Are cities to be answered?

Townsend (2013, p.xii) defines smart cities as ‘places where information technology is wielded to address problems old and new’. Outlining a technology industry perspective, he describes a vision of smart cities that compute away congestion, global warming and declining health through automated sensors, software, digital networks and remote controls. For Vanalo (2013), the term is problematic rather than problem solving, (although he acknowledges there may be utility in the smart city concept) he is concerned with the possible effects of smart city discourses on cities and the people who live in them. Firstly, Vanalo (2013, p.2) suggests that such discourses may distance urban government from politics, by the re-framing the ‘urban question’ in terms of the environment and technology. Such a move broadens the ‘field of action’ for technicians, consultants and private companies, which as Morozov (2014) points out, certainly raises questions about checks and balances. Secondly, Vanalo (2013, p.3) describes the potential for what he calls ‘urban governmentality’. Referencing Foucault’s governmentality concept, in which ‘subjects perceive themselves and form their identities through processes of government which control, incite or suppress actions by deeming what is acceptable and what is unacceptable’ put simply the ‘conduct of conduct’ (Vanalo, 2013, p.3). He applies this concept to cities in Italy bidding for  EU research funding, competing to meet ‘smart city’ benchmarks and boost their rankings; ‘Cities are made responsible for the achievement of smartness, i.e. adherence to a specific model of technologically advanced, green and economically attractive city, while ‘diverse’ cities, those following different development paths, are implicitly re-framed as smart-deviant.’ (Vanalo, 2013, p.7). This reading of the smart city may seem an overly pessimistic, especially when set against breathless visions of efficient, green, healthy smart cities of the future, but I think it is useful that Vanalo identifies a potential depoliticization of urban issues, interests served and also questions the type of subjects or cities that discourses around this urban imaginary produce.

Morozov, E., 2014. Open City: Democracy, Technology and the City. Available at: < > [Accessed 13 February 2014].

Townsend, A.M., 2013. Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia, New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Vanalo, A., 2013.  Smartmentality: The Smart City as Disciplinary Strategy. Urban Studies. [eJournal] 1(16). Available through: Sage Journals website [Accessed 13 February 2014].