not specialized. It is, in a word, abstract.
Abstraction in spatial terms is a vital component of the smart city because of its faculty to essentially be anything—a tabula rasa upon which only power can write. This is the advantage of the laboratory—by standing in for the world, the laboratory model produces the notion that reality is malleable, and exists in its most ‘pure’ form when completely quantified. Scientific, or rational, purity requires the judicious elimination of all aberrant irrationalities as a prerequisite for thought and action in a technocratic, rational process in the pursuit of the construction of instrumental reason. The continuum of instrumental reason can be imagined as a straight line from the enlightenment to the smart city. Smartness’ promise of ‘innovation’ is in fact dependent on ‘laboratorization’, or instrumental, rational method, which is centuries old. Adorno and Horkheimer point out this tendency as arriving with the Enlightenment—in producing natural law, all that does not fit the law must be removed.
It is essential to keep in mind that technocratic rationalism is first historically applied to the natural world in order to reformat nature from an environment to a constellation of resources. Abstraction is a prerequisite for exploitation. When, as in the case of Saudi Arabia’s NEOM, the project claims to be negatively identified with the world itself —”a place on earth like nothing on earth”—we should take pause. The entire earth is grist for the (intelligent) mill. The earth and the city are naturalized and thus enframed, appearing as a Heideggerian “standing reserve” of raw material which only needs to be shaped by a magisterial rational hand. In other words, the city as we see it is reinterpreted by smartness to be a material that is then modified by labor, in the same way nature is. The regime of science, or technocratic rationalism, has aggressively expanded its model from the natural world to the lived one.
This transvaluation of urban space is due to the appearance of abstract space as a Cartesian void—”a neutral thing into which disjointed things, people, and habitats might be introduced, or “social space as an exploitable resource”, according to Japhy Wilson. Adding to this, computation itself is now something that can be poured into abstract space. The addition of computation, or the materialization of the consumption-rationalization regime in urban space, repositions absolute space not as the telos of spatial power, but merely a step to a greater reformatting of space itself. This narrative is enchanting; who hasn’t wished, for at least a moment, that the city wasn’t a bit more responsive, more sensuous, or yes, more rational? The dream of rationalization has been a staple of urban thought throughout the 20th century; we can find an acute summation of this spirit in Eugene Henard’s City of Tomorrow, which takes off from a consideration of “defects” to propose a streamlined, authorial efficiency. “The adoption of the new industrial devices, previously described, would make it possible to ameliorate the conditions of modern life and to add to the health and comfort of the inhabitants. I shall not dwell upon the improvements already effected and applied in some modern houses…”. To “not dwell” upon the existing city, to proclaim it a substrate of the new tomorrow, is the precondition of making smartness a reality.
All of this theorizing has been my attempt to take stock of the forces at work which are encapsulated and obscured by the concept of “smartness” within the city. The smart city should not be confused for utopia because utopia takes far greater stock of the world around it; however they should also not be confused for dystopia at the current stage as they do not fundamentally offer a difference from the current status quo. However, there is value in investigating one chain of possibilities in a world sufficiently developed and entrained by the smart city. Alvin Gouldner writes in The Two Marxisms that “Every theoretical system has another system inside it struggling to get out. And every system has a nightmare: that the caged system will break out.” What is the nightmare of the smart city?
The First Age of Intelligent Cities
We are already in the first age of the smart city. This era has been characterized thus far by the piecemeal introduction of smartness and the gradual seepage of technocorporate terminology into the rhetoric of urban governance to the extent that, in 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio could refer to “disruption” as positive (as he did in the September 2015 “BUILDING A SMART + EQUITABLE CITY” report), and no one batted an eye. In tech industry parlance, disruption describes an intentional destablization of norms in favor of the opening of new markets, usually with massive consequences for labor. Probably the best example of disruption would be the effect of Uber and other ridesharing services on taxis—in this case, the taxi industry was essentially torpedoed by Uber’s disruption. It’s hard to imagine that this procedure, at the level of urban governance, would be without its casualties.
At the current stage, though the groundwork is being laid piece by piece, there at the same time a general tendency towards monopolization. These countervailing, dialectical moves—both towards and away from centralization—compose a fundamental contradiction.
More devices and services can communicate with each other: your FitBit reports to your iPhone, your biometrics are used to pay for dinner or a car home from the bar, your purchases online are tracked. The process of reification, of the fetish of the dumb commodity which has existed since nearly the beginning of capitalism, is gradually replaced with an even more heightened fetish of the intelligent object—the one that knows you better than you know yourself. Within this age, it becomes easier and easier to identify the city itself as a service, a space of pure amenity, as a commodity in its own right. At the level of policy, governments find themselves unable to adequately respond to an oncoming wave of intelligence coherently. In this way, the advent of the smart city almost appears as a revolution, with change sweeping in from the ground up. I can’t help but think about Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, in which he reports that, during the July Revolution in Paris, workers fired on the clocks. Does this act have an equivalent in the smart city?
The Second Age of Intelligent Cities
There will come a point in which disruption is no longer tolerated. As David Harvey points out, there is at the heart of capitalism a “state-finance” axis. The state retains the “monopoly of violence” as elaborated by Max Weber, and finance, or capital in general, is generally left (in neoliberal states) to its own devices. However, when capital threatens to swamp the state, the state is obligated to tamp it down and force it to cooperate. The frenetic proliferation of smart commodities is a perfect example of one such imbalance because the data that these commodities generate is, of course, itself a commodity. The city as a concretization of libidinal agency comes alive with ever more novel ways of entrapping data and turning it to uses as defined as beneficial by established governmental structures—in other words the disruptive, fitful network that is, at this stage, already in place becomes animated with new purpose and pushed towards a greater rationalization.
This stage is dominated by the introduction of cohesive software packages (many of which in a nascent stage already exist) that are peddled by several transnational corporations specializing in the field. Rationalization, when it first arrives, needs a leg up. Linked by a vernacular mental framework, a global city begins to come into focus—a “territorial machine”, to borrow the phrasing of Deleuze and Guattari, or a “megamachine” of interconnected intelligent urbanity. Cities can, at this stage, be thought of as more or less enantiomorphic, sharing the same base DNA.
It is at this same time that the smart city’s nightmare begins to come into being—the real identification of a coherent megamachine contains within it the elements of its own destruction. Whereas, in 2018, cities cannot be said to truly compete with each other (outside of tourism perhaps, incentives to attract businesses, or as smaller parts of rival nations), this will begin to change at the exact moment that a truly global urbanism becomes possible for the first time. If the city’s spaces and data are commoditized on a substrate of universal software, that software must before long be modified to attend to specific local cases which arise—for example, dealing with coastal flooding, an explosion in crime, decaying material infrastructure—that fall outside the operational abilities of the template. It follows that novel data collection and intelligent responses will be generated to deal with what, in the eyes of the megamachine, is too small to register across the board. Urban intelligence is forced to turn inward, to deviate from the baseline.
The Third Age of Intelligent Cities
The involutionary speciation of smart cities is matched by an “explosion” in the territorial claims of smartness. Prior to this stage, the “smart city” is a misnomer, as smartness appears most strongly in enclaves and test neighborhoods, with only residual benefits from the underpinning template delivered to excluded zones.
However, as smartness develops and specializes, these isolated areas will no longer be enough. Simply put, smartness can never achieve a “climax state”, or an equilibrium point at which enough data is taken in, rationality is imposed. When paired, the desire to expand and the desire for total control develops into a fitful endocolonization which is simultaneously obsessed with commanding the maximum amount of territory and at the same time exercising complete control over that territory, bringing it to absolute rationalization and complete abstraction.
It is no longer enough to command and control enclosed “test areas” or “quantified zones”—the entire city, the entire region, must be uplifted and brought into the system. This process can never be completed. There will always be a “digital frontier”, an uncoded periphery, an uneven distribution of intelligence. This impossibility of total encoding will haunt the smart city. The terror of the remaining unknown is its ghost story.
The Fourth Age of Intelligent Cities
At this point we are completely off the rails. The neoliberal collaboration of state and corporation in the service of a fully quantified, commoditized smartness will have been proven to be if not a means, than an illusory end. The increasingly feverish development and consolidation of smartness at the local level produces a globally distributed and sharply uneven landscape of cities that can be thought of as urban “minds”—highly specialized strategies, tactics, technology, and operational procedures that essentially govern the day to day life in their particular cities. Questions like: How does this city think about this issue? What is the way that city solves problems? Are not the absurdities they appear to be, but actual questions of governance and metagovernance.
At this last stage, smartness in an urban area begins to look like an empire in freefall—overextended and vulnerable. Increased issue with hacks and takedowns requires these minds develop and employ strategies of self-defense. The monopoly of the global city falls apart for good, devolving into a new regionalism as local smartness finds itself incompatible with its surroundings. Some strategies, and therefore minds, will be better than others. These strategies will function as the ultimate prize. Market principles select for intelligence—the smartest cities are the best for business, for living, for development. The question becomes less and less abstract, moving away from “How does this city think?” to How does this city think in that way? In this world, market decorum, the laws of circulation and trade, are no longer enough, because smartness has overwhelmed the logic of the commodity to become an operational advantage and thus an existential imperative. To be not smart enough is to die—by disaster, or by military activity. The possibility of attack can no longer be allowed to exist outside intelligence as it does outside of law and sociological study, and thus must be entered as a possible scenario. Self-preservation becomes a governing instinct at an urban and regional level, the state of siege constant. Walls become necessary, both in digital and physical formats. The form of the city-state reappears, arms itself, and waits.