Is the Smart City a Good City?

Vasilis Kostakis
Feb 13 · 6 min read

By Wolfgang Drechsler and Vasilis Kostakis

Someone is looking at the city through a magnifying glass
Someone is looking at the city through a magnifying glass
Photo by Maurício Mascaro from Pexels

All our cities have to become, or have already become, smart cities; this is the consensus today. Nevertheless, what is a “smart city”? If one does not know the discourse, one might think that smart city means smart in the sense of “intelligent”, perhaps even of intelligent citizens. However, this is not what smart cities are. Smart city actually means the information technology (IT) city. The smart city uses IT to enhance the quality and performance of urban services, to reduce some costs and resource consumption, and — at least theoretically — to engage more effectively and actively with the citizens. Additionally, as human life gravitates towards the cities, “smart city” has become an umbrella term for life during the IT techno-economic paradigm generally.

But when is the smart city a good city? Asking this is already a provocation, as smartness is tacitly assumed to imply goodness. And if important things are not discussed, this is either because people don’t care or because this is to hush something up. As Manuel Castells has argued about the IT Age generally, the cui bono? question must always be asked first. For example, if we look at the similar case of “free” social media, the first question we should ask is who is actually making money from this? Who is getting power from this? And it’s not the users.

Then, who is profiting from the smart city? We argue that what motivates people to implement the smart city are four:

· profit — to make money;

· power — to dominate;

· techiness — because there are people who do stuff because they can; and,

· branding — that means to position oneself in a modern-looking way.

(There are of course those who actually want to improve the citizens’ lives, but among the creators of actual smart cities, they seem to be few and far between. Study smart city promo-literature and try to find one where citizens are really part of the decision-making process, rather than more objects than subjects, let alone where they originally pushed for “smartness” — good luck!)

Looking at this matrix, we can recognize three ideal types of people who are pushing smart-city solutions in the world: The politician, the businessperson (including consultants), and the engineer. This means that a third member now joins the classical team of potential exploiters for power and money, less greedy but not less dangerous. But why is being governed by engineers a problem, rather than an answer?

It is true that large-scale IT solutions can help improve traffic, the environment, or health issues. However, for what price? Kant says that freedom actually means also freedom from goals, which you are not told how to get happy, but you as a citizen decide how you are happy. If the experts tell you how you have to behave in order to be happy, we are already away from liberal society — and the liberal constitutional state as well. If we had an explicit, consensual concept of happiness, such as Bhutan, that might be all right. However, regarding smart cities, people who surely have not asked anyone vaguely imply happiness and goodness, but this is rarely seriously addressed.

For instance, if we drive an “autonomous” car, the car drives for us, because the system knows better how the driving should be done. But we might not want that, we might not want to be told even if it is better. Maybe we want to drive our cars and stand in the traffic jam, rather than being driven all the time. The engineers do not understand this at all because they are always behind the keyboard. That means, they are never served the solution, because they are part of the coding. They are always in the driver’s seat, literally. That is why engineers in politics hardly ever understand this freedom dimension, because for them it is actually there, but for all the non-engineers, it is not.

There are highly complex issues among various groups, identities, interests that are actually not solvable by technology. However, from the engineering perspective, everything is. Ideal-type engineers are therefore solutionists. They really think that at the root of any social problem, there is just a missing app. Democracy is a conscious decision against expert rule, but engineering rule is expert rule — and as Ben Green has recently outlined, rule by experts whose understanding of what is good and what is not is essentially non-deep, even if they earnestly try.

This is not just an issue of the level of convenience. In its self-logic, the smart city seeks total control. It takes up human desire for stability, which is primordial. As Arnold Gehlen says, we humans as animals do not have a stable, safe environment and so we have always tried, as a species, to create one — by magic or by science, which have the same goal. That is why the state always tries to give stability rather than foster change — Max Weber’s point. The danger is, and that is now happening on a technologically unprecedented scale and therefore quality, that this subjugates creativity, diversity, individualism as a price well worth paying. Do we want to pay this price? Or would we rather stay a little bit less safe and a little bit more creative? Were we asked?

Singapore is one of the most successful, by delivery probably the most successful, country of our time. The Singaporean government policy assures stability at all costs and in a way that is perhaps not undemocratic, but certainly different from what most people understand by this concept. Singapore is also the global leader in smartcitiness. Now even Singapore moves into asking people (if not necessarily listening to them), but is even this the norm for smart cities?

We are not being asked. We therefore suggest four actions of ‘resistance’ against smart city control takeover to mirror the implementers, actions that do not stop IT transformation but try to bend it towards goodness:

· “Code”. In our time, if you do not code, coders will dominate you; this is about getting into the driver’s seat.

· “Talk”. There is no substitute for discourse about what we mean by the good city, and to make sure engineers obey.

· “Make”. Makerspaces, fablabs, open hardware initiatives and so on give real people real spaces to genuinely co-produce and not only be administered.

· “Pray”. Look and imbibe ways of valuing that are outside of the cold, grey glow of efficiency, effectiveness, numbers, and indicators that disenfranchise the citizen.

Smart cities and their protagonists are strong, and their incentives are high; the cards are stacked in their favor, including the self-logic of technological development. Nevertheless, creative resistance is not futile, as there are strong tail-winds blowing with people and earth, of dignity and inclusion. As Kant, again, says, pessimism is only allowed if you are certain that you will lose, and this is not the case here. The good life in the good city is, as Aristotle says, what we are here for, but nobody ever said this would be easy to accomplish. Therefore, off we go to make sure that the smart city, which will come, will be good also.

Wolfgang Drechsler is Associate and member of the advisory board at the Davis Center at Harvard; he is also Professor of Governance at Tallinn University of Technology and Honorary Professor of University College London.

Vasilis Kostakis is Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard; he is also Professor of P2P Governance at Tallinn University of Technology.

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

Vasilis Kostakis

Written by

Faculty Associate @BerkmanKleinCenter; Professor @TalTech; Founder of the P2P Lab

Berkman Klein Center Collection

Insights from the Berkman Klein community about how technology affects our lives (Opinions expressed reflect the beliefs of individual authors and not the Berkman Klein Center as an institution.)

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