“Against the Smart City”: Introduction to the 2023 Italian edition
Not long ago I received the very welcome news that the publishing house GOG Edizioni was interested in bringing out an Italian translation of my 2013 pamphlet “Against the Smart City,” in time for its tenth anniversary. I’ve contributed a new introduction, which I hereby share with you. Godere e gustare!
It is only very rarely that a writer of polemical tracts is validated the way I was in July 2018, when the global consulting titan McKinsey published a report entitled “Smart city solutions: What drives citizen adoption around the globe?”.
On page 7 of that report, there is a graph, not so dissimilar to the famous Hype Curve charts that McKinsey’s competitor consultancy Gartner releases from time to time, that seeks to trace the fortunes of the smart city as they evolve over a ten-year period. Starting from November 2008, with the launch of IBM’s Smart Planet initiative, and “the entry of tech companies into the field,” the chart traces an early swell in activity and interest that peaks two years later. At this point, the sinusoidal wave of enthusiasm for the smart city takes a sharp downward turn, plummeting into a trough it never quite recovers from during the entire half-decade that follows.
What marks the downturn, the inflection point at which global enthusiasm for the smart city suffers such a tremendous reverse? According to McKinsey, anyway, it is the moment at which “critical voices start dominating the debate” — a moment emblematized for them by the publication of the very book you are now reading.
Well. That’s very flattering, isn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to think their work had that kind of impact on the world? As much as it’s nice to believe, though, that a pamphlet self-published by a lone, uncredentialed and unaffiliated researcher might bear on the investment choices made by municipal governments around the world, and in doing so change the shape of a multibillion-dollar global market for products and services, I don’t think that’s actually what happened. I think that when the early conception of a smart city inevitably did die, it succumbed to its own fatuity (or, more to the point, to the fact that there never was a sustainable business model beneath all the hype). It would have done so in any event, whether or not this book or anything like it had ever appeared.
Consider the eventual fates of the three smart-city projects treated most centrally in these pages: New Songdo, in South Korea; Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City, and the frankly ludicrous, never-was private development of PlanIT Valley, plopped down on a semi-rural site in northern Portugal.
Of these, Songdo comes closest to being anything we might recognize as “a success,” though not at all in the form of the gleaming edge-tech metropolis it was sold as. Shorn of the elaborate automated management systems planned for it, it is now an entirely conventional satellite city of the vast Seoul megurbation, last reported to be something of a ghost town on weekends. Masdar is currently home to some 1,300 residents — far short of the 40,000 it was planned for — and, similarly, has dispensed with virtually the entire armature of advanced technologies daily life there was ostensibly going to be founded upon. It is fair to say that, while this dusty, depopulated precinct somehow soldiers on, it has had no net impact whatsoever on the way people around the world think about, design or live in cities.
This brings us to the matter of PlanIT Valley. I can express far more clearly now what I wanted and did not quite dare to say in 2013: though Living PlanIT founder Steve Lewis has angrily denied this to me, in a series of sputtering, illiterate messages over the years, I do not believe there was ever any way the project could have been seen through to completion. Whether the result of incapacity, incompetence or intention, none of the published plans for PlanIT Valley ever remotely came to pass. The putative “city” on which “ground had already been broken” never took any form more concrete than a series of renderings shopped around to potential investment partners; a few pages of a clownishly amateur social-networking site ostensibly intended for the use of PlanIT Valley residents survived online for awhile, though you’d have to be some kind of a search-engine genius to track them down now. Whatever is left of Lewis’s pretentious folly lies in the Earth now, unmourned and unmentionable, like so many failed smart-city projects before and since.
The arc toward failure and insignificance of these three heavily-promoted projects suggests that the original vision of the smart city as a heavily-instrumented urban environment, overseen and managed through a single centralized operating system, manifestly could not have been sustained. But what swiftly became plain in the aftermath was that the rhetoric of technologically-enhanced urban place would die harder. Undead, it shambled back to abominable life, taking a number of different forms as it was molded to suit the agendas of a new set of actors, accomodate the conditions imposed by novel terrains, and incorporate the premises of emerging technologies.
In Toronto, where a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet tried to develop a smart district called Quayside, the architects had clearly internalized and prepared to counter the arguments of books like this one: their promotional materials at least paid lip service to issues like citizen empowerment and the conservation of privacy. (A leak of internal documentation later undermined their professions of sincerity on such matters.) Only concerted citizen opposition helped see the Quayside initiative off. In India, under Narendra Modi and his ethnonationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, the figure of the smart city was mobilized as part of a faintly retrograde, developmental state-style project of national greatness. The BJP vows, even now, to plant “100 smart cities” on the land, with frankly eliminationist consequences for the powerless peasants, pastoralists and fisherpeople that get in the way. Across the Arabian Sea, a similar fate no doubt awaits the Bedouin struggling to preserve their way of life against the onslaught of Saudi Arabia’s fabulist NEOM project, with its plans to gouge a linear megastructure called The Line a hundred miles across the 45-degree desert.
In all of these cases, calling something “smart” is simply to sprinkle the pixie dust of technological futurity over entirely conventional processes of state capture or accumulation by disposession, in the evident hope that key audiences will be so dazzled that they will fail to perceive what’s actually happening. Nor does the bullshit ever let up: each new technological development, from drones to self-driving cars to blockchains to “AI,” swiftly gets folded into the next generation of smart-city marketing, in a dreary precession of the buzzwords. All of this suggests that, for better or worse, the McKinseyan sine wave of hype and deflation will propagate onward through history for some time yet to come.
At the distance of ten years, are there things I wish I’d gone harder on? Of course there are. I should have been much more pointed about the role of global management consultancies (like McKinsey itself!) in peddling these visions to the variously understaffed, underresourced or just plain insecure administrators of cities, and the way in which their involvement undermines the organic competence of democratically-elected governing bodies to determine what is appropriate for their constituents. Given the existential stakes, I feel now that the book should have been still more critical about the way smart-city discourse folds in unquestioned and thoroughly hegemonic assumptions about the virtues of growth and development. Finally, I wish I’d been harder on myself. The final section, particularly, pulls a few punches; at the time of writing, I believed this was necessary to secure the book any readership at all, but it now seems tepid and pusillanimous of me.
That said, though: what a joy this book was to write. What an absolute pleasure it was to flag up the overweening arrogance and naivety of what are still all-too-often regarded as cutting-edge takes on the future city, to name fools, charlatans and closet authoritarians for what they were, and to make plain that the parties most fervently touting the fusion of networked digital information technology with everyday urban experience understood neither domain in any particular depth. (We should all be so lucky in life as to be granted such opponents, honestly — pointing out the fatal flaws in their arguments was like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.) And what a privilege it was to represent in writing the feelings of everyone who ever suspected they were being sold a bill of goods, that there was far less to the smart city than met the eye, and that the real generators of pleasure, meaning and value in urban life lay far outside its limited ambit. Of everything I’ve ever written, this book came together most easily, and sparked the most glee in the process of composition. I hope you find it even half as much fun to read as it was to write.
Reminder to self
It may well be impossible to write about the major thrusts of contemporary urbanization without nurturing and giving vent to a certain ice-cold rage, like that which suffuses Aaron Timms’ clear-eyed, expert evisceration of the New Manhattan and its soulless creep toward total irrelevance.
Never forget, though, that there is a counterpoint. That counterpoint is, is always, Harvey’s.
Excavating the meshwork
Back around the turn of the millennium, one of the brightest lights in my own personal intellectual firmament was the philosopher Manuel De Landa. And a primary figure of thought I’ve retained from the enthusiasms of those long-gone-by days is the opposition he drew (in A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, and elsewhere) between two organizing principles he saw at work in the world, principles he termed hierarchies and meshworks.
Briefly, for De Landa, hierarchies — which, rather unsurprisingly, he associated with Deleuzian trees and strata — ordered homogeneous elements in a command-and-control relation structured and imposed from the top, while meshworks, which he associated with the then-inescapable figure of the rhizome, connected unlike things in a distributed structure that could be articulated (and therefore do work in the world) without suppressing their difference.
Despite my dawning awareness in the years since that there’s rather less to De Landa’s thought than meets the eye, this still strikes me as a useful distinction to make. But perhaps the most useful aspect of it is the insight that a meshwork is not the same thing as a network.
At the time I first encountered De Landa, the figure of the network was still relatively novel, at least as a tool for thinking. The Californian ideology that has since become hegemonic was in its early ascendancy, and topological determinism was thick on the ground; it was an article of faith among initiates of this new way of thinking that restructuring the power relations of our lives along networked lines would lead to unprecedented, liberatory transformations in the ways information, knowledge and culture were produced. The notion was abroad in the land that human communities organized as networks were inherently more conducive to equality and justice, as well as significantly more open to creative novelty, than implicitly coercive and privilege-conserving hierarchies. We see highly influential articulations of this line of thought in Castells’ Rise of the Network Society (1996), Kevin Kelly’s risible 1998 New Rules for the New Economy and Yochai Benkler’s magnum opus The Wealth of Networks (2006)*, to this day it utterly saturates ostensibly progressive initiatives like the P2P Foundation, and it’s an unspoken, foundational assumption beneath some of the most interesting left thought and praxis of the last decade. (Both De Landa and his theory-papas Deleuze and Guattari had explicitly cautioned against falling for this vulgar topological reductionism, by the way, but evidently to no avail. I mean, I certainly believed it, and reproduced it too, for quite a long time.)
That the famously “flat ontology” of De Landa’s thought (as well as actor-network theory), the horizontal turn in politics and the suddenly ubiquitous physical presence of networked devices all arrived at about the same historical moment is no accident. They all spring from the same deeper well of formal signification. Nature itself seemed to authorize our use of these horizontal logics. It turns out that when you go looking for networks, they crop up just about everywhere, making them a reasonable candidate for master organizing principle of the physical universe. Just as biomimesis has often seemed to both commend and justify novel organizational tactics – “swarming” was also a glamor trope at the millennium, and fused to the then-sparklingly novel enabling technology of the text message, gave us the flash mob, which in turn was supposed to transform street protest — so too the network turn seemed to sound the clarion call for a dawning age of flat politics.
But what is a network? De Landa tells us — here, anyway — that networks connect heterogeneous things. But this is in no way the case: in the real world, the networks that we consciously construct almost by definition connect elements that observe the same connection protocol or standard, whether that be rail gauge, or USB-C, or IEEE 802.11, or the act of driving on the right. Putting to one side the notion that some degree of standardization at the interface permits diversification at the network’s edge, in fact, you make things homogenous precisely so they can be coupled. So it seems clear that if you want to describe a connective logic that links the activity of formally dissimilar elements, you need a better language.
And this is especially so when you consider how service-delivery infrastructure works in the cities most people on Earth actually live in. It doesn’t matter whether what you’re talking about is water service and waste removal, healthcare, public safety, or any of the other Maslovian essentials those of us who live in what we call “the developed world” tend to take for granted. They arrive via some mixture of public and private provision, and these methods are stacked at variable scales in space and take varying rhythms and cadences in time. So water may get to you via some combination of buried pipes, trucks, municipal taps, bucket relays, and pallets stacked with tightly-shrinkwrapped plastic bottles (not to mention falling from the sky), and any or all of those but the rain could be privatized. You may get your electricity from the national grid on some days, on others from a little Honda generator you keep out back. For a sense of safety, you may knit together some combination of block watch, smartphone apps and protection payments to the local gang. The point is that all these systems of provision have a whole lot more in common with the “transversal logics” the anthropologist Teresa Caldeira describes, or the language of squatting, repair and consolidation her student Gautam Bhan uses, than they do with the crisp interfaces and imposed formal homogeneities of the network.
Enter the meshwork. What I want above all to recover from the De Landan use of this term is the possibility of describing more accurately the infrastructural and social assemblages we see in the real city — the kind of hybridized agglomerations of deeply bastard heritage, whose elements were laid down by many different hands, at different times, at different scales and degrees of completion. These wildcat provisions can’t be understood in the same way you understand the formal, reticulated, tightly-regulated and -standardized infrastructure networks of the Northern city, and we need a language supple enough to describe them. If we can retrieve this valuable concept, dust it off and render it fit for purpose in the contemporary world, we might gain some theoretical purchase on circumstances that have hitherto eluded structured understanding. But first we have to upgrade De Landa’s thought by peeling away the layers of woolly network-mysticism that adhere to it, so it can better grasp the systems and structures we encounter in practice.
And I’m interested in doing so in the first place because I suspect that thinking things as meshworks (in my own, as yet not fully articulated sense) has a powerful connection with the kinds of social formation I’m interested in sustaining, and their ability to enact adequate levels of social provisioning. If my admittedly perverse little anarchist project is to reassemble in principle (e.g.) a universal health service on non-welfare state grounds, figuring the necessary set of relations as first and foremost a meshwork seems like it would help clarify what’s involved in building and maintaining such a capability. And you’ll no doubt be hearing more about that from me in the fullness of time.
UPDATED: Politiken Byrum interview, May 2019
As a way of giving their audience a taster of my upcoming talks in Copenhagen, the folks at the Danish magazine Politiken Byrum recently interviewed me about the undead rhetoric of the smart city and other matters sundry. I’ve reprinted it here in its entirely, and I hope you enjoy it.
May 15th: Now UPDATED with answers to follow-up questions, in italics below.
What is a smart city according to you?
According to me? As is pretty well known, I guess, I don’t use the terminology, myself, as I think it’s pretty close to meaningless.
As to what others might mean when they deploy the term, they generally seem to mean an urban environment in which data collection and analysis and algorithmic response are harnessed to improve process efficiency and modulate the city’s performance, as assessed by a specified set of indicators and definitions, in something close to real time.
But not always, and that strategic ambiguity is key to the surprising tenacity of smart-city rhetoric over the past decade. Whenever someone points out that this vision of pervasive, eternal data collection and analysis is actually pretty dystopian, advocates invariably retreat to their fallback position, “Well, we didn’t really mean that, we simply meant that we can use networked digital technologies for education, or improved sanitation, or citizen empowerment.” After all, who could possibly be opposed to that?
What is wrong with the definition?
Beyond that it denotes a question-begging, intellectually untenable, commercially-interested, technocratic and frankly reactionary project, wrapped in the language of and trying to pass itself off as a public good? Nothing.
What is the risk of these so-called smart cities?
Because I’ve been cowardly in the past, and far too afraid of being dismissed as shrill, hysterical, ideological or unserious, I’ve generally confined my public comment on these technologies to the opinion that their deployment results in some pretty grim, airless, culturally sterile and psychologically fraught spaces. And it’s true: to the degree that they exist at all in the real world, “smart cities” clearly break all the ways in which cities actually generate meaning, value, order, security and pleasure.
But fairly early in the evolution of this domain of practice, we can already see that it’s far, far worse than that. It’s clear, for example, from how the Chinese state is using these technologies in its west to police, control, marginalize and suppress the Uighur minority that the worst-case totalitarian scenarios are far closer to being realized than I would have been willing to argue in print three or four years ago.
What’s happening in the Chinese west feels — in a word — genocidal, and I think it’s important to point out that the use of smart-city technologies toward just this sort of end was inherent in them all along. And anyone advocating for the smart city owns that. I’m willing to risk being labeled hyperbolic at this point, because where’s the harm in being called names compared to what the Uighur are being forced to endure?
Do you really consider that as a risk in democratic countries like The US, UK, and Denmark?
Firstly, of course, history teaches us that even nominally democratic countries are fully capable of using the technologies available to them in oppressive ways, either domestically or overseas. Secondly, there may well be lower-level polities or power groupings within a broadly democratic society that routinely act in oppressive ways, especially toward subject populations or outgroups, and you may wish to deny them the use of these technologies; it’s possible, for example, to harbor different feelings for the federal government of the United States than one has for the Chicago or the Baltimore Police Department, and to evaluate them separately. And finally, a country that you consider democratic now may not remain so. The retreat from democracy is a thing that happens, for all sorts of reasons, from an organic change in political sentiment to foreign subversion or invasion. And the problem, in all of these cases, is that once you’ve equipped an agency of state with the kinds of capabilities we’re discussing, it’s extraordinarily difficult to claw them back again.
Should we roll back the whole technological development and go back to how we made cities 10-20 years ago?
I try not to indulge counterfactuals. Whether “we” “should” or should not, no such thing is going to happen, outside of a general contraction of high-complexity, energy-intensive human civilization on Earth. I’m afraid we’re stuck with these technologies — and worse, their advocates — for the duration. The challenge before us is to figure out what, if anything, they’re actually good for, and prevent their spread outside those domains to others where their use is inimical to or corrosive of some important value we hold in common.
Don’t you see it as a positive gain that we can today anonymously track the movements of people on foot, on bikes, in cars, in public transport etc. in order to know how to improve our cities?
Well, firstly, dispense with the idea that there’s any such thing as “anonymity.” In 2019, anyone who argues that such-and-such a data set can be “depersonalized” or rendered anonymous is either culpably naive or simply not being honest with you.
But beyond that: “improve” for who, improve according to what set of criteria? When we can reach some kind of consensus regarding the answers to these questions, which are virtually never placed before the public for its consideration, then perhaps we can talk about the use of data collection and analysis to achieve those ends.
Improvement for instance in terms of infrastructure: less congestion, less pollution, less accidents. Don’t you see that as improvements made possible by data tracking, whether it is anonymized or not?
In a vacuum, obviously, all of those sound like worthy goals. But nothing in this world comes for free. There is always a trade-off involved in achieving those goals, and in the context of the smart city discourse the terms of the bargains involved are virtually never made clear to the relevant publics.
What seems plain to me is that were such terms made clear to the public, virtually nobody would accede to them. After all, there are manifestly other ways of addressing issues like traffic congestion and pollution that don’t involve the wholesale surrender of identificatory data, and it would be natural for an engaged populace to wonder why those measures weren’t pursued first.
You have once said that smart cities undermine the sense of neighborliness. Can you give an example?
Sure. We know that people subject to pervasive, highly-visible surveillance regimes consistently think of it as someone else’s responsibility to come to the aid of someone they see being mugged, or having a heart attack, or tripping and falling down, even if on some level they know there’s nobody actually watching the cameras in real time. Because they assume or believe that the incident has been logged and raised to the attention of uniformed first responders, they’re less likely to intervene, to lend a hand themselves. The technology of connection actually damages the ground of our relation to one another, and threatens to sunder that relation entirely.
It is clear that “normal” camera surveillance can have that effect, but do you also see/fear the undermining of neighborliness due to data tracking and other “smart city” features that cannot see heart attacks or assaults like normal camera surveillance?
Sure. One of the primary unstated organizing principles of the smart-city discourse as it’s evolved over the past twenty years is homophily — the idea that urban life can somehow be optimized according to each individual’s tastes and preferences, so that to the greatest extent possible we are only ever exposed to people who look, think, believe and act like we do, share similar tastes and hold similar conceptions of the good. What is this other than a form of induced narcissism, under the sway of which the psychic and emotional tools it takes to negotiate difference are allowed to erode? “Neighborliness” has to mean the ability to treat people who are different from us across multiple axes of consideration with courtesy, consideration and goodwill, or it is nothing at all.
What do you see as the negative outcomes of this? Loneliness, depression, stress?
Look around you. Or simply ask yourself how you feel — right now, wherever you happen to be at this moment.
I mean, look, it’s obviously a self-selected population, but whenever I give a talk I generally ask my audiences for a show of hands: who here feels desperate, overwhelmed, exhausted or burnt out by the demands our technology makes of us whenever it shows up in our lives? Now remember, these are, by and large, exceptionally privileged people, in relative global terms. And yet anywhere from half to two-thirds of the audience raises their hand — maybe some of them tentatively at first, but with more confidence once they see just how many other people feel the same way.
There’s only been one exception that I can think of in the past two years, at a talk I gave in Amsterdam a few months ago, to an audience mostly composed of architects. So maybe young Dutch architects have something going for them that the rest of us do not. But as far as the rest of us are concerned, the age of networked information doesn’t seem to be going particularly well.
The technologies of communication, mediation and knowledge production we’ve embraced are throwing up all sorts of unintended consequences for who we understand ourselves to be, the ways in which we organize ourselves as publics and the ways we identify, construct and address matters of public concern. And even if we ourselves have been lucky enough to avoid some of its uglier manifestations personally, we feel the general tenor of the shared sociotechnical regime in our bones, as a rising but so far mostly inchoate sense of dread. What smart-city advocates are arguing for is more of the same techniques and practices that produced this sense of dread in so many of us, and I don’t see any way to understand that except as either blithe privilege, conscious malice or frank insanity.
Can’t those feelings be due to so many other things, like for instance work and family problems? It seems like a lot of responsibility to put on technology.
I don’t place the responsibility on technology, or not entirely. I place the responsibility on technology as it has been developed inside late capitalism, in a way that places the needs of private concerns, venture capitalists, shareholders and markets far above (and generally to the exclusion of) any other set of prerogatives.
Where are those work and family problems coming from, anyway? Isn’t it at least worth taking seriously the notion that our truly ubiquitous technologies of communication and mediation may be undercutting our ability to maintain separate spheres for work and for intimate life, to cultivate stillness and silence, to spend time recuperating from the vicarious exposure to trauma that goes hand-in-hand with ubiquitous mediation, etc.?
Do you see a risk of smart cities unwillingly becoming surveillance societies?
All smart cities are, by definition, predicated on the legitimacy of state surveillance. I don’t think “unwilling” enters into it. It’s chosen.
Are the technologies not good enough yet to anonymize the data?
Just the opposite: the technology is already so good that the identifiability of someone moving through public space is, in principle at least, utterly overdetermined — whether from facial recognition, gait period or other latent, easily retrievable and hard to camouflage biometric signature; from habitual patterns of location, behavior and association; directly retrieved from the devices they may be carrying; or via some other means, and especially through some combination of “all of the above.”
Whether that turns out to be the case consistently in practice is a different question entirely, but I think we’d be best advised to act on the assumption that the anonymity of bodies moving through public space is a dead issue.
I once interviewed a scientist who argued that the political system including the public servants in municipalities and governments are not prepared for the digital revolution that society (including cities) is undergoing. Do you agree?
I do agree, in that all through the neoliberal era, municipal administrations have tended not to nurture as an organic institutional competence the technical sophistication that would have allowed them to parse and assess information-technical value propositions in-house, and are therefore generally far too willing to take the claims of technology vendors and other interested parties on faith.
How do you see this? Do you have an example?
I think what’s happening with Sidewalk Labs in Toronto is a pretty good example.
How would you define a city?
On one level, my own definitions are material, and tend to center on things like the density of individuals and institutions, the frequency of exchanges among and between them, and the complexity and degree of ramification of infrastructural and social networks. But there’s also an ineffable quality I think of as cityness, and it absolutely cannot be faked or willed into existence. At best it’s susceptible only to a kind of Potter Stewart test: you only know whether or not you’re in a real city when you’re actively citying and being citied by it. And if you do happen to be in one, the sensation is unmistakeable.
What is the purpose of a city?
Cities have no purposes. People have goals and they form institutions to achieve those goals collectively, which endows those institutions with a purpose.
We can certainly number civic administrations, in any number of flavors, among such institutions, but it’s a deadly category error to confuse the civic administration with the city itself.
What is a well-functioning city?
One in which the lower-level Maslovian needs of inhabitants and visitors alike are comprehensively provided for, and in which through physical form, institutional design and cultural preference all people are helped to become fully realized as individuals, self-determining as a collectivity and considerate as participants in the broader, extra-human ecology.
Can’t a city become too inefficient?
Again, there’s no such thing as a global, uninflected “efficiency.” We have to think in terms of efficiency-for-whom or efficient-toward-what-purpose.
If a city institutionally tolerates the clogging of its arterial streets with private vehicles, and that in turn suppresses emergency-vehicle response time, then yes, I’d agree with you that this is inefficient and steps should be taken to redress the situation. If, on the other hand, a city’s people choose to spend a large portion of their time discussing the issues before them in public assembly, so much so that it impacts their contribution to economic growth, I’d ask what other goods might that commitment be generating that aren’t showing up in the key performance indicators you’ve chosen to focus on?
Being discussed now