Category Archives: Futures

“A sterile and decontextualised narrative”: Grossi & Pianezzi (2017), Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?

  • Grossi, G., & Pianezzi, D. (2017). “Smart cities: Utopia or neoliberal ideology?”. Cities, 69, 79-85.

Pretty simple paper, this one, in the sense that it does exactly what it says on the tin; the specific case (Genoa, Italy) is not of great relevance to me right now, but I want to drag some quotes out of it and into the reading journal here in order to make citing and glossing it easier in future. This is made easy by its clear restatement(s) of the basic point… there’s also a pretty comprehensive lit review in there, though, so a good jump-off point if you wanted to dig deeper into the bloated floating signifier that is the “smart city”. (Insert old joke about wrestling a pig here.)

So, yeah: the top-line gloss would be that “there is a high level of agreement in the literature that there is as yet no common definition of a smart city”, and further that “despite private corporations and cities promoting the smart city as a revolutionary utopia, this paradigm is an expression of the neoliberal ideology” (p79).

After a (very) quick historical tour of the utopian concept, the authors arrive at Bloch’s notion of the “concrete utopia”, as distinct from the “abstract utopia”, and gloss the former as “a project connected with reality that leads citizens forward into historical transformation and social revolution” (p80). They then argue that a bunch of authors have identified the “smart city” as being a Blochean concrete utopia—though I know at least two of the papers that they cite as evidence for this claim (one of which I have already annotated here), and they do no such thing. I wonder if some subtlety of argument has been lost in translation, though, because it would be fair to say that the “smart city” trope self-identifies as a concrete utopia… and if we carry that reading forward, the rest of the paper still makes perfect sense, as the authors go on to note that “when translated into practice, the smart city utopia often conflicts with its aspirations” (p80), which is (in my own reading, at least) a significant part of the point that Söderström, Paache & Klauser were making.

There follows some referencing of Lovable Marxist Granddad David Harvey (one of whose works will be annotated here imminently, and not at all coincidentally) in order to delineate a dialectic between utopia and ideology. This leads up to a restatement of the paper’s main point, namely that “the smart city utopia is a fundamental facet of the neoliberal contemporary ideology” (p80), which az eny fule kno is about the penetration of market-fundamentalist logics into every aspect of life; e.g., “the diffusion of city rankings that measure the ‘smartness’ of cities is an example of the disciplinary and normalising power of neoliberalism to generate competition among cities by transforming their difference in deviances from a norm of smartness assumed to be best practices” (ibid.)—is a long-winded way of saying that the “smart city” trope sets up a nebulous and techno-utopian standard against which all cities are implicitly measured and, inevitably, found wanting. The paradigm is heavily focussed on the handing-over of the “management” of cities to privately-owned tech firms, which (no surprises for those of you following along at home) “results in the adoption of a profit-oriented approach and in an increasing involvement of private actors, holders of innovation and technological knowledge” (ibid.). Leaning on a classic Swyngedouw paper (2005), the authors note that enacting the “smart city” trope as (re)produced by its manifold advocates “may lead to a privatization of decision making and an exercise of power insulated from democratic accountability” (p81); an unbolted stable door through which numerous horses would appear to have already escaped. There’s another quotable riff later on, where they note that “the smart city discourse describes citizens as consumers rather than as political actors” (p84).

Middle section sets out a methodology based on Habermas’s “depth hermeneutics” (which I don’t know much about—but given it seems to involve Bakhtinian ideas about languages as structures of/for social philosophies, I probably should do), and looks at the case of flooding crises in Genoa, and the ways in which “smart city” rhetorics there have both devolved responsibility for amok urbanisation (manifest in part via the enthusiastic covering of historical floodplains with fancy new building projects), and explicitly called for predictive modelling and measurement to enable competitive development practices to continue apace. To label this as a neoliberal project is about as non-controversial as it gets—unless of course your audience is of the sort that objects to the existence of the term in and of itself (which is to say, unless your audience is itself ideologically oriented to neoliberalism).

A good clear summary in the conclusions section (which kinda confirms my feeling that they’ve misread Söderström and friends, who were making pretty much the same points, absent the particular focus on the N-word):

The smart city utopia serves the interests of of big multinational ICT companies, while neglecting the need of political (not only technological) answers to public and common interests. It conveys neoliberal values and shapes urban problems by making visible some aspects while at the same time obscuring others. Thus, the emphasis on fancy technological solutions risks diverting attention away from issues, such as the broad impact of urbanization, that require a long-term “urban-planning based” approach driven by the political willingness of municipalities. […] What the promoters of smart city [sic] claim to be a concrete utopia proves to be on the contrary an abstract utopia, a sterile and decontextualised narrative that preserves existing relations of power, rather than challenging them.”

(p84)

Pretty simple; not the most original paper in theoretical terms, but then they do note that part of their aim is to take a predominantly theoretical critique into a more empirical territory via the Genoan case-study, which I guess they achieve.

But it’s got some useful quotes for an ongoing project, though, which I dare say will come in handy again if the zombie meme that is the “smart city” stumbles on into the post C19 world… which seems all too likely, given the enthusiastic embrace of privately-provided technological surveillance measures for infection control. What could possibly go wrong?

the city bureaucrat of the future learns, not preaches

The appearance of this piece by Barcelona’s chief technology and digital innovation officer, Francesca Bria [via Sentiers] is serendipitous, given that one of the tasks on my slate this week is to do the edits and tweaks on a long-overdue chapter on the “smart city” for a forthcoming Handbook of Social Futures. Five guidelines for thinking about digital platforms for socialist urbanisms… take it away, Senyora Bria:

First […] acknowledge that digital technology can help citizens to solve many of their problems without having to wait for help from remote bureaucracies. […] Done properly, [bottom-up democracy] will also enable new forms of solidarity and collective action – not just the perpetuation of the “solutionist” mindset that reduces all problems to the level of the individual user or consumer.

Second, city leaders should be humble and confess they do not have all the answers but that they trust the citizens to help find them; the city bureaucrat of the future learns, not preaches. […] Digital infrastructures that empower citizens to participate in politics cannot be run using business models based on the manipulation of collective behaviours and fake news. They must be in public hands and controlled by citizens themselves.

Third, […] assure that citizens’ data is not only safe but that it’s actually generating public, not just private, value. […] Whoever wants to build new services on top of that data would need to do so in a competitive, heavily regulated environment while paying a corresponding share of their profits for accessing it.

Fourth, city leaders need to remember that their task is to reconcile private and often short-term preferences of their citizens with the long-term public good. [To paraphrase: “let’s learn from and not repeat the AirBnB clusterfuck, yeah?”]

Finally, cities – and the people who lead them – should show more humility and stop flaunting their cosmopolitanism and uniqueness […] what point is there in “greening” or “revitalising” the city if the price is environmental and economic devastation in the countryside – which, eventually, wreaks havoc on the city too?

Should be fun trying to find a way to paraphrase all that in a way that doesn’t lose the nuance…

The full APA-style citation, to save myself (or anyone else) the work of reconstructing it later on:

  • Bria, F. (2019, April 17). You’re thinking about smart cities in completely the wrong way. Retrieved April 20, 2020, from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/reboot-britain-francesca-bria

the slowdown papers

Those among you with a more futures-y orientation may already have noticed Dan Hill publishing last week a collection of work that he’s calling “The Slowdown Papers”; this is the header post that bundles them and links them all.

I’ve been following Dan’s work for quite some time now. He was always an interesting and erudite feature of the early Twentyteens design fiction scene; if I’m recalling my rather blurry timeline correctly, he started working for Arup around the same time I started my PhD, but at some point pivoted out of that world and wound up working for the Swedish innovation agency Vinnova, as well as collecting a bundle of (well-earned) visiting professorships.

One of the double-edged silver linings of the coronavirus situation has been that a) it has resulted in a massive outpouring of interesting writing from all sorts of people, which b) I’m struggling to keep up with as a reader. I made a conscious (and surprisingly painful) decision over the Easter weekend to limit my attempts to keep up with it all—partly because there just aren’t enough hours in the day, and partly because I found that I was becoming frustrated by and envious of all these people producing insightful material when I was producing little or none of it myself (a shortfall due in no small part to my spending too much time reading other people’s work). I have the generalist’s (and blogging veteran’s) pathology of feeling like I need to respond to everything that interests me—which I now recognise as an early, slower version of the birdsite pathology that urges you to provide your hot take on all the things. I’ve been spending a fair bit of time reminding myself that there’s no need to feel envious of all these experts writing important things about their fields of specialisation, because I am (at least in theory!) and expert with my own field of specialisation; as such, I should probably read a little less (or possibly a lot less), and write more, while focussing my efforts on the topics and issues which are germane to my work. We’ll see how that goes; drinking from the firehose is an old habit, one from long before I even knew what RSS stood for.

But back to Dan: the Slowdown Papers are perhaps the most substantial answer to a question I’d been asking since this thing kicked off, namely “when are we going to decide it’s acceptable to start looking beyond the lockdown?” It’s far from acceptable everywhere as yet, but some folk are starting to spin up some more considered and thoughtful long views, and these essays are a benchmark for the sort of material I want to see more of.

I have yet to read all of them, but there was one that I went for right away, because it addresses (though doesn’t exactly answer) a question that I’ve been asked dozens of times over the last month or so, namely: “what the hell does the Swedish government think it’s doing?” Dan’s been here long enough, and is sufficiently well-connected to the machineries of government (not to mention well-read and bloody insightful) to have a good idea of how things fit together here; as such, this piece was a real relief for me, because it allowed me to see a bigger picture, of which I had heretofore glimpsed only a few parts. For instance, I understood that the Swedish government is quite literally constitutionally incapable of announcing a lockdown akin to those going on elsewhere; likewise, I was aware of the strict (if fuzzy and contested) demarcations between the “what” (or strategic goals) of policy, which are decided by elected politicians, and the “how” (or tactics for “delivery”, to grudgingly use that most repulsive of shibboleths), which are decided by technocratic agencies such as the gloriously hard-for-me-to-pronounce Folkhälsomyndigheten. But there’s so much more to it, just as there is so much more to the question of why every nation has responded differently, and are experiencing different rates of infection and mortality—a question which, while it’s being asked everywhere pretty much constantly, is rarely being explored properly.

If nothing else, we’ve solid proof for the maxim that disasters tend to make us fall back on exceptionalist narratives of nationality—and not just our own.

On that basis, I recommend Dan’s piece on the Swedish situation in particular to everyone, because it’s a model for thinking about the situation more broadly. I still think that there’s a silver lining of opportunity in this crisis—and hell knows the far right has already seen it, and grabbed for it with both of its tiny, unwashed hands. But if we want to alchemise this collision of statistically inevitable tragedy and systematic ideologically-motivated mismanagement into a civilisational turning-point, we need to get beyond the point of getting angry or resentful at anyone not responding in exactly the same way as us.

expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for (‘think about the box’, redux)

The excellent Alexis Lloyd observes that the road to hell has in recent years been paved with “user-centred” design; while well-intended, it’s also pernicious.

… in effect, user-centered design ends up being a mirror for both radical individualism and capitalism. It posits the consumer at the center, catering to their needs and privileging their purchasing power. And it obscures the labor and systems that are necessary to create that “delightful user experience” for them.

This is how we end up with platforms that give us free content, backed by an invisible system of surveillance capitalism that extracts personal data for profit. This is how we end up with systems that can deliver anything our hearts desire to our doorstep, backed by an entire class of exploited and underpaid workers.

Note my emphasis there: user-centred design is part of the prestidigitatory process, the front-of-house flourish of consumption that distracts attention from the concealed systems of extraction, production and distribution. Provision ex nihilo; it’s not a bug, it’s THE feature.

So what’s the alternative?

To begin with, we need to expand our mapping of the space we’re designing for. We can take some tools and models from forecasting, like STEEP, to map the social, technical, economic, environmental, and political systems that our product touches upon. Instead of focusing on one or two types of end users, how might we look at all of the participants in our system? Who uses the software? What labor does the software require? What tradeoffs are inherent to the business model that supports the software?

Personally I would underline “to begin with” a couple of times. STEEP is a step on from a lot of commonly-used foresight frameworks, but more often than not the ‘S’ component ends up being a gesture or genuflection in the direction of some currently fashionable shibboleth such as “wellbeing” or “resilience”; ditto the use of some rough quantitative estimate of “sustainability” in the environmental column.

These are points that I started trying to make a long time ago, though I was almost laughably bad at making myself understood, in part because I lacked (and indeed still lack, to some extent) a complete language with which to map this way of seeing the world in order that it might make sense to anyone who doesn’t live in my own brain-pan. (A curse that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, etc etc.)

Indeed, it’s what I was grasping toward with my early exhortation to “think about the box”, in my first (and painfully stilted) public presentation of any significance, way back in 2013 at Improving Reality:

Back to Lloyd:

If this starts to feel very big, it’s because it is. Everything we make has secondary effects beyond the choices we explicitly make, so a systems-centered design (or society-centered design) practice tries to make that larger system visible. We can only change that which we can clearly see.

To reference another Douglas Adams idea, where might we find the Total Perspective Vortex? I’ve never believed that I have all the right answers, nor indeed many of them; rather, my whole point is that no one can have all the right answers, and thus matters of design need to be approached from a plurality of subjectivities and transdisciplinarity.

However, I do believe I have (some of) the right questions. I’m just not yet able to articulate them all in a useful way… and that is the labour of theory, at least for me.

defeat the dread

Good chewy long-read from Cennydd Bowles, starting with a look at the ongoing situation (and a zinger of an opening line), and building out to a measured and respectful but nonetheless pointed dig at the futures industry:

For too long we’ve been serving the wrong goals: helping large multinationals and tech giants accrue more power and wealth at the expense of other actors, contributing to the atomisation of society by designing products for individual fulfilment ahead of the wellbeing of our communities. Our rethought world will need to prioritise people and societies, ecologies and environments, ahead of profit and productivity. If you use this crisis to thought-prophesise about the new era ahead, don’t you dare return to your cosy consulting gig with Palantir or Shell afterward. Own your impact. Act in the interests of this better world you espouse, and withdraw your support for the forces that brought us to the brink.

Selah. (Though it goes without saying that it’s yer Palantirs and yer Shells who are most likely to have the money to hire people after this sitch calms down some… and those who’ve taken their money before are unlikely to have too many qualms about taking it again.)

Setting my cynicism about the consultancy sector aside, Cennyd has a riff near the end that’s a timely reminder to me in the wake of yesterday’s long post about hope in the context of climate change:

… we will not succeed by simply evangelising our own paternalistic, privileged messages of hope upon others. We won’t convince others that we can conquer the climate crisis by pointing to our previous models of utopias yet unrealised. The only sustainable way to defeat dread is to give people the skills and the powers to forge their own preferable futures. Hope comes from communities, not from experts; it arises with empowerment and inclusivity, not the promises of politicians.

This is exactly the sort of work my postdoc project is intended to do, as luck would have it. But I need to remember that for “hope” to have a concrete meaning and manifestation, I have to come down out of the theoretical tower and do the work. That will be counter to my customs, certainly, but I’m confident—hopeful, even—that it’s not counter to my instincts.