Cities are contingent on the historical forces that have shaped their development. Among these are colonization, industrialization, technology, and information. Today the Smart City has emerged as one possible answer to the emergent problems of urbanization in the 21st century. It joins a multitude of concepts and ideas that address daily life in the post-industrial world of informational capitalism – the sustainable city, the creative city, the green city, and the liveable city – and the Smart City that now seems to resonate with urban administrations and urban designers worldwide. The question is what is it?
Cities are merely reflections of the political economy of their own history. They are acts of imagination that combine use values and exchange values, political elites and poverty, fixed and mobile capital, multi-modal transport systems, and a chessboard of land uses that reflect urban politics, investment strategies, densities and class distinctions, histories, and expectations. There is no ‘one size fits all’, and cities worldwide contain a vast range of differences. On the basis of capitalist urbanization, most cities grow by consuming themselves – by destroying the old to build the new in an effort to reduce crime, pollution, waste disposal, amenity, security and to increase the rate of commodity circulation to generate wealth.
All historical periods have advanced on three fronts; first, the stockpiling of capital; second, the progression of ideologies that inform the development and third, technological advancement. The smart city paradigm falls into the latter category. It is firmly committed to informational technology and informational capital to fuel progress. Given this commitment, the problem is that human interests may be subsumed to technological ‘efficiency’, forgetting that what is human and what is technical, are not homologous. A central problem, therefore, is how to temper the use of technology with democratic politics and the voice of the people.
Today’s social system has been described as ‘the Network Society’ - the product of informational capitalism. This has entailed massive shifts in power, identity and traditional concepts of place as the virtualworld of the space of flows reconfigures the material world in a diversity of forms. In the process, many cities thrive, while others sink in a sea of decay. Development is not democratic, and those cities that become hard-wired fastest also have the economic advantage as well, attracting a new ‘creative class’ of intellectuals, artists, business people, and professionals who then support a plethora of new urban spaces. As a resolution to the above problems, the smart city is therefore not merely a neutral technological fix. It is infused with problems that need to be interrogated if a more humane as opposed to a more efficient environment is to emerge.