In Summer 2016, I defended my dissertation — Selling Smartness: Visions and Politics of the Smart City. 

I am in the process of publishing parts of this work and eventually turning the dissertation into a book manuscript. In 2015, I published an article (co-authored with Frank Pasquale) based on some of this work in the journal First Monday.

Here is an overview of my dissertation.

I begin in chapter 1 by examining the discourses around the smart city. This label can be nebulous. Just what does “smart” mean? The term is difficult to pin down for a number of reasons: it contains numerous initiatives, concepts, and narratives; it is an attractive label used by a variety of actors; and it is strategically ambiguous so it can be widely applicable and dynamic. I bring analytic clarity to the actions, visions, and values of this movement by focusing our attention on two dominant organizations in the smart city sector: IBM and Cisco. By conducting a deep dive into each company’s large body of discursive materials (e.g. reports, speeches, marketing, editorials, etc.), I identify an overarching narrative that structures the smart city vision.

Part of the smart city movement’s attractiveness comes from the way it is explicitly framed as pragmatic, neutral, and non-ideological. Advocates of the smart city style use carefully crafted—and endlessly repeated—rhetoric to veil how deeply ideological these urban transformations really are. Yet, the choices about how smart cities are built, deployed, and maintained are very much political decisions about the world. They involve value-ladened choices, competing interests, and power dynamics. I show, in chapter 2, that the smart city reflects and reinforces two ideologies: technocracy and neoliberalism.

What, however, do these discourses and ideologies mean on the ground, at the level of operations and implications? To answer that question I detail two interrelated, techno-political logics that underlie many of the various practices and systems related to smart cities. Chapter 3 focuses on the logic of control, which constructs the city as a “system of systems,” a form of networked urbanism in which people and places can be totally connected, surveilled, measured, manipulated, predicted, and policed. Taken at the urban scale, the city becomes a cocoon of connectivity that engulfs us—or, alternatively, it becomes a web that ensnares us—as smart technologies are integrated into our everyday lives. Chapter 4 focuses on the logic of accumulation, which demands we extract all data, from all sources, in whatever ways possible; we will then sort it out later and trust the analytics to create “actionable insights” and generate value. These data systems fuel a political economic project I call dataveillance capitalism. The smart city is a key site for collecting and capitalizing on big data about anything and everything.

In the final chapter, I hope to provide notes toward imagining alternative arrangements of the smart city and, in doing so, invigorate the critique and action necessary to build smart cities that will contribute to ideals like social justice and human flourishing—rather than elite interests and value extraction. The smart city is a future-in-the-making. While the dominant visions we will explore are offshoots of deeply rooted structures in society, they have not yet settled and stabilized as inextricable parts of the smart city. There is nothing inherent in these systems that dictates they can only be driven by logics of control and accumulation. We must not mistake a contingency for inevitability. I thus offer an opening salvo for a critical techno-politics that can push back against the smart city, can empower people to contest these regimes, can nurture our relations with people-places-technologies, and can create space for us to imagine alternatives.

The descriptive and normative elements of my dissertation come together in the service of an overarching argument: If making the city is a way of making those who live within the city, then our right to make ourselves is also a right to produce the city. Therefore, we need a new paradigm for urbanism that institutes a techno-politics of liberation and nurtures the relationship between people-places- technologies—a paradigm I call the cyborg city.

In short, the arc of this project moves from diving into the “smart city” discourses, to picking apart the ideologies at its heart, to engaging with the dual logics— control and accumulation—that drive the smart city, and finally to imagining what an alternative techno-politics might look like and how we might achieve it.