Manu Fernández: «Smart city projects need contextualization»

By  | 2017

The smart city as urban proposal seeks to provide a framework to explain and sort out the digital presence in the city that is becoming normal in the urban realm. As such, it represents the new urban utopia proposed as an all-encompassing explanation of many phenomena of change coalescing in urban life and city management. The complexity of the transition to a world (progressively) ubiquitous and (mostly) urban requires giving meaning and coherence to explain this reality.

The smart city has emerged triumphant as a model and social theory, integrating or co-opting previous narratives (sustainability) but using the usual claims (bureaucratic planning and better management of urban development). Despite its totalizing ambitions, the debate on smart cities has been very limited, biased, incomplete and precipitate. After starring in recent years much of the institutional debate (in the form of conferences, plans, pilot projects, etc.), the smart city is not able to explain itself understandably to discuss their explicit goals and implicit consequences.

The meaning of the technological innovations attached to the smart city storytelling in such an urban world (by percentage of population living in cities but also by the increasing number of large urban agglomerations) are so disparate (a world of urban realities as different as Lagos, New York or Jakarta) and are yet to be explored. It is not possible to keep on understanding and depicting technology as an alien space that we have to assume for granted, and society (cities) as a mere recipient of that technology. In the same way, it is not possible to frame the debate of the smart city as a relationship of cause and effects between the city as generic and technology as something that evolves independently outside the social reality.

This is especially symptomatic in the case of different urban contexts represented by what we might call the global north and south. While the litany of any public presentation of the smart cities is expected to begin asserting the largely urban character of the world’s population, immediately its solutions are presented in renderings that resemble at best an idealized and futuristic vision of a modern city western. This denies, in principle, the point of departure since the protagonists of this global urbanization are forgotten. The particular technological imaginary of the smart city plays a generic message aspiring to be meaningful in any context, be it London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Shanghai or Bangalore without considering the local specificities related to their structural, economic, social conditions that should be the starting point of any exploration of urban futures. Lack of contextualization is often present in many of the failed projects of implementing smart city projects.

As a result of the above, the range of solutions related to the smart city is usually presented generically, regardless of or social, technical, political, demographic or cultural circumstances. «One size fits all» defines this type of solution (smart grids, sensors, big data or any other product) that are meant to work and fit in Mumbai, Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Valladolid, Detroit or Santiago de Chile.

About the authors

Deputy Director General & Expert in Urban Innovation and Public Policies at Anteverti | + posts

Manu Fernández is a Ph.D. holder from the University of the Basque Country since 2015, and an expert in urban innovation and public policies with over 20 years of professional experience. He is the Deputy Director General of Anteverti and also serves as the curator of the international events organized by the Smart City Expo World Congress.

Manu has led consulting projects related to local sustainability and the analysis of urban economies for several public institutions at the municipal, local, national, and international levels in Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He holds a degree in Economic Law from the University of Deusto and is the author of the blog 'Ciudades a escala humana (Human-scale Cities)' and the book 'Descifrar las smart cities (Deciphering Smart Cities)'.

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