Diluting Citizenship. A first approach to the Smart City concept

The vignettes of the Coca-Cola 3D Billboard and the WIFI kiosks are sharing some common elements, besides the obvious point that they can be traced in the Times Square of my piece of research. Those elements can be gathered into a context of “experimentation in urban places.” (Gieryn, 2006Karvonen & van Heur, 2014Silver & Marvin, 2016) This particular conception of experimenting in either “cities” or “urban locations” is nowadays a global trend, presented sometimes in the shape of “smart city,” and that involves many different actors, conceptions, capitals, and processes. 

A smart city is an ambiguous term. It could be either a specific project that aims to start a technological-based program in an urban area or the urban area itself where the program is currently working. For instance, the implementation of the free-WIFI kiosks in New York is an example of a smart city initiative. Consequently, New York is becoming a prototype of a smart city due to the development of those kinds of programs in its territory. 

Anyways, whatever it is, “smart city” is a catchy and attractive concept that sells. Who can say “no” to the promise of being and living smarter? This positive-utopian idea is offering us a new way of living together in an apparently technological and smarter way. Across the world, many corporations have been developing smart city programs in different scenarios such as transportation, communication, healthcare, and urbanism. Local Governments and citizens are also participating in the conceptualization and elaboration of those kinds of initiatives. 

Living smart seems to be the obvious next step in our development as a society. The implementation of technological infrastructures for making our life easier (LinkNYC) or spectacular (3D Billboard) are the supposed reasons why we go through this route. And despite it gives the impression that both projects are only related in a spatial way, there are other two similarities I would like to present in a speculative way, as a sort of research lines for the next field explorations

I know that the Coca-Cola sign could not be categorized as a “smart city” strategy into the mainstream definition of what a “smart city is. This situation is due to the robotic 3D Screenwas not conceived as a mechanism neither for solving problems affecting a specific community, nor for making their life easier. Nevertheless, the billboard is using an innovative technology that was the result of experimenting with materials, shapes, and digital structures with the aim of impacting a particular urban public place. 

The usage of a 24-7 multimedia device for showing advertisements is the first shared point those projects have in common. Smart cities are expensive initiatives that need to be financed by someone and displaying ads seems to solve a big part of this issue. The development of this new kind of urban landscape is turning into an intersection of public policies and commercial interest. Corporations are financing smart projects if those are fitting in their objectives. In other words, if they are profitable.

In the smart city model, the notion of the citizen is displaced by the figure of the user. The citizen-focused ideal of living smarter turns into instrumental discourses (Cardullo & Kitchin, 2018) where the user is both a consumer and a product. This is, thus, the second and last common shared point between LinkNYC and the 3D Billboard. A public- profitable initiative sponsored by a third-party (an interesting category for rethinking Times Square) needs a specific kind of fuel for working: users’ data. Questions like how many people are crossing daily through the Square, what are the habits of the users of the free-WIFI, who are those users and what are they doing with their phones, turn into valuable pieces of information.

Ari Buchalter, CEO at Intersection —one of the companies participating in CityBridge— summarized this point in a clear way in an interview for Adage:“Consumers spend 70 percent of their time outside their home where they work, play and shop, and those journeys are where consumers are forming opinions, making decisions and buying products.” (…) “A smart city can funnel data to points of interaction to screens for marketers to use data to make everything more relevant.”

But users’ data are not only interesting for marketing activities. They are also fundamental for a  supposed big-data strategy based on algorithmic-governance and surveillance. It is “a supposed one” because despite there are the possibility and the infrastructures for monitoring people and objects through the implementation of smart strategies in urban places proving that, in an empiric way, is a complex* work to do. 

As a way of summing up this first approach, to talk about smart cities is an ambiguous and problematic exercise. This situation starts with the usage of “smart” (Thompson, 2016Gil-Garcia, Pardo & Nam, 2015) as a concept for describing those kinds of projects, place, and implementations. Also, the imaginaries, discourses, and theorizations around what is a “smart city” are oscillating between the most optimistic sociotechnical points of view and the critic approaches that consider those projects either unnecessaries or risky for the citizens. 

*Take a look at The Intercept reports regarding this topic. One is about a Google’s smart city proposals in Toronto and the last one is about LinkNYC.