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Smart City: Smart Story?

On November 4th 2011, the trademark ‘smarter cities’ was officially registered as belonging to IBM. It marked a period in which the company succeeded in defining the concept ‘smart city’ in a way that was beneficial for her, and became the leader of the smart city technology market.In the first decade of the 21th century cities all over the world started claiming to be “smart” for reasons varying from deploying ICT in their operations to the high level of education of their citizens.

Forerunners were San Diego, San Francisco, Ottawa, Brisbane, Amsterdam, Kyoto, and Bangalore. Others followed, including Southampton, Edinburgh, Manchester, Vancouver, and Montreal. Which city does not want to be smart? Thanks to tireless marketers, the concept ‘smart city’ became “self-congratulatory”, which continued up until today. According to Vito Albino et all, in 2013 approximately 143 self-designated smart cities existed worldwide.

The smart city according to IBM

On November 6th 2008 Sam Palmisano (CEO IBM) kick started the dominance of IBM with a talk entitled A Smarter Planet: The Next Leadership Agenda. This talk and accompanying publications, well documented by Ola Öderström et all in their article Smart cities as corporate story-telling have decisively contributed to create the image of the smart city.

In the IBM vision three ‘I’s are the hard core of any smart city: instrumented, interconnected and intelligent:

Instrumented refers to the capability of capturing and integrating live real-world data through the use of sensors, meters, appliances, personal devices, and other similar sensors.
Interconnected refers to the integration of these data into a computing platform that allows the communication of such information among the various city services.
Intelligent refers to the inclusion of complex analytics, modeling, optimization, visualization services and artificial intelligence to make better operational decisions.
Cities are ‘systems of systems’: planning and management services; infrastructure services and human services, each divided into three sub-systems with instrumented, interconnected and intelligent components:

  • Planning and management services include public safety, smarter buildings and urban planning, government and agency administration.
  • Infrastructure services include energy and water, environment and transportation.
    Human services include social programs, health care and education.

BM System of systems

In order to safeguard cities running smoothly, all nine (later eleven) systems must be centrally monitored and regulated and – guess – IBM’s ‘Intelligent Operations Center’ is designed for this purpose.

IBM’s eagerness to dominate the smart urban technology market is an immediate consequence of the company’s move away from hardware design and production to concentrate on consultancy and software. Earlier studies had identified cities as a huge untapped market representing $39.5 billion a year. The smart city strategy of IBM involved two elements. First, full-scale contracting for city governments with flagship contracts with Singapore and Rio de Janeiro. Second, the Smarter Cities Challenge: IBM funded smart cities projects financially (from $250,000 to $400,000) and equipped them with technological tools and expert resources, costing the company $100 million. These successful collaborations enabled the firm to gain expertise that could be commercialized in cities like Madrid, Beijing, Minneapolis, and many others. It paid off well, being involved in more than 2000 smart city projects worldwide, generating about $3 billion of income yearly.

Corporate story-telling

IBM has successfully crafted a story that framed the problems of world cities in a way that the company could offer to solve. The company succeeded in shaping the imaginaries and practices of city administrators and politicians globally. With this IBM became an ‘obligatory passage point’ in the smart city technology market.

The success of IBM’s story-telling rests on two rhetoric pillars. In the first place the suggestion of a systematic solution of urban problems by approaching these as parts of manageable systems. The second is the creation of an utopian perspective: At the moment cities are sick and at the eve of a fatal breakdown: ‘growing demands’, ‘tightening budgets’, ‘financial deficits’, ‘volatile markets’, ‘growing complexities’, ‘pollution’, ‘urban growth’; a proliferation of problem that drives city administrators into madness. They are at the mercy of ‘inadequate systems’, ‘obsolete’, and ‘broken technologies’ to deliver basic services. But, once new technology has been installed, problems come under control.

‘Before the advent of smart information systems, people actually had to turn up in person to be seen by health centers, passport offices, post offices, embassies…. Long lines, known as “queues”, quickly formed as people stood around aimlessly for hours…… Finally in the early 21st century, electronic declarations cut queues and billions of euros in administration costs.

Of course, not marketers of IBM only wrote self-congratulatory cheering like this. Cisco’s vice-president of strategy Inder Sidhu described the company’s smart city play as its biggest opportunity. In 2010 the company founded its ‘Smart and Connected Communities Institute’ and became together with US property development company Gale International the developers of New Songdo in South Korea. This collaboration shed another light on the large technology firm’s intentions. New Songdo definitely is not a city at the eve of a fatal breakdown. It is in the first place meant to become a giant business park and it is set out to enable a decent corporate lifestyle and business experience for people from abroad. Once New Songdo City is finished, Gale International and Cisco plan to roll out 20 other new ‘cities’ across China and India.

Other companies followed, the Fujitsu Group promoting Human Centric Intelligent Society, Siemens started to invest in a new ‘Infrastructure and Cities’ division in 2011. Microsoft entered the stage in 2013 with its City Next initiative. Google’s (Alphabet) ventures have been explored elsewhere.

The entrepreneurial city

Behind the development of New Songdo another story is looming that is not restricted to smart cities build from scratch. Technology companies envision being ‘connected’ as a major condition for new business development and they embrace the narrative of technologically led progress that will result in prosperity for all. Again city administrators were eager followers. According to Robert Hollands cities compete with one another in attracting global capital and (are) marketing themselves as world leading cultural, creative or smart brand cities. Their administrators travel the world to sell their cities. In Europe and North America democratic control and privacy concerns still countervail this entrepreneurial tendency. In many other parts of the world business local government interests are supposed to be colluding.

As a consequence, in many places urban policy gives priority to investments in technology where affordable housing, transport, sewage systems and transport definitely are more urgent. For example the 100 new planned smart cities in India are flawed solutions for the growth of the country’s population with more then 300 million the next 30 years, but they might support attracting foreign investments.

False story?

Are the narratives about technology led development false? At least they are simplifications with a minimum of evidence. Can IBM and other technology companies and city administrators be blamed? I think this is not the point. Of course, they are financially motivated in the first place. However, technology companies act like many other consultancy firms, who are offering plausible solutions to their clients’ problems. Criticism from academia came only in dribs and drabs. In 2008 Robert Hollands wrote an eye-opening article Will the real smart city please stand up? A couple of other critical studies followed and are understood well, as shown by Sidewalk Labs’ (Alphabet) winning proposal for redevelopment of Quayside, Toronto’s old port.

Elsewhere, I baptized the brainchild of hardcore smart city thinking as Smart City 1.0. This narrative still dominates. In a growing number of cities alternatives are emerging: Robert Hollanc said: The real smart city has to begin to think with its collective social and political brain, rather than through its technological tools….. It is made up of myriads of initiatives where technology is used to empower community networks, to monitor equal access to urban infrastructures or scale up new forms of sustainable living.

Contrary to corporate storytelling no straightforward narrative about the ‘real smart city’ is in place yet. In the article mentioned above, I made a contribution introducing ‘Smart city 2.0′ and Smart City 3.0’. More numerical extensions might follow. In a next post, I will elaborate these emerging alternatives.

*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

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