Jennifer Clark is Professor and Head of the City and Regional Planning Section at the Knowlton School of Architecture in the College of Engineering at The Ohio State University. She specializes in urban and regional economic development planning. She is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Regional Studies and a Fellow of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) and the Regional Studies Association (RSA). Her new book, Uneven Innovation: The Work of Smart Cities, will be released in February 2020 from Columbia University Press. You can find her on Twitter at @jclark_crp.
An emerging critique of the technology sector is that it promotes inequalities rather than mitigates them. Exposés about Silicon Valley’s discriminatory human resources practices are outnumbered only by stories of predatory business practices. In my new book, Uneven Innovation, I note that economic geographers have long argued that firm strategies reflect the context from which the firms themselves emerged. So, as technology firms turn their attention to cities, it should be understood that they are likely to employ the approaches and practices they know from the past rather than adapt to the ethics and standards of the public sector or the norms and established practices of individual communities.
The smart cities project has mapped out a path toward implementation by effectively capturing the conversation and working around the history of technocratic approaches to urban policy and planning. The question now is what form that implementation will take, not whether this new urban technology project will move forward. In other words, the question is whether the smart cities objects, systems, and platforms, and the data that are derived from and empowers them, will be owned and governed by private companies or by cities themselves.
My research on smart cities led me to question several assumptions behind the urban innovation project—both what it means for cities and what it does to them. The result is an alternative framework for thinking about smart cities as an economic development project with implications for labor and work, participation and engagement, infrastructure and real estate investment, interjurisdictional cooperation and competition, and the relationship between public and private interests. This framework is captured in five key premises about how, under the novelty of the smart cities project, we must ask the same core questions about the private development of public assets; namely, cities.
Figure 1. The cover of Jennifer Clark’s new book, Uneven Innovation: The Work of Smart Cities
The first premise of the book is that uneven innovation is both where we’ve been and where we are going; this is not a new path. The second premise is that the tech sector needs the city as a source of subsidy and risk reduction; it exploits uneven innovation and maintains it. Third, the smart cities project is enabled through “fast policy,” a combination of devolution and policy mobilities which circumvents traditional models of policy transfer (Peck and Theodore 2015). The fourth premise underscores the subtitle of the book: work. The smart cities project exacerbates and amplifies precarious work, embedding labor flexibility in the production and operations of the built environment. And finally, the fifth premise of the book is that the data is the product of the smart cities project and the revenue model remains under construction.
In reality, there are many possible paths toward the promise of smart cities, and some of them align with community economic development practice and public participation. However, other paths replicate a pattern of development and redevelopment reminiscent of those practices that brought about the backlash against urban renewal in the first place. That is, projects that are too big, too fast, and too uneven and that give far too little thought to the existing built environment and the people who live in it and, simultaneously, too much consideration for the so-called revenue potential of places and what can be extracted from them.
In Uneven Innovation I pose the question of whether it is possible to construct a smart cities project that stops reproducing uneven development patterns through technology solutions. “Uneven innovation” describes a manifestation of an old problem: the sexist city, the racist city, the classist city, the city of unequal opportunities and unequal outcomes. That said, there are two further points to be made. First, cities themselves are not the problem, and, second, cities may be the solution. Once the technology sector determined that cities were their preferred space of innovation, production, and consumption, cities gained the ability to manage and (to some extent) determine the smart cities project. Through the regulation of citizen rights to data, investments in the internal capacity within cities, the undertaking of strategic planning and policy analysis and evaluation, and the expansion of participatory planning, cities have an opportunity to shape rather than simply accept the smart cities project.
Implementation of the smart cities project as described in the popular press is an incremental process that is cast as a disruptive intervention. It will take time, and in that time, there is the opportunity to reflect on how cities and citizens can shape the smart cities project and how urban policy can respond to the technology experiments that are redrawing the boundaries between public and private interests and ownership. Technological adaptation is a feature in urban policy and planning; it is not new. It actually happens every day through individual choices and institutional decisions.
Patterns of technology diffusion and industry change are often responses to emerging markets as well as the introduction of new materials, processes, or products that enable increased productivity, sustainability, or profitability, depending on the goals of the producer. In other words, new technologies enable optimization—in terms of efficiency or quality. But this optimization is predicated on the ability of institutions or firms to absorb new technologies, not simply to invent them. The growing role of cities in providing a platform for innovation creates new opportunities for firms but also for cities themselves.
For example, the expanding availability of public data enables civic and social innovators to develop new services or products, including software, sensors, and data and service subscriptions; to develop new processes for performance optimization to provision existing public services more efficiently; and to upgrade infrastructure and urban design investments to contribute to either new data or enhanced performance, or both. In other words, a possible outcome of investments in the smart cities platform is an agenda driven by civic innovation rather than one set through industry interests. The platform, like the city itself, can serve a social, political, and economic purpose.
In many ways, then, smart cities are a new approach to an old question: how to remake cities for the purposes of further and continued economic development with the functional consent
(if not the real support) of the people who actually live there. In analyzing the smart cities project, then, it is essential to sort out what is new or novel about this urban development strategy—what is actually innovative about either the processes producing smart cities or the products and services deployed in smart cities.
The smart cities project provides a platform for economic development; it is not economic development by itself. And perhaps this is a key distinction moving forward. As cities and observers of the smart cities project become increasingly cognizant of the inequalities that are produced and magnified in the diffusion of new technologies, it may be the responsibility of the public sector to step up and intervene, not step back and allow the people and places to be cast as users and testbeds in an industry experiment rather than as citizens and communities in a real place, the city.
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