When concepts are repeated too many times, they lose their meaning, eroding that close connection between signifier and signified. When a concept is presented as a magical answer to a problem, it tends to inspire skepticism and distrust. When we offer solutions without understanding the problem, we will probably be wrong.
At a time when everything has become ‘smart’ – homes, cars, phones… “even people”, as one professor quips – smart cities sound more like a smokescreen that threatens to obscure the real problems they face actual cities. A bit like a “pyrolytic oven”, which, yes, is an attractive concept that sounds good, but you’re never quite sure what it means, even after you Google it.
Analyzing cities is complicated. Very complicated, actually. Cities are a collection of people, ideas, social interactions, businesses, economies, cars, smoke, noise, lives. Urban processes are difficult to understand, and we always, always have lingering questions and unexplained nuances, and thus, many unanswered questions (even if we have some certainties).
Moreover, cities have the great virtue of concentrating problems, so it is not uncommon for quasi-magical solutions to spread, or to hear answers to questions that, in reality, we have not even managed to formulate or pose in adequately. Partly for this reason, the smart city is still a somewhat nebulous concept, tasteless, almost, like a kind of half-sentence missing a verb. To some extent, the smart city has become one of those empty, tautological concepts that define themselves, refer to themselves, etc. in infinity (“a smart city is a city that offers intelligent solutions to its inhabitants”). Decorated, of course, with smart algorithms and energy-saving smart LED lights.
Smart cities sound futuristic, far from our everyday life, but always efficient (whatever that nebulous term, efficiency, means). Even for those of us who weren’t alive in 1962 and have no idea what Hanna-Barbera was, it sounds a bit like a setting from The Jetsons. A bit like the town of Springfield extolling the virtues of a railroad in The Simpsons.
Perhaps, part of the dissatisfaction with the concept has to do with expectations and a certain tendency for us as a society to propose solutions without properly analyzing and diagnosing the problems they are supposed to address. The smart city was supposed to be the innovative city, the one that relied on information, communication technologies and other technological tools to improve the quality of people’s lives, the efficiency of services and the competitiveness of societies. But it turns out that we live in unlivable cities, cities dominated by traffic jams, honest cities, cities that push people out and lack accessible space.
The question, of course, is whether a city that discriminates or expels its inhabitants can ever be truly intelligent. How can a city that ignores the social be intelligent? Can a city that separates itself be intelligent? What about a city that discriminates or lacks physical access? Then, to go a step further: Do dumb cities exist? Do stupid cities exist?
The point is that cities, in addition to accumulating their own problems, do not cease to manifest the problems of the society to which they respond. For this reason, smart cities cannot be the magic, all-powerful solutions that will make inequality, traffic jams, pollution and your neighbor who wakes you up every night at 3 in the morning disappear. The smart city is a tool that, at best, can help us solve some of the problems that characterize today’s existing cities. If they do it within an efficiency framework and provide us with tools for evaluating solutions and problems, even better.
But just as artificial intelligence (another great promise) has its light and dark sides, no matter how many algorithms and sensors we install, we will have to rethink what kind of society we want to live in, how we deal with problems, how making cities livable and how to develop appropriate public policies. Only then will we be able to rely on all the advanced technological tools at our disposal – to rely on computer science and, if necessary and useful, on the science of pyrolytic furnaces.
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