This is an essay written for the honours-level course “Urban Infrastructure” (APG4021F) offered at the University of Cape Town’s School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics. The essay was written in 2016. Citations are provided at the bottom of the post. Please contact me should you require further information or re-use info.
The idea of Smart Cities has permeated global discourse around contemporary city design. However, its core goals of improving the lives of denizens has been obscured as technology companies seek to manipulate the term for marketing purposes. This essay argues for an alternative approach: a human-centric way of re-looking at the idea of the “smart city”, where technology and urban design can work together for the benefit of urban life.
The Smart City narrative represents a paradigmatic shift in contemplating the urban fabric of a city. Its language, propounded by global technology corporations, has become a sort of Orwellian doublespeak, promising tales of urban grandeur that sharply contrast with the physical reality of the built environment and its many-faceted complexity. This issue of pluralism, which lies at the core of the Smart City discourse, brings into focus the actuality of an otherwise powerful idea with the potential to reshape urban environments for the better. In this paper, the dual agenda of social and environmental sustainability and the possibility for the Smart City narrative to transcend its marketing language to address these core issues of the contemporary, developing urban landscape, will be explored. By transcending its technological agenda, and emphasising a humanist dimension at its core, leveraging a socio-technical attitude towards integrating society and technology in defining its infrastructural systems, a city can truly become “smart”.
This paper will begin by exploring the myriad definitions of the Smart City and seeking to distil these ideas into a concrete framing of the Smart City concept. Thereafter, an investigation into the technological agenda of the Smart City, which diverges from traditional notions of urban design and city planning and provides an alternative lens through which the city is perceived, will frame the most prevalent issue of the Smart City narrative: the juxtaposition of its utopian promise with the urban reality of the contemporary developing city, within the context of the global south (with particular focus on South African cities). Examples from similar contexts within the global south framework will further seek to enhance an understanding of this discourse in urban pluralism. Finally, the need for human agency in the Smart City discourse will provide the basis for developing a sociotechnical argument, using social and environmental sustainability as key factors in answering the thesis – the redefinition of the smart city with a humanist dimension at its core.
Defining the Smart City
The most prevalent issue of the Smart City narrative is one embedded in language. The powerful idea of harnessing the potential in connected digital technology – the Internet “hive mind” (Jones 2012) – in order to solve the urban issues of a city, has become obfuscated by a layer of marketing buzz-words that aim to sell this concept to a city’s management. The marketing of a “digital city” that “integrates conditions of all of its critical infrastructures […] can better optimize its resources, plan its preventive maintenance activities, and monitor security aspects while maximizing services to its citizens” (Chourabi, et al. 2012) offers a promising vision to cities, especially those in rapidly developing economies. However, this only serves to subvert the actuality of the urban issues at ground level. The introduction of smart technologies integrated with infrastructure can marginalise portions of a city’s population once a critical examination of the IT literacy and deployment of ICT (Information and Communications Technology) resources is conducted on an area. Therefore, “despite the proclaimed advantages and benefits of ICTs […] they can also increase inequalities and promote a digital divide.” (Chourabi, et al. 2012)
Thus, there is indeed a critical issue in actually defining the “smart city.” Large IT corporations such as IBM and CISCO, driven by business intention, will seek to define the concept as the strong interplay between high-end, responsive digital technology and the operational capabilities of city management, often with a notion of sustainability attached. These corporations further their capitalist agenda of the Smart City concept through the use of a (somewhat condescending) visual language:
When we look at the visual language through which the smart city is represented, it is typically with simplistic, child-like rounded edges and bright colours. The citizens the smart city claims to serve are treated like infants. (Koolhaas 2014)
Koolhaas further argues that this colourful, utopian aesthetic offers “only improvement” through “bubbles of control” that represent businesses and citizens in layered diagrams seeking to convey their interrelatedness with the technologies but still within strongly defined boundaries. There is no “possibility for transgression” – the Smart City is effectively sterilising the vibrant potential of urban life. (Koolhaas 2014) Furthermore, there is a notion that the Smart City initiative discards centuries of accumulated knowledge on urban intelligence, adopting a Futurist ideology in attempting to distance itself from the past through its yearning for this utopian future.
Therefore, we can consider that the Smart City definition, when looked at through a solely technological lens, becomes rather one-dimensional. It flattens the vibrancy of a city into a series of working parts that appear to deeply connect with the ICT technologies propounded by these corporations, but lack a definite human dimension, and the complexities resultant of that facet.
Another school of thought exists on the idea that the Smart City is “the organic integration of systems.” (Chourabi, et al. 2012) This idea proposes that there can exist an interrelationship between the myriad infrastructural systems through smart technologies; it leverages the notions of connected technologies and the urban fabric proposed by the corporate-driven approach, framing the Smart City as a post-industrial emergence. The city’s systems develop an “artificial nervous system” with an “increasingly effective combination of digital telecommunication networks (the nerves), ubiquitously embedded intelligence (the brains), sensors and tags (the sensory organs), and software (the knowledge and cognitive competence).” (Chourabi, et al. 2012)
But there exists an argument for the Smart City beyond a mere technological approach. Robert Hollands proposes a humanist emphasis, where “smart communities” emerge through an emphasis on “social learning, education and [building] social capital” (Hollands 2008), ideas that can be enabled through a more considered, bottom-up approach in delivering technologically-driven solutions. This approach contextualises the Smart City intervention, where top-down corporation-driven initiatives from the likes of IBM, CISCO and Siemens rather seek catalytic interventions that can create potential digital divides.
We can thus define the Smart City (within the context of this paper’s thesis) as a redefinition of the notion of a city, where the forces of connected technology, human, environmental and social capital coalesce in providing the institutional and infrastructural solutions that aim to deal with the complexities of rapidly-growing urban environments.
The Hidden Fabric: The Technological Agenda of Smart Cities
The infrastructure that defines the digital or Smart city diverges from traditional notions of built infrastructure. It comprises invisible networks that permeate society, enabled via technologies that are connected to each other and to the devices they power. With the recent advent of cloud computing, this notion takes on an additional layer of complexity. Now, large data centres located in remote areas, sometimes in different parts of the planet, store and give access to the critical data that is reshaping our perceptions of urban space. Geographic information related to mobile mapping (such as the Google Maps app being used on a smartphone to navigate the streets in Cape Town) is actually stored on servers in a data centre in Lenoir, North Carolina, United States (Fig. 02). Thus, the idea of a city existing in isolation, within its geographically-defined territory on a map, is being contested by this idea that invisible networks, through cloud computing and the connected Internet, extend the digital assets of a city beyond its physicality and into this digital realm. The city is effectively decentralised through these smart networks.
|Fig.02 – The Google Datacentre in Lenoir, North Carolina that powers the company’s Maps service. (http://www.google.com/about/datacenters/inside/streetview/)|
Furthermore, fibre-optic cables, large networks of undersea cables and cell towers define the physical aspects of these invisible communication networks. On the other hand, clean energy solutions in the guise of wind turbine arrays and solar farms – often in remote, rural landscapes at the periphery of urban settlements – become the new icons of this modern infrastructural network, the images that solidify an abstract idea such as sustainability.
These invisible networks – the hidden infrastructural fabric – hint at the possibilities of changing perspectives on the city. When combined with the idea of a human interaction with these networks (such as through navigation or augmented reality apps), they enable new possibilities in perceiving the notion of city. These sociotechnical interactions bring to the fore new kinds of networks that enable new ways of understanding how citizens connect, the relationships that exist, and thus they add an additional layer of complexity to the urban fabric:
For researchers in urban design, this hidden, yet very real world impacts increasingly decisively on how the spaces and fabric of the city are created and managed, and, rather than a separate domain of research, it is increasingly vital that those interested and responsible for the physical and social fabric of the city, become equally interested in this hidden fabric as well. (Hudson-Smith 2014)
Thus the need for an academic and multidisciplinary approach to the Smart City discourse is critical in attempting to contextualise and humanize an otherwise technologically-driven narrative.
Rem Koolhaas’s critique of the Smart City definition furthers this notion: architects, who were historically at the centre of city design, relinquished their centrality with the advent of the market economy in the late 1970s: “The city triumphed at the very moment that thinking about the city stopped.” (Koolhaas 2014) This vacuum was quickly filled by the Smart City narrative, and its dominance by the technology industry is thus no coincidence. However, without the fundamental values and principles of urban design and an architectonic conception of city-making, Smart Cities subvert the complexities that exist: the inequalities propounded by spatial segregation due to political regimes, the access to basic infrastructural services in poorer communities at the periphery, and the design and distribution of public transport infrastructure that can potentially contribute to more environmentally-viable infrastructural solutions. In short, the Smart City narrative that emerged in the void created by the departure of the architect from the broader discourse on urban infrastructure lacks a sociotechnical layer. The question then arises: how can Smart Cities leverage this sociotechnical layer in developing a truly inclusive urban environment?
Towards an Ideological Shift: The Humanist Dimension of Smart Cities
Mathare is a collection informal slums on the edge of Nairobi, Kenya that is home to around 200 000 residents. An innovation in the delivery of water services to this otherwise underserved area of the city represents an example of a bottom-up approach to a Smart City that benefits the most marginalised residents, succeeding where the otherwise superficial, splintering effect of the corporate-driven approach fails these sectors.
A public-private partnership between The Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company and Danish water engineering firm Grundfos has established water ATMs at strategic areas of the settlement (Fig. 03). These ATMs provide clean water at reasonable prices, undercutting the cartel-based operation that emerged due to the lack of water infrastructure. The system operates on smart cards provided by The Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company; residents load money onto these cards, which is then converted into points, and use them at the ATMs to withdraw water into containers (Fig. 04). In effect, these interventions act as connected, modernised versions of a traditional water well.
|Fig.03 – A water ATM in Mathare, Nairobi (Wesangula, Daniel. The ATMs bringing cheap, safe water to Nairobi’s slums | Global development professionals network | The Guardian. 16 February 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/feb/16/atms-cheap-safe-water-nairobis-slums (accessed May 15, 2016).)|
|Fig.04 – Smart cards allow citizens to withdraw water from the ATMs. (Wesangula, Daniel. The ATMs bringing cheap, safe water to Nairobi’s slums | Global development professionals network | The Guardian. 16 February 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/feb/16/atms-cheap-safe-water-nairobis-slums (accessed May 15, 2016).)|
The financial outcome has been significant:
The daily income in a slum household in Kenya is just over a dollar, and the average home uses around 100 litres of water a week. The water vendors operating in the slum would charge Sh50 (50 cents) for a 20 litre container of water. With the introduction of the ATMs, weekly expenditure on water in Mathare has been reduced from Sh250 ($2.5) to Sh2.50 (2.5 cents). (Wesangula 2016)
Treated water is connected to the ATMs via newly laid pipes that are supplied from the city’s main reservoir, the Ndakaini Dam.
This example illustrates that a Smart City system need not be complex. A more focussed, considered intervention that directly addresses a significant sociotechnical issue within a localised context can have a far greater effect on the overall liveability of a city’s totality, rather than marginalising one faction in favour of attracting business investment by focussing on more affluent nodes.
Architects and planners, educated in a strong socially-driven approach, are able to empathise both spatially and technically when considering urban environments. Thus, by re-engaging the design professional’s knowledge in the broader Smart Cities discourse, the ability to bring a humanist dimension into the narrative exists. The theoretical understanding of urbanism can further enhance an understanding of the perils inherent in the current visioning of Smart Cities.
Indian architect Rahul Mehrotra introduces the concept of pluralism within an urban context through his analysis of the urban fabric of Indian cities. He concludes that there is a physical and visual contradiction embedded in the landscape, a resultant of the mass urbanisation in post-colonial India and the pressure this has placed on its urban infrastructure. He remarks that “…cities in India have become critical sites for negotiation between elite and subaltern cultures.” (Mehrotra 2008) This phenomenon of urban juxtaposition is not isolated to India, and its variants are found in many of the developing global south cities. The language of pluralism extends itself similarly within the Smart City narrative. The notion of “splintering urbanism” propounded by Steve Graham and Simon Marvin in their book Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition, gives rise to the notion that the utopian agenda of top-down Smart Cities can actually produce a digital divide, propounding the already socially-fractured urban fabric of many global south cities such as those in India and South Africa.
Mehrotra defines two factions that perpetuate the urban pluralism of Indian cities: The Static City, which is the formal, planned urban environment; and the Kinetic City, the informal city that is “incomprehensible as a two-dimensional entity, […] perceived as a city in motion […] a three-dimensional construct of incremental development.” (Mehrotra 2008) This complexity and contradiction woven into the urban fabric illustrates the need for a considered approach when it comes to implementing smart solutions into pre-existing urban environments.
The Smart City can furthermore instigate the urban splintering effect in its desire to develop clusters of inhabitation that are focussed on specific industries. Business-led urban development under the guise of the “Smart City” label perpetuates social inequality, for example in the creation of dedicated IT business parks or creative districts that focusses a city’s attention on superficial matters rather than the more complex urban issues of social integration. These dedicated office parks are themselves the result of technological developments that are changing the way in which citizens work: Internet-based job opportunities and the option of telecommuting (due to advents in broadband infrastructure) have led to node-based workplaces that further reduce employment opportunities for those that live on the periphery.
This issue of societal divide is prevalent within the South African context. As the country experiences economic growth post-Apartheid, the need to position its cities as lucrative investment opportunities becomes more necessary: “Achieving smart-city status is one way for a city to become ‘a global player.’” (Odendaal 2006) However, the country’s socio-economic dynamics, especially the interplay between the formal and informal in trade and property give rise to the complexities of the pluralism that Mehrotra discusses. Therefore, the integration of ICTs as a method of using the Smart City narrative needs to be carefully considered.
One way of doing this is through ICT systems in enhancing the role of city management. The next section of this paper discusses this idea in relation to Big Data and metadata further.
The integration of ICTs in South African cities is likewise met with the challenges of the country’s physical telecommunications infrastructure, and the monopoly of the primary telecoms company, Telkom. As Nancy Odendaal notes, “Internet access is nevertheless patchy; broadband availability is limited to mainly developed, central areas, while dial-up connections on the margins (in peri- urban and township areas) are frustratingly slow and generally non-existent.” (Odendaal 2006) However, the rise of mobile phones, and especially Web 2.0-inspired dynamic software solutions such as WhatsApp and other online social networks are enabling a form of invisible network with the potential to address the infrastructural issues of these periphery areas in smart technology ways.
In a 2015 study published by the Pew Research Centre on the rise of mobile phones in Africa, it was discovered that text messaging is the most common use (Fig. 07), with nine out of ten South Africans owning a mobile phone. Conversely, it was discovered that landline penetration equated to almost zero: “Landlines are simply rare on the continent. By contrast, 60% of Americans have a landline telephone in their household.” (Pew Research Center 2015) (Fig. 05 & 06)
|Fig.05 – Pew Research Center data on cell phone ownership in Africa (Pew Research Center. Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline | Pew Research Center. 15 April 2015. http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/04/15/cell-phones-in-africa-communication-lifeline/ (accessed May 17, 2016).||Fig.06 – Statistics indicating the prominence of mobile communication technology over traditional landlines in African countries. (Pew Research Center. Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline | Pew Research Center. 15 April 2015. http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/04/15/cell-phones-in-africa-communication-lifeline/ (accessed May 17, 2016).|
This data exposes the ubiquity of the mobile phone, and thus provides insight into the infrastructural sectors that should be carefully examined in order to support this rapid uptake of technology – that is, the investment and development in reliable telecommunications services related to cell use. Mobile phone usage can be a viable method of breaking infrastructural divides that are the legacy of colonial regimes; their ability to generate real-time data from the ground make it possible to understand the fluctuating “mood” of a city rapidly: the collective zeitgeist or “hive mind” that is generated in response to an event, in the form of trending topics and hashtags through social media services like Twitter. The next section of this paper will discuss the possibility of utilising this data – “Big Data” – in envisioning the urban landscape through a digital lens.
|Fig.07 – The most common activity on mobile phones in African countries is sending text messages. (Pew Research Center. Cell Phones in Africa: Communication Lifeline | Pew Research Center. 15 April 2015. http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/04/15/cell-phones-in-africa-communication-lifeline/ (accessed May 17, 2016).)|
Metadata and Big Data
As Andrew Hudson-Smith notes, 90 percent of data that exists today “has been created in the last two years alone.” (Hudson-Smith 2014) 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is generated daily, mostly through interactions on social networks, but also through “sensors used to gather climate information, […] purchase transaction records, and cell phone and GPS signals.” (Hudson-Smith 2014)
At the 2012 TED conference in Long Beach, California, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, demonstrated the dynamic systems his city had implemented – systems that had revolutionised the way the city was managed. His fourth “commandment of cities” is that “a city of the future has to use technology to be present.” (Paes 2012) The Operations Centre of Rio (Fig.08), a project done in collaboration with IBM, uses smart technology to enable city officials to manage critical infrastructure. It is a dedicated mission control room located within the city that utilises networked infrastructure to provide the current status of weather, traffic, and fleet management for waste collection trucks that are fitted with GPS trackers. The data can be remote-accessed by officials from anywhere on the planet, as was demonstrated live during Paes’ TED talk.
|Fig.08 – The Operations Centre of Rio (http://www.archdaily.com/576480/rem-koolhaas-asks-are-smart-cities-condemned-to-be-stupid/54878056e58ecec7950001ab-ibm-s-smart-city-co)|
The potential for Big Data – the mass of bytes generated through these myriad sensors and social networks – in understanding how a city operates is a critical factor in the Smart Cities narrative, and one area which can only be deployed best by the top-down corporates, the proponents of the marketing-driven Smart City label, such as IBM. These companies possess the requisite technologies to parse such large datasets, and deploy the specific systems that enable the collection of such data.
Metadata refers to the miscellaneous data attached to a file; in the example of social media, it would extend the dataset to include geolocation information, time stamps, language settings, and any associated links. This metadata, attached to the central data point (for example, a single tweet), can be analysed within a larger collection of similar data points, to understand the digital landscape of a particular area within a city (Fig.09). As Hudson-Smith notes:
The smog of digital data we are emitting is growing, so with text analysis and data increasingly being tagged with our location, we are rapidly moving towards the point where we can obtain a real time view of the city. (Hudson-Smith 2014)
|Fig.09 – Visualisation of Facebook check-ins in New York City during working hours over several days. https://www.facebook.com/notes/facebook-data-team/visualizing-activity-on-facebook/10150884743158859)|
In a similar project to the Operations Centre of Rio, the Greater London Authority (GLA), alongside the London Data Store, prepared a website called the CityDashboard (www.citydashboard.org). This project collates and simplifies numerous data points, including live feeds of traffic, air pollution levels, citywide energy demand, river flow, and the number of public buses in circulation. (Fig. 10) The feeds are refreshed every two seconds, and enable the public to view their city as a series of colourful graphics depicting crucial information that effectively amounts to the efficiency of its urban infrastructure.
|Fig.10 – London CityDashboard (By author / http://www.citydashboard.org)|
Alongside this public-facing data service, an iPad Wall was developed for the Mayor of London’s Policy Office by the GeoSpatial Data Analysis and Simulation project “TALISMAN” (Fig.11). Comprising twelve iPads, it enables policymakers to tap a screen and access the last 24 hours of data.
|Fig.11 – The TALISMAN project’s iPad Wall for the Mayor of London’s policy office (http://bigdata.blogweb.casa.ucl.ac.uk/2013/04/18/the-ipad-video-wall/)|
Such initiatives utilise Big Data to positively impact decision making in guiding the policymakers towards those areas of a city’s infrastructure that require immediate attention. Furthermore, data points relating to energy use, for example, can provide live usage patterns, enabling operators to more efficiently redirect and distribute flows across a network. Big Data can thus be harnessed to create a more environmentally-responsive, and thus sustainable, urban environment: effectively, a city that operates more organically, dynamically adjusting itself to the needs of its citizens.
However, a darker side to the Big Data narrative is its potential for the creation of a surveillance state. As evidenced in the 2013 leak of classified National Security Agency documents by data analyst Edward Snowden, the rise of terror threats has positioned policymakers into the defensive, using data collection on citizens as an answer to ensuring national security. However, this comes at the risk of an invasion of privacy, and leads into an extensive debate on the merits and detriments of citizen monitoring by the government. Data points made available through sensors on various infrastructure within a city, as well as social networks and the increasing proliferation of smart devices (household appliances that are connected to the Internet, the so-called “Internet of Things” (Hudson-Smith 2014)) presents myriad new opportunities for data mining. These data points can create patterns of use that can not only provide the valuable data required for guiding policy in city planning (a positive attribute of the digital city), but can also be used as a weapon in controlling citizens – an aspect that goes against the very utopian idealism that the Smart City has been built upon. Snowden remarks in the 2014 documentary Citizenfour, “We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind.” (Snowden, Greenwald and Binney 2014)
There is no doubt that Big Data is the next frontier in the push for smarter cities. It represents the next logical step in the technological evolution that is enabled by the large corporations that inspired the Smart City notion initially. However, like the need for a humanist-centric agency in shifting the thinking around the Smart City idea, it is necessary for both policymakers and developers of the technologies enabling Big Data collection to adopt a critical approach to these systems. They need to understand the ramifications of these devices if incorrectly conceived, deployed or utilised, in undermining the fundamental constitutional rights of the citizens whose lives they are ultimately aiming to improve. Likewise, the design professionals (especially those shaping urban environments, including planners and architects) need to become better versed in this new technologically-driven approach. The discourse cannot be one-sided (either technologically-driven or humanist and urbanist driven). Designers need to understand the potentials these connected technologies have. Big Data need not only be used in determining policy decisions; designers can tap into this network and harness the information to prepare design solutions that better reflect the zeitgeist.
The notion of a Smart City often gives rise to images of highly technological, digital urban landscapes, visions not unlike those from science fiction films. This is in part due to the language used in selling this concept to the mayors of developing cities: a neatly-packaged product that seeks to solve the economic situation of a city in a single move. However, the discourse around such initiatives is far more nuanced, and requires a deeper, critical analysis to better understand both the impacts that a Smart City intervention can have on the existing social fabric, and the possibilities that this type of thinking can lead to, especially with regards to addressing the sociotechnical aspect of a city’s infrastructure.
By transcending the technological realm, and applying a humanist approach that is directly engaged with the actual needs of its denizens, a city can truly become “smart”. Advents in computer science and engineering are enabling new kinds of networks requiring new types of infrastructure to support them. These invisible networks are creating significant impacts on citizens, allowing them to connect with the built fabric of their cities in a manner that brings to life the abstract idea of the sociotechnical: a direct relationship between human and infrastructural technology. Through Big Data mining, city management and design professionals have the potential to understand the mood of a city and its issues with infrastructure in real-time.
The most direct method in bringing the humanist agency to this discourse is through an engagement with design professionals that have a vested interest in the built environment: architects, planners and urban designers. Their spatial knowledge and theoretical background on urban complexities can lend a much-needed, design-centred voice to Smart City visioning.
The Smart City narrative can take on a more meaningful dimension, and represent a paradigmatic shift in contemplating the contemporary metropolis, when it transcends its technological agenda and adopts a human-centric approach that is driven by the needs of the citizens it seeks to serve.
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Paes, Eduardo. “The 4 commandments of cities.” TED2012 TED Talk. Video. Long Beach, California, 29 February 2012.
Citizenfour. Documentary. Directed by Laura Poitras. Performed by Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and William Binney. 2014.
©2016 Rahul Dowlath. For republication, please contact me.