“A revenant hybrid narrative”: Söderström, Paasche & Klauser (2014), Smart cities as corporate storytelling

  • Söderström, Paasche & Klauser (2014) “Smart cities as corporate storytelling”. City 18(3), pp307–320

This paper makes a loose grab of Callon and Latour’s early-A-NT notion of translation through “obligatory passage points” for the formation of scientific truths, and uses that lens to look at IBM’s construction of a “smart city” story which positioned it as the go-to actor for the application of technological solutions to certain urban problems. Or, in the authors’ own words, “it looks at who has the power to define the smartness [or otherwise?] of cities and what the discussions around this theme should be concerned with,” (p310) by the means of “[analysing] key episodes in the struggle over the definition of what smart cities are about,” which is “an important element in the competition between private companies over authorship, authority and profit in the smart city business.” (p307)

So it’s an etymological/definitional struggle, in other words. The paper opens by positioning “smart cities” as “a part of contemporary language games around urban management and development” (p307); although not much foregrounded beyond this opening statement, the motif of “smart” as a game to be played by corporate actors is repeated a number of times throughout. “[T]his discursive activity”, they continue, “is performative, because it shapes the imaginaries and practices of a myriad of actors concretely building the city” (ibid., my emphasis); said discourse further “mobilises and recycles two long-standing tropes [of urban planning]: the city conceived of as a system of systems, and a utopian discourse exposing urban pathologies and their cure.” (p308)

The core arguments of the paper are threefold: first, the authors claim that “this story is to a large extent propelled by attempts to create an ‘obligatory passage-point’”, with reference to Callon and Latour; second, that “this discourse promotes a conception of urban management that is a technocratic fiction”; and third, that it “prioritises public investments in IT over other domains of spending and thereby introduces a new ‘economy of worth’”, with reference to Boltanski and Thévenot. (p308)

Reviewing the critical literature, which was still fairly sparse at time of writing, the authors identify a number of ways to frame the “smart city” concept (p308):

  • as a mask for the negative impacts of already-existing technological interventions in urban planning;
  • as a technocratic strategy in the context of a paradigm shift to cognitive-cultural capitalism;
  • as a disciplinary system for the shaping of “smart citizen” subjects [to which I would add an ever-more explicit quantification and making-legible, in the terms of James C Scott];
  • as a reframing of urbanism as an engineering challenge [which may be safely parsed as solutionism avant la lettre];
  • and as a revenant hybrid of Corbusian high-modernist urban planning with the civic cybernetics of the 1970s.

The authors aim to connect “some ‘whys’ and ‘hows’” (p309) of the “smart” discourse by focussing their attention on IBM’s “smarter cities” campaign from the early Twentyteens.


To recap briefly: Callon and Latour’s notion of translation has two distinct stages. The first step in the formation of a sociotechnical network is the problematization: an issue must be brought to light in such a way that not only is the problem defined and shown to be in need of a solution, but also that the actors capable of solving it are defined at the same time; this forms the “obligatory passage point” (OPP hereafter), a geographical or institutional location or process whose engagement becomes synonymous with the problem at hand. The authors argue that IBM’s “smart” story “presents their smart technologies as the only solution for various urban problems”, hence forming an OPP. (p310) The second stage is that of translation, a process through which different aspects of the problem are rewritten in the unitary language of the OPP, thus consolidating the network connections around the OPP as a nexus point.

There’s some useful points here about the use of narratives in the translation process which, while drawing upon urban planning in particular, seem to me to be generalisable to a wider range of sociotechnical transitions. The first of these is almost a passing note with reference to Latour’s classic Science in Action: “The use of mediations—from small talk to complex machines—to translate phenomena into a manageable language—is a powerful means of creating OPPs.” (p310) For me, the term mediation has a particular power, as I’m interested in the formation of sociotechnical systems, as well as the role which existing sociotechnical systems play in creating the discursive conditions for new sociotechnical systems: mediation implies media, and media are infrastructures (and vice versa).

The second is a linguistically clunky but nonetheless truthful observation, drawn from the urban planning literature, that “[s]tories are important because they provide actors involved in planning with an understanding of what the problem they have to solve is […] stories are the very stuff of planning, which, fundamentally, is persuasive and constitutive storytelling about the future.” (p310)

The systems metaphor

I’m less interested in the specifics of the IBM case (which is, at this point, rather cold) than the generalised process to be inferred, so I’ll sum up the analysis fairly swiftly. The authors identify a 2008 speech by IBM CEO Sam Palmisano, and the company’s 2009 acquisition of “smarter cities” as a trademark, as constituting the first moment of the process of translation:

With Palmisano’s speech and the trademark, we have a problematization of cities as smart cities, the first step in the creation of an OPP. Cities’ problems are defined as the need to become smarter and the central actors of the process—IBM, municipalities—are identified.


The second “moment” is rather longer, with the authors identifying a sustained marketing campaign “designed to provide the company’s strategy with a global visibility” (p312) that followed the initial problematization as the means of translation: “[…] two aspects can be analytically distinguished: the translation of the city into a unitary language and its inscription into a transformative narrative”, the latter of which features “two well-known topoi in urban planning history working as the rhetorical devices of the campaign: the systems metaphor and utopianism.” (ibid.)

This is where things get interestingly chewy.

Using an Enlightenment rhetoric where data and systems theoiry are the means through which municipalities can move ‘from gut-feeling and impessions to knowledge’, the new CEO (probably unconsciously) situates herself in the lineage of the social reformists of the previous turn of the century…


The authors position the systems metaphor for cities as a continuation or extension of the earlier organicist paradigm, refracted through the cyberneticism of the 1970s:

The common denominator of organicist approaches in planning is a holisitic view wherecities are approached as composed of functionally related parts. Systems thinking in urban theory is a continuation of the organiscist tradition in that respect but building on a different metaphor. If the body (and then more broadly living organisms) is the model of traditional organicism, systems theory builds on the computer metaphor. The urban totality is a large calculating system rather than a biological entity.


(All this is very true, though I would note in passing that systems theory more broadly doesn’t have to draw on the computer as a metaphor—really, the computer is a concretisation of one particular version of the systems metaphor—and that earlier iterations of systems theory, particularly that of Wiener, made explicit allowances for non-hierachical systems-of-systems. Point being: there’s an understandable impulse to blame systems theory for “smart cities” and other such solutionist fairytales, but there’s a significantly large baby in that bathwater—a baby which the closed-system positivists tried their level best to drown at birth.)

Regarding the revenant hybrid of high-modernism and cybernetics, the authors note:

There is something apparently odd in this resurrection, as it gives the audience of the smarter cities campaign a sense of travelling back to the heroic times of post-war cybernetics.


Well, not really so odd, if you consider that the 1970s were arguably IBM’s pinnacle of power; given that the paper mentions the “smarter cities” paradigm as IBM’s attempt to revive its flagging fortunes in the late Noughties, a return to the philosophies prominent during the glory days presumably recalled fondly by its top brass is not surprising at all: it’s a flinch back into institutional memory, if you will. But the authors have another reading which I think is complementary rather than nugatory to that:

If we consider urban dynamics as a translation device used for the purpose of storytelling, this choice becomes less enigmatic. What urban systems theory provides, seen from this perspective, is primarily a powerful metaphor creating a surface of equivalence. It translates very different urban phenomena into data that can be related together according to a classical systemic approach which identifies elements, interconnections, feedback loops, delays etc.


Which is to say: it allows IBM to go back to a mode of problem solving with which it was once practically synonymous. But the exact interpretation is less germane than the underlying point, which is that the high-modern-cyber hybrid frame is the crux of the translation stage: “The city is made to speak the language of IBM.” (p313, my emphasis)

And therein lies a large part of the problem with “smart cities”: an implicit homogenisation of the urban with a strong bias toward conditions in the Global North (e.g. functioning city-wide infrastructures, as opposed to the archipelagos of jugaad, hacks and kludges which characterise many cities). The homogeneity is the core issue, though, as it means the template is often no more suitable to a Global-Northern city than any other: “cities are no longer made of different—and to a large extent incommensurable—socio-technical worlds (education, business, safety and the like) but as data within systemic processes”; the discourse of smartness “tends to reduce the analysis of the city to a machinic vision of cities. As a result, the analsis of these ‘urban themes’ [as represented by the ‘pillars’ of the systems metaphor] no longer seem [sic] to require thematic experts familiar with the specifics of a ‘field’ but only data mining, data interconnectedness and software-based analysis.” (p314)

(There’s also a paraphrase/cite of Marcuse (2005) that I’m going to pull out here, with the intention of chasing down the original: “… the organic or systems metaphor also creates a fictitious entity ‘the city’ supporting ‘a search for consensus politics, in which the claims of the minority or powerless or disenfranchised or non-mainstream groups are considered disturbing factors in the quest for policies benefitting “the whole”’.”)

Wrapping up the analysis of the translation through the systems metaphor, the authors identify the source of the metaphor’s power as lying in ontological transformation: “in this version of systems thinking this transformation spares us the difficulties of interpretation: translated into data and systems, the city seems to speak by itself, to be self-explanatory” (p314; in the tradition of all derivative science fiction, the city-that-speaks-for-itself is an increasingly recognisable and literal trope in more recent representations of “smartness”). Underlying the discourse is “an engineering epistemology applied to humans and non-humans. Nature and culture reunited by the engineering mind”; the discourse “nurtures an imaginary of urban management reduced to systems engineering.” (ibid.) This is, of course, our old friend solutionism avant la lettre.

The (technological) urban utopia

With the problematization established and the work of translation done, the “smart city” can then be embedded in a narrative of technocratic progress and efficiency, which the authors connect directly to the long heritage of utopianism in urban planning. First you present the mirror image of the ideal city, in effect reproblematizing it all over again; this is then used as the rhetorical springboard for the utopian proposal. The classic (urban) utopia is arguably always univocal, and it has this in common with the “smart city”, which is “not a collective project assembling different worldviews and interests, but a singular ‘emancipatory’ vision” (p315), dreamt up in this case by a single corporate entity rather than a single crank reformer. The authors also identify and label what they call the “weightwatchers” rhetoric of the before/after comparison as being central to the IBM campaign; I’m pretty sure that trope can be found in many other solutionist discourses, too.

(Interestingly, that campaign used a similar seeing-the-present-from-the-vantage-of-a-changed-future narrative strategy to that of certain projects I’m currently involved in; a useful reminder that it’s not an inherently virtuous methodology.)

So, the “smart city” is a utopian form, “depicting a model of a perfectly functioning urban society but, in contrast with classical utopianism, it is governed by code rather than spatial form.” (p315) Regular readers will see where I’m going with this: it seems to me that the authors go on to describe a utopian mode that maps very clearly onto the technological utopian mode first posited in sf and utopian studies, and rolled on a little further by myself:

… the core of smartness lies in the algorithm. ¶ Optimisation through code is therefore the utopia promised by the company. […] This ‘ultimate smart city’ is a transparent one where all flows within the nine systems are quantified, connected and efficiently managed […] ‘smarter cities’ is a mild utopianism: it promises efficiency rather than paradise on earth. It is a utopian rhetoric tempered by market realism: it is easier to sell technologies and services than an ad nihilo urban structure, more convincing to tap on the faith in technology and progress than to promise a brave new city.


But recall that, alongside the rejection of the possibility of the perfected society, a core feature of the technological utopia is an active distrust of political approaches to problems, replacing any such dialectics with what we might think of as Whig futurism: “in the perfect future of the classical utopias, historicity is abolished: the arrow of time is bent into a circular repetition”, but in the “smart city”, “historicity is not abolished, because optimisation needs to be constantly renewed: novel technologies need to be constantly introduced for that purpose and codes constantly rewritten. If IBM’s storytelling rests on a utopian rhetoric it constantly makes sure that the future it promotes is a realistic one.” (p316)


The authors, quite fairly I feel, sum up by describing the “smart city” metatrope as “primarily a strategic tool for gaining a dominant position in a huge market” (p316), but note that it “should not be taken at face value [… what] we have proposed is not a description of how smart cities work on the ground but a deconstruction of a communication strategy: what one of our IBM informants calls a market creation strategy.” (p316-7) It is, in short, “a framing device”. (p317)

Two questions/challenges are surfaced here: first, that “the discourse promotes an informational and technocratic conception of urban management where data and software seem to suffice and where, as a consequence, knowledge, interpretation and specific thematic expertise appear as superfluous”, which, the authors note, “is a rather dangerous fiction.” (p317; “had enough of experts”, anyone?) The second issue is that the “smart city” fiction “promotes a mentality where urban affairs are framed as an apolitical matter [… the] rhetorical means of the campaign also aspire to political neutrality.” (p317)

The authors end with a call to action beyond critique:

… an alternative storytelling about smart cities is necessary. Storytelling in planning […] should not only be used as an instrument of critique but also as an instrument to suggest progressive avenues for urban development [… which] requires being explicit about normative and political positioning as smartness only makes sense within a system of values and aims.


Amen to that. A good paper, all in all, and a nice addition to the citation quiver.


Marcuse, P (2005). “‘The City’ as Perverse Metaphor”. City 9(2), pp247-254

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