Recently, the term smart city has rapidly turned into a buzzword used with reference to almost any technology-driven urban initiative, encompassing a broad range of aspects of urban life (e.g., quality of life and welfare, sustainability, social cohesion, economic growth, etc.) This makes operationalization of the concept ambiguous and difficult. While there is no commonly agreed upon definition of thesmart city, mainstream discourses present it as “a semantic synthesis and a conventional wisdom evoking efficiency, accountability, self-reliance” (Spaces & Flows: Fifth International Conference on Urban and Extra-Urban Studies, Bangkok 7-8 Nov 2014). Despite relevant differences, an invariant in almost all definitions is the idea that “technologies will play a huge role in urban life in the near future […], including for example the idea that technologies will solve our current (environmental) problems without meaningfully changing our way of life” (Santangelo, Ribera-Fumaz, & March, 2015). The pervasiveness and often the vacuity of smart city initiatives – ranging from the construction of new cities characterised by the ubiquitous presence of technologies of control and organisation, up to single and often disconnected initiatives in existing urban contexts – exposes it to a broad variety of critiques. Wishful thinking more than evidence depicts smart cities as places where a significant integration of technology into daily life allows the creation of more attractive, healthier, sustainable and innovation-orientated environments.
The latest UGEC Viewpoints article was written by Alex Aylett of INRS, Canada.
Since its early days, the discourse around “smart cities” has included environmental sustainability as one of its core principles. The application of new digital technologies to urban spaces and processes is celebrated for its ability to increase the well-being of citizens while reducing their environmental impacts. But this engagement with sustainability has been limited to a technocratic focus on energy systems, building efficiency, and transportation. It has also privileged top-down interventions by local government actors. For all its novelty, the smart cities discussion is operating with a vision of urban sustainability that dates from the 1990s, and an approach to planning from the 1950s.
This definition of “urban sustainability” overlooks key facets of a city’s ecological footprint (such as food systems, resource consumption, production related greenhouse gas emissions, air quality, and the urban heat island effect). It also ignores the ability of non-state actors to contribute meaningfully to the design and implementation of urban policies and programs. But that doesn’t need not be the case. In fact, if employed properly, new information technologies seem like ideal tools to address some of urban sustainability’s most persistent challenges.