‘Best Practice’ story telling on Smart Cities, and why we need better genres

The promise of Smart Cities is to address complex urban problems.

Recently, it has been argued that ‘Smart Cities’ are capable of addressing the urban challenges and problems of our time, orchestrating urban life in more efficient ways and making cities more engaging and livable. As an ideal of future urban life, the Smart City is shaped by ubiquitous sensing and tracking information technologies, which constantly monitor and orchestrate urban processes at multiple levels. Critics of the Smart City point out that this intensifies many of the Orwellian aspects already present in today’s society. NSA spying, Google censorship, Facebook nudging and the profiling and commodification of people’s actions, writings and thoughts are practices that seem to be given free rein in future Smart Cities.

While proponents are generally willing to admit that this is problematic, they believe that we have all the ingredients at our disposal to realize another, happier Smart City future. In this future, Smart Cities are not planned in top-down ways, but grow and evolve organically. In this future, corporations and governments don’t control citizens through data, but citizens use the power of small, accessible and cheap sensor technologies for their own processes of sense-making.

For critical thinkers it is obvious that, as an extension of our current information society, Smart Cities will have features of both these versions of the future. As science fiction author William Gibson once put it: “the future is already here, it is just not equally distributed.” Applied to Smart Cities: just as is the case in the present, both the benefits and the nefarious aspects of constant monitoring will be distributed unequally across society. At one end of the spectrum are those people in privileged situations who experience mostly the freedom and the agency afforded by the ‘smart technologies’ they use for their own comfort, understanding and control. At the other end are those for whom constant monitoring pose limitations, hassle and social, economic or physical exclusion or repression.

Air Quality Egg prototype

Air Quality Egg prototype

Yet, Smart City enthusiasts are persuasive in arguing that we have the capacity to shape the Smart City future in positive ways. One way in which they do this is through story telling. One story told regularly at Smart City conferences, in books and on websites is that of the Air Quality Egg (AQE) project. The story is about a non-proprietary air quality monitoring device built by an international community of self-motivated ‘air quality enthusiasts’, who aim to create greater environmental awareness amongst citizens. The AQE consists of a small computer in an egg-shaped casing, equipped with sensors that measure levels of CO and NO2 (indicating air quality), which are broadcast onto a free web platform. This data allows citizens to talk back to the official environmental data gathered by authorities and demand real, ‘green’ changes in their environment.

Prototype of AQE in ice cup casing at Citizen Cyberscience Summit UCL 2012

Prototype of AQE in ice cup casing at Citizen Cyberscience Summit UCL 2012

As a ‘best practice’ story, the Air Quality Egg project is often presented as an illustration of how Smart Cities are currently being built by ‘smart citizens’, working with cheap, accessible sensor technologies and free data platforms, creating and freely sharing data for their own purposes, commanding significant changes in their environment. Inspiring as this story may be, having participated and studied the project from when it began in 2011, I noticed that many elements came to be left out of its narration as ‘best practice’:

  • This story emphasizes the bottom-up resourcefulness of the AQE creators, but does not mention the significant financial support they received from an American software company, who eventually sold the web platform, transforming it into a subscription-only website, with no free access to, or control over, the data and the means for visualizing and interpreting them.
  • The story emphasizes the capacity of sensors to generate reliable scientific insight into the environment, but fails to mention the actual unreliability of cheap sensors and the related difficulty of turning the data output into useful political arguments.

These elements show how the future of Smart Cities is conditioned not only by the ‘smart’ mindset of independently operating citizens, but also – and significantly – by unequal relationships between corporations, citizens and governments, by contradictory interests and a great deal of misplaced belief in the power of data.

The ‘best practice’ story is a genre of storytelling that does not allow for such messiness: this genre does not intend to talk about friction, contestation and negative effects. Rather, it seeks to drive home an image of the ideal future. However, it relies on highly selective narration to disguise this ideal as a factual account of real-life situations. If we want a realistic, context-aware understanding of politics and culture in the Smart Cities currently being built, we need to demand much better stories and forms of story telling.

This post also appeared at the website of the Centre for Urban Studies.

Many thanks to Sjef van Gaalen, Rivke Jaffe and Robbin-Jan van Duijne for their comments and help.  

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