Let’s talk about SmartCities (II): What is ‘smart’ about smart cities? – Mariona Tomàs

smartcity-citizenFrom 15 to 17 November 2016, Barcelona will be hosting the sixth edition of the Smart City Expo World Congress, a world meeting point for public administrations in all fields, but especially local ones and companies that work in the application of information and communication technologies (ICT) to urban services.

Smart cities are in fashion: local governments all around the world are striving to be positioned as such, i.e. cities that use ICT to become more efficient, sustainable and participative. The organicist view of smart cities considers the urban space to be a system of systems: the city is conceived as a flow of data that needs to be monitored and optimised with new technological instruments. For example, the use of sensors on waste containers to show whether they are full or empty would help to plan waste collection rounds better: there is no need for trucks to stop at each container but only at those that are full, thereby saving energy and costs. The same idea can be applied to public lighting: sensors are used to turn on the lights when pedestrians are near and depending on the amount of daylight, rather than coming on automatically every day at the same time. They could also be used in the flow of public transport on the surface, through controlling traffic lights.

As Manu Fernández notes, the story of smart cities is built on not innocuous technological myths. Indeed, the belief in technology is associated with the risk of depoliticising local management: making smart cities apolitical, a technology matter that has no political implications. However, the very concept of smart cities is an ideological one, as it was the multinational IBM that patented the concept and was one of the main promoters of urban service management platforms. The European Union, as Igor Calzada shows, has also contributed to the growth of the phenomenon, especially through the Horizon 2020 programme, where issues of urban innovation and the digital agenda are prominent, in addition to sustainable development. The smart city boom has coincided with a time of economic crisis: in a context of austerity and the need to create wealth, the technological panacea is even stronger still.

The development of smart cities brings up a series of doubts and challenges, which are exposed in an article. One of the central themes is, in our opinion, the relationships established between local administrations and the private sector, especially the energy and technology sectors. How is a smart city built and what different stakeholders are involved? To what extent does the smart city transform the model for urban governance? In other words, is a smart city an opportunity for public involvement or, on the contrary, is it an opportunity for private interests to influence urban politics? As this article explains on the basis of the case of Barcelona in the 2011-2015 period, the development of smart cities affected urban governance, whereby the Trias government decided that the priority goal was to make a worldwide example out of Barcelona as a smart city. To make this possible, the city council developed a series of projects whose main partners were major technology companies (Abertis, CISCO, Microsoft, Schneider Electric, Endesa, etc.). The decision to make agreements with major partners was defended in a time of economic crisis by arguing that the development of a smart city would not only save costs to the taxpayer, but would also create new business niches and opportunities. The partnership between local government and companies benefits both parties: technology companies are able to test their applications for free and the Council can boast that it is innovating. The city thereby becomes a laboratory, a platform for testing the pilot projects of companies associated to the public services (water, gas, electricity, waste collection, etc.). If a positive result is obtained, and in a favourable economic context, the council should be expected to continue investing in this technology. In fact, smart cities, have proved to be a highly lucrative business, and cities are the main clients. While a direct relationship is established between local government and companies, smart cities have not led to a similar relationship with civil society, which has been left out of the definition of what a ’smart city’ is, even though it is paradoxically the receiver of the benefits. In other words, the people can try out new apps and access new Council databases, but they do not have the mechanisms to decide whether they want a smart city and what one should be like: yet whether they want them or not, they are expected to be smart citizens.

Since May 2015, the city has had a new government, led by Ada Colau and the Barcelona en Comú candidacy. Although it is still too early to draw conclusions, indications suggest that the new government has imposed a change of stance regarding the smart city. For example, the “Smart barris” project has been set up in the Nou Barris neighbourhood, an initiative that has been built into the associative network and that is aimed at a more participative model of governance. The BITS (Barcelona Initiative for Technological Sovereignty) project was also presented recently, which seeks to foster debate of such technological sovereignty on a local scale.

A brief overview of the Barcelona example takes us back to an idea mentioned at the start of the article, which suggested the de-politicisation of smart cities, and an apolitical view of cities. Quite the contrary, as the case of Barcelona shows, a smart city project is a political project. In other words, the definition of a specific smart city model (with more or less public leadership, with a more social or technological orientation) is ideological and political. The consideration of smart cities as apolitical thus means denying the role of local government in urban governance.


Mariona Tomàs Fornés
Professor of Political Science at the University of Barcelona

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