24 Jul

Meaningful Inefficiencies in the “Smart City”

Information communication technologies (ICTs) hold considerable promise for cities. Sometimes framed as “smart cities,” technologically enhanced urban spaces create efficiencies through streamlined infrastructure (because complex systems can better coordinate) and access to services (because people can be more aware of systems, i.e. real-time transit data on mobile phones). But urban technologies do not always create efficiencies; they can also create meaningful inefficiencies in the form of social connections, and complex, nuanced understandings of place. This happens when people use technologies to achieve unpredictable outcomes: a process not typical of the “smart cities” paradigm. When information is contextualized and opportunities exist for data not simply to be transmitted, but for ideas to evolve through deliberative dialogue, there are meaningful inefficiencies. Social connections, deliberation, place-based story telling, and play, create nuance in how people understand local community and consequently influence how people construct meaning in an urban context.

Meaningful inefficiencies have typically been the jurisdiction of artists. Stemming from the articulated problem that cities create sameness and social alienation, the social theorist Guy Debord in the 1960s established a theoretical framework and methodology through which to interrupt these phenomena. Debord sought to create alternative logics through which to experience the city, where a pre-defined pattern would determine how one moved, or “randomness” would dictate how one drifted through the urban landscape. This sparked a genre of “new media” art loosely termed psychogeography, which employed technology as an intervention into existing urban patterns. Projects such as Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman’s The Familiar Stranger (2002), which foreshadowed contemporary location-based social networks such as Foursquare, used bluetooth technology on mobile phones to make people aware of those who shared geographic space. Or games such as Can You See Me Now? (2001) by the UK-based art collective Blast Theory, employed GPS devices to construct a kind of hybrid space where the urban environment was augmented by people and objects only findable within the virtual environment (de Souza e Silva, 2009; Gordon and de Souza e Silva, 2011). These projects, conceived as art not commerce, experiment not activism, have remained rhetorically distinct from the smart cities project.

IBM defines the “smarter city” as one that acts “efficiently and purposefully” (IBM Corporation Forward Thinking Cities Are Investing in Insight, 2012) – a definition that would seem to run counter to the interventionist impulse of much new media art. While there has been some room for issues such as education and media access and literacy in the smart city framework (Caragliu, Del Bo, & Nijkamp, 2009), for the most part, the qualitative experiences of social interactions, place-making and trust building have been excluded.  As intelligence and efficiency have the moral authority in policy debates, there is a danger that participation, especially as technologies are designed to “fix the problem,” is captured by the rhetoric of efficiency and treated only as a thing to streamline.

Technologies can and should create meaningful inefficiencies. As more technological solutions get proposed, funded, and implemented to solve urban problems, we need to safeguard against them becoming technocratic solutions.

Works Cited

Caragliu, A., Del Bo, C., & Nijkamp, P. (2009). Smart Cities in Europe. Serie Research Memoranda 0048, VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Economics, Business Administration and Econometrics.

de Souza e Silva, A. (2009). Hybrid Reality and Location-Based Gaming: Redefining Mobility and Game Spaces in Urban Environments. Simulation and Gaming, 40(3), 404–424. doi:10.1177/1046878108314643

Gordon, E. and de Souza e Silva (2011) Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

IBM Corporation. Smarter, More Competitive Cities. (2012). Smarter, More Competitive Cities. Forward Thinking Cities Are Investing in Insight. IBM Corporation.