Notes for Against the Smart City by Adam Greenfield

This pamphlet by Adam Greenfield, the first of more is a concise and enjoyable distillation of his politics when it concerns the smart city and also features a number of similarly inclined thinkers:

In this light, the casual contempt for history that is part and parcel of Koolhaas’s generic city and the comparable conceptions of urbanity we find in the canonical smart cities feels particularly glib, adolescent and unsatisfactory.

If a city can even be said to have any such quality as intelligence to begin with, that intelligence is bound to be singular, something that subsists in the unique lifeways, cultures and pragmatic local adaptations that have evolved in a particular place.

What do exist in the world are specific deployments of components from specific vendors, laminated together as particular propositions, and each of these may differ profoundly from other, similar propositions, along all of the axes that condition human interaction with them.

The fact is that the data is never “just” the data, and to assert otherwise is to lend inherently political and interested decisions regarding the act of data collection an unwonted gloss of neutrality and dispassionate scientific objectivity.

They’re too perfectly tuned to the exigencies of a given moment, and generally get caught wrongfooted when the moment shifts.

The sense that citizens themselves may wish to avail themselves directly of the information ostensibly being gathered on their behalf is almost surreally absent from the smart-city literature.

It’s hard to imagine a robustly autonomous community, or a public sphere in any traditional sense, taking root in the soil of a municipality that is owned and operated as a business in the way these places are.

But unquestioned neoliberal assumptions even show up in the smart-city literature in contexts where it makes little or no apparent sense.

the smart city itself, as a coherent object of discourse, arises out of a specific set of conditions produced by late capitalism, under which cities compete against each other as global destinations for capital and talent.

But the results are identical, and at the margins, enthusiasm for the vigor with which an autocratic regime can act can be hard to distinguish from outright apologia for the systematic practice of oppression.

they arise in response to the needs of a great many people of differing proclivities, interacting with one another over reasonably long periods of time.

The same diversification of need and desire that generates a vibrant service ecosystem also makes the city a patchwork of constituencies with wildly divergent conceptions of the good, the just and the proper, virtually guaranteeing the impossibility of satisfying them all at once. But that, too, is part of what we mean when we call something a city.

we shouldn’t fool ourselves that the endeavor is in any way based on an appreciation of the city as a crucible of contested spaces and conflicting constituencies, or of municipal management as the art of balancing their broadly irreconcilable demands.

This, by the way, is entirely intentional: Le Corbusier had consciously designed the Radiant City to “use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, and consume oil and gasoline” so as to generate the maximal amount of economically productive activity by way of replacement.

And history teaches us, repeatedly — bludgeoning the point home with a blunt shovel, for those who simply refuse to get the point — that maintenance budgets are among the very first things to go.

And yet the orthodox conception of the smart city says virtually nothing about the prospect that its inhabitants might be equipped with the smartphone.

And while misgivings may in fact be prevalent, there are likely to be relatively few in the bureaucracy who are able to express them forthrightly — that is to say, who are sufficiently comfortable with the technology to understand precisely what is being proposed, sufficiently familiar with the way their city works to convincingly articulate why this is problematic, sufficiently assured of their own position to feel safe in doing so, and sufficiently passionate about the issue to willingly shoulder the risk involved.

The truth is that our cities are already densely and intimately linked with one another, bound together by their own citizens in a constant and mutually-reinforcing traffic in atoms and bits.

We must never lose sight of the idea, though, that another city is possible, a city that harnesses networked information technology toward the lasting empowerment of the people who live in it, give life to it and make it what it is.

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