Bruce Sterling's scathing editorial in The Atlantic on the future of "Smart Cities" uses London's many smart city initiatives as a kind of measuring stick for the janky and dysfunctional future of civic automation: a city that throws great smart city conferences while its actual infrastructure is a mess of "empty skyscrapers, creepy CCTV videocams, and sewers plugged with animal fat" that require decades of planning an attention to cope with — significantly beyond the attention spans of any of the tech giants vying to be the smart city providers of the future.
Basically, his point is that under capitalism, denial, surveillance and social control have major, profitable stakeholders who game the outcomes, so it doesn't matter if you're using sensors to detect pollution because hydrocarbon barons will refuse to allow anything to be done about it; it doesn't matter if you're sensing privation and civic unrest, because smart cities run by people with a stake in inequality will use their sensing networks to neutralize opposition and arrest its leaders — not apportion redistributive programs.
But what Bruce doesn't say is that sensing and actuating are the necessary (but insufficient) conditions for solving these problems: you can't do anything about pollution unless you can measure it. Measuring it doesn't mean you'll do something about it, but unless you measure it, you can't do something about it.
However, the cities of the future won't be "smart," or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won't have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.
Whenever that's done right, it will increase the soft power of the more alert and ambitious towns and make the mayors look more electable. When it's done wrong, it'll much resemble the ragged downsides of the previous waves of urban innovation, such as railways, electrification, freeways, and oil pipelines. There will also be a host of boozy side effects and toxic blowback that even the wisest urban planner could never possibly expect.
Stop Saying 'Smart Cities' [Bruce Sterling/The Atlantic]
(Image: Diliff, CC-BY-SA)
(via Beyond the Beyond)