Opening up smart cities: A report on the Smart City Expo World Congress

A couple of weeks ago I attended the Web Summit in Dublin, a large, tech entrepreneur event (my observations on the event are posted here).  This week I spent three days at the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona, another event that considered how technology is being used to reshape social and economic life, but which had a very different vibe, a much more mixed constituency of exhibitors and speakers (a mix of tech companies, consultants, city administrations/officials, politicians, NGOs, and academics; over 400 cities sent representatives and 240 companies were present, and there were over 10,000 attendees), and for the most part had a much more tempered discourse.  We presented our work on the Dublin Dashboard and the use of indicators in knowing and governing cities, attended the congress (keynote talks, plenary panels, and parallel paper sessions) and toured round the expo (a trade fair made up mostly of company and city stands).  I thought it would be useful to share my observations with respect to the event and in particular some of the absences.

Whilst I’m pretty familiar with the academic literature, trade journal and newspaper coverage, and marketing material concerning smart cities, as well as many of the technologies being deployed, and I have spoken to a number of people in city administrations and companies working in the smart city domain, this was my first smart city expo and thus to see a chunk of the smart city institutional assemblage en masse.  And although I’m aware that the framing of smart cities has been shifting in response to the critique of its initial, overly tech-led technocratic vision, one of my fears before attending was that expo would be dominated by tech companies and a corporate-led solutionist discourse about the need to create smart cities, their form, and their operation (especially after the largely singular perspective (tech entrepreneurs and corporate executives), gung-ho techno-utopian, tech solutionism of the Web Summit).

Whilst this was in evidence, it was very much accompanied by or refracted through more citizen-focused, social development, and city administration lens, with several sessions devoted to exploring these ideas and them appearing repeatedly in other sessions.  Indeed, many of the people I spoke to commented on the rebalancing in the discourse, which was reflected in the widespread use of prefix ‘open’.  Across the talks and panels I attended the sentiment of openness — open data, open access, open source, open platform, open participation, open government — was evoked to project a different vision of the smart city.  This vision is more reliant on collaboration and participation, rather than closed, propriety systems and top-down management and governance.  It seeks to be more transparent and inclusive, and less technocratic.  It enables city offices and companies to share data, information, knowledge, software, hardware, and infrastructure and to innovate off of common, flexible platforms.  A related theme was standards and standardisation; a need to agree standards that would allow interoperability and comparison across open systems and provide certainty in technical specifications to smart city developers and cities.

This, I think, is a very positive transition helping to ameliorate more technocratic and corporatised versions of smart city thinking.  Nonetheless, this vision of the open smart city, whilst somewhat different in terms of how city governance is enacted and central technologies configured, still largely adhered to the core political economy of the initial vision of smart cities — that of neoliberalism, with states becoming smaller and increasingly reliant on companies, privatisation, and financialization to deliver core services, those state elements that remain being configured and managed through business practices, and an emphasis being placed on market-led regulation and open economies.  The route to sustainability, resilience, smartness is through the free market and capitalist economic development of a certain kind.  Openness aligns with such a view rather than destabilising it because it exposes the value of government data to the market and alters the relations between companies, enabling collaboration and growth, without necessarily changing their ambitions, profit-making ethos, and desire to enact a particular form of political economy.  The notion that more socially democratic ideals, or ideas such as degrowth, might be smart policies still seem rarely part of the agenda.

The observation here is about the framing of smart city policy and development, rather than the utility of smart technologies per se.  Clearly, many of the technologies at the Expo would be beneficial to cities, creating all kinds of efficiencies, increasing productivity, aiding governance, facilitating business, providing better services, and so on.  The issue is not the use of technology in managing cities, but how they are framed and deployed, and who benefits and at whose expense.  In other words, it is important to note that smart city technologies can be imagined and implemented within different political economy frameworks.  Indeed, given the varieties of capitalism and political systems around the world the creation of smart cities will take place in a variety of ways in different settings.  Yet such alternative political economic framings and how they would inflect smart city development were largely absent at the expo, with the neoliberal discourse softened by a turn to openness that is useful and valuable, but does not fundamentally alter the deep structure of the political economy at play.

There were three other notable absences.  The first, as with the Web Summit, was deep critical reflection.  Many of papers and much of the discussion were thinly disguised ads and armchair observations/assertions, lacking in deep empirical evidence and systematic and reasoned argument.  This is perhaps not surprising given the vast majority of speakers were from companies and city administrators, but it did mean that much of what was said was quite shallow and often just cheerleading.  In contrast, I think it would a very positive move to encourage speakers to be more critical in their analysis and to acknowledge the contested terrain in which they are operating.  It would also be useful to add alternative positions, in-depth critique, and dissenting voices into the programme that would provide helpful counterpoints that confront conventional views and encourage vendors and cities to think through challenging political and technical issues and to consider more deeply the processes and implications of creating smart cities.  Whilst it can be comfortable and reassuring to have a lot of like-minded people at an event, it can be more productive to have a mix of opinions.

The second was the total absence of historical context, with smart city rhetoric seemingly annihilating the temporal register.  It would be entirely possible to attend the event and to think that (1) cities up until now have been planned and governed in an ad hoc way and that there hasn’t been any systematic urban policy development of which smart cities is just the latest incarnation; (2) the relationship between technology and cities started just a handful of years ago, and that the huge growth in cities taking place at present is a new phenomena.

With respect to point one, an extensive set of urban policies and rules have been created and used to direct city developments since people first started to live  in urban settlements.  Smart city initiatives are simply the next policy framework in a long line of them.  Indeed, the notion of the smart city is rooted in earlier rounds of urban visioning centred on technology (e.g., tech cities, digital cities, cyber-cities, knowledge cities, innovation cities, intelligent cities, eco-cities), but also a series of neoliberal city visions developed over the past thirty years including entrepreneurial cities, competitive cities, innovative cities, sustainable cities, and creative cities.  These precedents were curiously silent in the papers and discussion, as if smart city initiatives have sprung from nowhere.  Similarly, in the exhibition area, many of the technologies on offer have actually been around for while, but have been repurposed under the smart city badge in the hope of leveraging new markets (for example, GIS, command and control centres, software-enabled elevators).

With respect to point two, technology has long driven changes in city development through waves of key technological innovations in industry, transport, communications, etc.  And these changes have been expressed and enacted through city movements, whether that be public hygiene and public infrastructure campaigns in the nineteenth century, architectural and new town movements in the twentieth century, or smart city initiatives in the twenty first century.  Indeed, it would be interesting, as David Wood suggested to me in Barcelona, to compare events such as the New York World Fair of 1964, which was heavily focused on creating better cities through digital technology, with the Smart City Expo.  Moreover, whilst city populations are exploding at present in some places (with the exception of those that are shrinking, of course, like forty percent of cities in the EU and many cities in North America), largely through rural to urban migration, this is by no means a new phenomenon, but part of a much longer term trend that cities have been coping with through planning and development policy.

Rather than simply looking at the present and projecting forward, I think that this history needs to be opened up, recognized, mined for insights and lessons, and incorporated into the narrative of smart cities.

Finally, there was little discussion, except for small pockets, around the ethical and political issues related to smart city technologies, such as surveillance, privacy, profiling and social sorting, anticipatory governance, control creep, system and data security, social values, liabilities, financialization, the politics of urban data, widening inequalities, land dispossessions, and the extent to which smart cities might be buggy, brittle and hackable, as myself, Anthony Townsend, Ayona Datta, Adam Greenfield, and others have argued.  Critics of the smart city concept are right, in my view, to be concerned about these issues.  So should those advocating smart city developments and technologies if for no other reason than they are bad for business and undermine trust.  In my view the Expo needs to do more to explore such issues in detail and to consider how to address them in socially progressive ways in the same way as it has started to do with citizen engagement and social development.

Overall, despite my reservations about the smart city concept as presently conceived (despite it transforming somewhat; as is hopefully clear, I am not against the use of many of the smart city technologies on offer, which I think will be to the benefit of city managers and citizens, but rather have concerns over their framing, implementation and deployment, and secondary uses on associated data), if you are interested in smart cities and the potential transformative effect of digital technologies on city life and governance, then the Smart City Expo World Congress is well worth a visit.  The exhibition area was very good, with interesting demos and friendly, informative staff.  The congress gave a good idea of how cities and companies are thinking about smart cities though, as I’ve argued above, I think it could be improved by incorporating a more critical edge and historical and political context.

2 thoughts on “Opening up smart cities: A report on the Smart City Expo World Congress

  1. Simon Giles

    Great summary…thanks for taking the time to write this. It seems like a very fair response. If you have the time and inclination please check out the video of my presentation in SC-05 on Wednesday afternoon in room 4…some technologists are offering a self-critical critique.

  2. Rob Kitchin Post author

    Simon, thanks for the comment. Yes, some technologists do – and many more do privately. A shame more won’t do openly as it will actually help push things forward in a more progressive way. I don’t think any of this year’s videos is yet up on the SmartCityExpo YouTube channel, but I will check it out your session when it does appear. Rob

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