Under the Hood of the Smart City

From: Smart City. In search of the smart citizen.

Alex en Rolinda are trying to install their Smart Citizen Kit. From: Smart City. In search of the smart citizen.

On September 10 2015, Pakhuis de Zwijger, as part of the Urban Movies series, screened the film Smart City. In search of the Smart Citizen. The purpose of this film, a co-production of filmmaker Sara Blom and myself,  is to challenge people to think more deeply about a topic generally considered to be too complex and technical: the speedy digitization of society, and particularly the current ambition by many global cities to become ‘smart cities’.

At this premiere, and many subsequent screenings, the film seemed to have achieved this goal: many lively discussions ensued around a large diversity of themes. From digital in- and exclusion, to the sense and senselessness of certain new digital products and services, to the possibilities and impossibilities to involve citizens in innovation trajectories and to gain control over your data in the future digital society.

Here a summary of the interventions this film seeks to make regarding Smart City development.

Reflection and Intervention 

The idea of the smart city is that more objects in cities will become fitted with data-gathering sensors: embedded into pavements, lampposts, vehicles and people’s clothes, these sensors generate and exchange all kinds of information about the city. The hope is that all this data will tune products and services – related to traffic, healthcare, energy and entertainment f.i. – more seamlessly to each other. Tourists in Amsterdam can use an app to check the length of the waiting line in front of the Van Gogh museum and can decide to postpone their visit to a later moment. Or cars with sensors are automatically programmed to follow an alternative route when dense traffic is anticipated.

In anticipation of this large-scale ‘datafication’ of public space, with Amsterdam wanting to take the lead, the purpose of this film is to reflect and intervene on this development. Discussions about technical development often take place within small groups of people in exclusive settings, while the effects of this development are experienced by society at large. Hence, the first intervention of this film is by opening up this theme for discussion to a broader audience. Making use of the unique qualities offered by film, groups of people who would otherwise not easily meet engage in conversations about digitization.

Questioning assumptions regarding digital development

Secondly, by facilitating a conversation about digital society between multiple groups of people, we want to turn certain assumptions regarding digitization on its head:

From: Smart City. In search of the smart citizen.

Former security guard Irene and her friend Mavis reflect on the sense and senselessness of the Smart Citizen Kit. From: Smart City. In search of the smart citizen.

We are all digital-illiterate

One of the optimistic ideals that is part of the Smart City vision is the notion that people, through data gathered by sensors and visualized by apps, will gain a better understanding of their environment, giving them more control over it. In other words, that they will turn into smart citizens. Those of us who have difficulty coming to terms with this technology – the so-called digital illiterates – are expected to catch up by means of digital education. Yet, a question posed by this film is whether it is not more accurate to say that we are all digital illiterate in this world with continuously new, changing technologies. Sure, most of us know, more ore less, how to operate their smartphones. But does anyone really understand what is happening ‘under the hood’ of these machines? And if it is so that we are all, in some sense, digital illiterate, what does that tell us about a society that bases its notion of ‘smartness’ on these technologies?

Apps and the significance of social context

A tendency of the digital society is to facilitate social policy through digital technologies. People losing their jobs are encouraged to ‘upgrade’ themselves by taking courses in digital skills, with the purpose to increase their chances on the labor market. Yet, the argument we want to add to this with this film is that also in the digital society digital education and the availability of apps don’t forge the absolute difference between power and powerlessness. Also in the Smart City a person’s age and social-cultural context play large roles in processes of in-and exclusion. Each form of social policy in the Smart City, I think, should actively confront that fact. For instance by accounting, in early stages of innovation processes, for the different lifeworlds of a wider variety of people.

Institutional entanglements

It is a common notion that digital technologies are neither good nor bad, but that we, as a society can and should choose what goals to pursue with them. A Smart City for instance can consist of citizens using smart apps for activistic purposes, giving them insight into air pollution for instance; or it can consist of governments and corporations seeking to watch citizens by means of camera’s, sensors or with algorithms in browsers and apps. In many Smart City discussions these are presented as different options, with us, citizens, having the power to choose between either one of them. With this film we want to problematize this vision by showing how bottom-up, activist Smart City experiments tend to be embedded within an international playing field of corporations and governments who might have quite different, more commercial and controlling visions of the Smart City. What does this institutional entanglement tell us about the possibilities and impossibilities of digital activism in the Smart City?

From: Smart City. In search of the smart citizen.

‘hacker’ and privacy activist Douwe shows the smart technologies that are hidden in his house. From: Smart City. In search of the smart citizen.

Dream versus Reality

Another common idea is that digital technologies simply offer better solutions to the challenges and questions of our times. While this may be the case to some extent, we also want to pose the question whether we are at all capable of judging digital developments realistically. It seems that, even if technologies don’t work the way we want them to, the digital dream remains intact. One consequence of this futuristic orientation of the Smart City is that the digital struggles, exclusions and privacy infringements of the present digital society tend to be depicted as momentary situations, natural to processes of transition, that will sort themselves out naturally in the course of time.

A more realistic approach to Smart City development

My intention with these questions is not to dismiss or resist technology, nor to undervalue the importance of digital education or digital experimentation. By contrast, a new, idealistic research project that I conduct with several other scholars, is premised on digital experimentation and innovation. Yet, I do hope that the hype of Smart City creation will make place for a more realistic, social and more conscious approach.

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