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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 23, June 3, 2023

The Smart City: Some Critical Perspectives | Alruba Sheikh

Friday 2 June 2023


by Alruba Sheikh*

Abstract: Amidst the contemporary discussions on contestations of the idea, development and execution of the smart city projects, this paper highlights some key issues regarding the question of how transforming city spaces and increased technology interventions critically affect the urban life of city dwellers within the discourse of power, governance, capitalism and economy.

Keywords: Smart Cities, Technology, Urban Life.

The advocates of contemporary Smart Cities have defined ‘Smart Cities’, as Mosco, the most critical of the media scholars has pointed out, as “an urban area that adopts scalable solutions that take advantage of information and communications technology (ICT) to increase efficiencies, reduce costs and enhance quality of life” [1]. The construction of such cities has acquired the shape of a movement and significantly seems to be a part of the increasing embeddedness of technology in all facets of our lives. In turn, the idea and the Smart Cities Movement has also attracted serious criticism. The present paper tries to represent some of the critical views on Smart cities as have been expressed by those who have seen the close interlink of such cities with new digital technologies providing some of the most critical infrastructure to the new ideas of the cities.

I: Idea of Smart Cities from a Critical Lens

Adam Greenfield in his critique of Smart cities traces the evolution of these projects from the small urban development projects of “Korean New Songdo, Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates, and a curious settlement in Portugal called PlanIT Valley” that ensure designing of urban environments with information processing capabilities into structures, objects and interactions that comprise public’s daily lives. [2]. The constant efforts to turn public spaces in cities into what contemporary urban planners call ‘smart’ with the installation of smart solutions, the Next Internet, surveillance and monitoring centers through huge investments of global and national capital, the debate on political economy of media, technology and communication have become more important for those who wish to critically understand the larger dynamics of economy, society and the conditions of life in contemporary times. In recent years media scholars like Mosco, Rossi and Greenfield in their overall critique of the media and other technologies have brought to us critical social science perspective to understand and analyze the nature of technological intervention in such efforts as well as their larger political economic dimensions. An overall impact of the increasing intervention has led to transformation of these cities and their spaces into non-inclusive, non-participatory and open but “segmented, exclusive, centralized and hierarchic. To speak of the network society is an ideological construct that obscures capitalist relations and structural inequalities that shape contemporary society.” [3]

There are a few scholars of communication who have been able to look at the emerging political economy of media and critique of smart city projects in a manner as penetrative as Vincent Mosco. Greenfield, for instance, calling smart cities as canonical cities for their rigid designs and principles, highlights the exclusion of the very dynamics of urban life. He believes the smart city projects as merely a way of making cityscapes look aesthetic enough so much so that he analogizes them as the homepage of a website or a brochure for their lack of consideration of urbanity in its true essence that majorly includes people or the city dwellers. Interestingly, he asserts,

We’ve seen that they tend to be designed and marketed like consumer products, and, like any such product, have been crafted to appeal to a certain segment of the audience. [2]

Vincent Mosco, with ‘To The Cloud: Big Data in Turbulent World’ (2014), ‘Becoming Digital: Toward a Post-Internet Society’(2017) and now ‘Smart City in a Digital World’ ( 2019), has brought to the fore the very nature of capitalism in the 21st century to us- its deeply implicated technological nature which permeates the lives of almost everyone who inhabits the system and more so in the spaces wherein capitalism is transforming as ‘smart cities’ with the help, of more than anything, the media technologies of all hues. ‘Smart Cities’ therefore, for Mosco, are now synonymous with the new face of capitalism. Not to allow us to forget the consequences, he immediately reminds us that this has also meant, public surveillance, intrusion of citizen privacy, minimizing the exercise of democracy and finally hastening “the coming of catastrophic climate change” [1]. He, however, also produces a manifesto for the smart city he considers ideal, progressive and citizen-oriented through a careful discussion of the newly established smart cities or are converted from old to new ones.

A strong inextricable interlink between city and capitalism has been laid down by Ugo Rossi in his book ‘Cities in Global Capitalism’ (2017) wherein he elaborates how cities have become a central site of production and distribution of finance, capital and business resources with multiplicity of sectors like consumer markets, real estate and mortgage businesses, e-commerce and trade, as well as knowledge-based capitalist processes with the widespread growth of communication and information technology systems. He highlights the increasing phenomenon of financialization that hegemonizes urban lives and vests complete power to the owners of financial capital which turns “city residents simultaneously into exploited, over-indebted entities and into potentially entrepreneurial subjects.” [4]

II: The Smart City and the Embeddedness of Technology 

The first few definitions of smart cities are directed towards a technological perspective. In his book Smart City in a Digital World, Vincent Mosco, for example, indicated how the whole idea of the Smart City now depends on technology. This for him has implications for governance, the nature of democracy and individual and collective lives in such cities. Taking examples and case studies from across the world, he shows us how the critical technological infrastructure, i.e. the Internet of Things, big data analytics and cloud computing, etc., constitutes the core of such cities [1].

Adopting the political economy approach, quite rare in the study of Media Studies, he brings to the center the discussion on the social and power relations involved in the transformation and construction of smart cities considering notwithstanding the declared nature of its governance, public-private partnership etc. Here, Mosco distinctly highlights how the big technology firms possess power over citizens by gathering citizen data and transforming the spaces with a primary aim of rapid distribution and production of resources to expand their profit margins. As comprehended in his book ‘Political Economy of Communication’ (2009), big profit-making companies especially transnational business firms ensure expansion of such spaces that are transformed into information technology centers, entertainment and communication centers to enhance control over people’s activities and create hierarchies of power. Mosco believes globalization too is a huge part of this process as he asserts:

The myth of globalization submerges these unpleasant realities beneath utopian visions of a flat world, a network society, and, most utopian of all, the end of geography [3].

The same idea can be associated with the concept of smart cities especially when the public is deliberately distanced from the urban planning designs altogether. This is highlighted in Mosco’s further discussions and critique of government and corporate controlled projects in different countries, i.e., Singapore, China and India. There are however cases which gives us some hope and scholars have brought of the fore these cases also.

How much scope the smart cities allow for citizen participation too is a question that has been troubling scholars. It has been highlighted in the recent works that the technology based definitions which proclaim data and technology as sole determinants of a smart city in fact impedes rather than expands such activities. Mosco, for example, fears that smart city development may help those who don’t need it, making the approach of its implementation an exclusive one. He writes:

Upgrading transportation networks, automating bin collection, installing intelligent traffic controls and creating 5G wireless networks can be useful and can make the city more efficient. But people with disabilities are not likely to care about pop-up stores and smart buses if they are not made accessible and if they do not provide the space for their mobility equipment [1].

On the other hand, Picon summarizes the definition of smart city away from the technological determinist view and defines it as “a city whose digital tools allow the optimization of its functioning and sustainability, as well as of its inhabitants’ quality of life and the types of relationships they can maintain with one another” [5]. But this definition is more towards the ideal smart city that is contrasted from the contemporary constructed smart city. Simultaneously, Picon also refers to the intensified technological city that he calls, “Cyborg city” which integrates “a collection of hybrids formed on different scales by the association of human groups and technical devices.” This, as he critiques, has led to the monitoring of every individual’s daily even the minutest activities for purposes like tolls, congestion charges, penalties, policy implementation and security.

III: Government controlled, Private and Alternative to ‘Smart City’ 

Smart cities change the spatial and temporal relations of an area to hyper-mobile zones since these zones are interconnected that influence public spaces and manage temporalities. Certain tech involved smart city developers like Siemens refer to turning cities into computer machines or smartphones with accessible smart solutions through sensors, network and connectivity. Smart technologies like Internet of Things (a system that installs sensors and processing devices into everyday physical objects and living organisms, including people. For the city, it means embedding monitoring and data-gathering technology into roads, sidewalks, buildings, streets and their lighting, as well as throughout homes, schools and workplaces), cloud computing (Data centers that comprise “a system for storing, processing and distributing data, applications, and software using remote computers that provide digital services on demand for a fee”), big data analytics (Big data analytics processes vast new stores of data and makes sense of it all by producing algorithms or rules that specify conclusions to be drawn, or actions to be taken, under specific conditions) , smart solutions and centralized monitoring involved in the urban design of smart cities. Mosco lists the smart solutions by expanding on the case study of New York and its newly built Silicon Alley and Sidewalk Labs, a system that....

serves as a laboratory and a gateway for expanded smart city systems, such as connected street lighting, smart utility meters, traffic-monitoring networks, connected cameras and the installation of 5G wireless services. [1]

All of these have required vastly altered structures and principles of governance. There are for example cities in Singapore which are Government or rather the state controlled projects. It involves, as has been shown, government controlled urban designing and centralized monitoring with establishment of centralized operation centers to manage the data gathered from citizens. Such programs have been criticized for its extensive surveillance over private daily lives of the public. This data is also shared with the private corporations for commercial purposes and economic development. These problems of 5.6 million population gets magnified with 1.4 billion population of China further enlarging the smart city governance demerits. Shanghai for example with its Citizen Cloud, a mobile app with a cloud based platform providing access to a number of public services “including health care records, drivers’ license applications and renewals, and additional community programmes”, retrieves citizens’ data for monitoring and provision of efficient services [1]. China is also now becoming one of the pioneering countries for construction of entirely new smart cities like Xiong’an New Area with a commitment of a green and smart urban area, while keeping in mind preservation of its cultural heritage through archaeological parks and museums and creation of a low carbon economy. Mosco constantly hints at the failure of such overambitious visions of creating a balance of green and smart cities without the catastrophic impact on climate change.

With the increasing software engineering and information technology sector in India, the author provides another case study of government-directed smart city projects. But the approach here has entirely been different since it requires a selection process involving the state governments and municipal corporations. A city like Bhopal that had witnessed the most dangerous industrial calamity has again partnered with Western tech companies for application of Next Internet systems despite the contesting views of the residents. Low income areas were pursued evicting hundreds of residents and residential colonies with schools were demolished to build new smart technologically rich neighbourhoods. The smart city projects are claimed to be clearly disregarding the lower income groups, with insufficient sustainable planning and inclusivity, therefore benefiting only the upper strata of the society. Given the digital divide of a country like India, moving to IT-rich neighborhoods can only be afforded by the higher income groups augmenting India’s already existing problems of social inequality. The green spaces of the country are being sacrificed for the technological spaces affecting the already existing environmental problems. The author cites evidence from cities like Shimla, Bengaluru and Delhi to showcase the adverse environmental effects of the project with the cutting of more than thousand trees, lake fires, debris dumping and water shortages. The so-called citizen involvement in the smart city planning is also minimal since no locals are consulted for the same. Most of the indigenous groups and low income groups have no idea of what a smart city is or which project is ongoing for the transformation of the country’s urban areas.

There have also been private and more so corporate initiatives in this domain. The private sector directed projects like Disney governing Epcot, Amazon over Seattle, a big city turned into a big lab for Amazon’s commercial purposes, have also been recently highlighted.

Other megacity projects like NEOM of Saudi Arabia, Willow Village by Facebook, YarraBend of Tesla, city near Nevada by BlockChains LLC, are all futuristic and ambitious with their own specific problems of implementation. While private sector is believed to have been better at managing the previously government owned sectors for the challenges of bureaucracy, it is still to be blamed for the situations of high wealth and income inequalities and pose a threat of turning cities into what Mosco calls, “corporate profit centers” [1].

There have also been instances in recent years of smart cities which have acquired alternative meaning and structure. In the Barcelona city project, the governance of smart city projects moves beyond government or private sector direction and focuses on citizen participation and democratic governance. The primary emphasis for the mayor of Barcelona has been the benefit of the citizens through affordable housing, regulation imposition on rental companies like Airbnb, enhanced provision of basic utilities and universal access to communication. The same technology is utilized for the daily purposes and convenience of the public. The data is not gathered by the companies but instead is delivered to the public and its representatives. Although this approach of governance provides the best possible alternative to centralized and private controlled projects, it still needs to be assessed for sustainability in the long run and requires to be more observant about climate change. The other cities that borrow some ideas in a few fields from Barcelona are Amsterdam, Paris and Seoul. On the other hand the city of Oslo can be considered one of the pioneering cities for paying special and primary attention to climate change included in their urban policies.

IV: The Urban Imaginary

In the urban imaginary, when numerous factors of sociality, citizenship, power, economic processes and complexities are contemplated, the city becomes a space of incessant possibilities and potentialities. Consideration of the existing factors give rise to new forms of social expression and collaborations that help materialize different urban fantasies. Cities are constituted of these ongoing mechanisms that are constantly moving outward and inward. As Maliq, in his analysis of city as a space of potentialities, suggests “Bodies, things, machines and institutions, brought together in dense interactions, not only operate as a gravitational force, drawing materials inward, but also constitute platforms for making materials move, whether in the shape of resources, commodities or information” . These things are in interaction with each other that create different kinds of spaces, changing the city’s potentialities and complexities. [6]

However noting the excessive media use in the constructing of the new cities, Scott Mcquire, then tried to indicate to us that the idea of the city has taken a media technological form and he calls it a ‘media city’ that encompasses “both the historical dimensions of the relation between media and modern urban space, and in connecting this history to the changes driven by digital convergence in the present.” [7]

 In the recent works scholars have used the idea of “urban sublime” aligning with Edmund Burke’s concept of sublime that does not associate itself with exemplary beauty but is about how something awful can be perceived as both inspirational and fearsome, an aesthetic arrangement that is both attractive and repugnant. Ebenezer Howard’s garden city that elaborates the utopia of cities which include a green untainted open space can be included in this category though it is latently criticized for exclusion of the marginalized. Similarly, Le Corbussier’s Radiant City involves construction of giant modernist towers at the center of expansive parklands without consideration of any other environmental, economic, political or social adversities. On the other hand is the organic city budding from Jane Jacobs’ book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’. This view upholds the construction and maintenance of cities not through physical spaces or green openness but through everyday moments of the people living there. This organic state is in continuous danger from Western capitalism today.

Daniel Bells’ information imaginary that highlights the significance of communication and information technology in urban life too has been quite significant in reminding us that the idea of city was imagined in the previous century in quite different ways. Last of the grand concepts of the city could be Manuel Castells’ view of Informational City where information and communication became the center of spatial and social relations of the cities. Castells defines his perception of an Informational city as “the spatial expression of a new form of social organization that is made up of technology, cultural information, and social information as well as their interaction.” [8]. Castells believes the transformation of society due to information as the technological revolution based on information just as the industrial revolution was based on energy. He associates the restructuring of city spaces with a new socio-economic organization that uses technology to establish information networks such that the businesses are interconnected at a high efficient rate which gives rise to what he calls ‘wired cities’. Arriving at the discussion of political economy, He describes the information revolution as a process that is constituted by three main mechanisms: “the emergence of an information economy, the process of internationalization of the economy, and fundamental change in the organization of production and management in our societies.”

Richard Florida’s Creative city, at the same time, focuses on the idea of creation of a new creative class with the decline of the industrial city and the expansion of the cultural industries which referred to increasing migration of creators and artists into the cities who returned to the older cities, turning the poor class neighborhoods into cultural hubs and art centers enabling growth of the creative economy. This was again criticized for benefitting, instead of the working class, the higher-income people who were earning money through old-fashioned ways, could now enter the global innovative economy.

The Collaborative and Spontaneous city of Antoine Picon extends the significance of social networks in the constantly connected networked city. Here, celebrations, resistance, demonstrations, events and programs are rooted in spontaneity with instant connectivity of individuals over social networking and communication systems.

V. Summing Up

It is in this background of the richly layered discussion on cities that we find ourselves to be confronting the idea of Smart city. The idea has been criticized for its ubiquitous surveillance and monitoring. It also promotes technological domination as the only parameter of progress and development giving rise to technological views as dominant ideologies across the globe.

Saskia Sassen in her critique on global cities and the new restructuring of the cities extends her concern over the augmenting social and economic inequalities within the urban and suburban areas. With the rapidly increasing consumption patterns and new industry and capital driven ideologies, there has been persistent issues of inequality in income distribution, high pricing, unequal access to utilities and high scales of consumerism. [9]

The first adverse impact of contemporary smart city projects is livability of the citizens, the organic growth of which is compromised within the technologically immersive spaces; technology no longer stays close by people’s choice but instead becomes an intervention in their daily lives with its constant imposition.

 Secondly, individual privacy is at stake with ubiquitous monitoring and the data is no longer owned by the people increasing threats of piracy, cybercrimes and hacking. Normal day-to-day activity of individuals is disturbed by the complex networking systems of technology which are constantly interconnected and are prone to bugs, errors and security breaches.

Thirdly, while smart cities claim to reduce environmental problems with sustainable use of renewable sources of energy and smart solutions for a low carbon economy, the data has shown an opposite picture with the excessive need of electricity for installation of sensors and complex networking systems and increase in pollution with construction of new data centers. [1].

Lastly, one needs a manifesto for a citizen-led, technologically smart city which is made of democratic decisions and planning, complete citizen participation, central towards improved public spaces and institutions, free flow of information with vested power of ownership of data to the citizens, diminished threat to privacy, open access to information and communications systems, socially equal and just societies, efficient service delivery, environment-friendly urban designs and free access of streets, and colonies to individuals.

* (Author: Alruba Sheikh, Doctoral Scholar, Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 110067. Contact: alruba.sheikh[at] . The Author acknowledges her debt to Dr. Rakesh Batabyal of Centre for Media Studies for his guidance and help in writing this paper.)


[1] Vincent Mosco, The Smart City in the Digital World, 1st ed. Bingley, England, UK: Emerald Publishing, 2019.

[2] Adam Greenfield, Against the Smart City. New York, U.S.: Lacuna Books, 2013.

[3] Vincent Mosco, The Political Economy of Communication, 2nd ed. London, UK: Sage Publications, 2009.

[4] Ugo Rossi, Cities in Global Capitalism. UK: Polity Press, 2017. |

[5] Antoine Picon, Smart Cities: A Spatialized Intelligence. UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

[6] Abdou Maliq Simone, "City of Potentialities: An Introduction," Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 33, no. 7-8, pp. 5-29, 2016.

[7] Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media Architecture and Urban Space. London, UK: Sage Publications, 2008.

[8] Manuel Castells, "Lecture 3: The Informational City: A New Framework for Social Change," University of Toronto, 1991.

[9] Saskia Sassen, The Global City. New Jersey, U.S.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

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