Are “Smart” Cities Living Up to the Hype?

UMass Amherst’s Burcu Baykurt explores the different approaches taken by cities in the U.S. and Europe to implement tech innovations and efficiency
Burcu Baykurt
Burcu Baykurt

AMHERST, Mass. – Over the last 20 years, cities around the world have looked to embrace “smartness” – the ability to incorporate data, technology, innovation and automation into planning and operations. But have they succeeded in achieving the goals that city planners and managers, as well as tech industry leaders, have promised?

A recent article co-authored by Burcu Baykurt, assistant professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, examines what smartness does on the ground by investigating how its anticipatory media visions have been interpreted and acted on in policy decisions and local implementations since the early 2000s. The article, “What smartness does in the smart city: From visions to policy,” was published online by Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies.

“Over the last decade, the smart city has gone from a corporate buzzword, to an all-encompassing techno-utopian vision for urbanism in the 21st century, to a rather cautious descriptor of what municipalities attempt to accomplish with digital technologies,” Baykurt and co-author Christoph Raetzsch of Aarhus University, Denmark, write. “Anticipatory visions undergirding the smart city may simply be a marketing strategy on the part of tech companies, or a totalizing promise by Silicon Valley that does not quite understand the politics of the city. Our analysis took a different turn and examined the variety of ways these visions are mobilized and altered by tech companies as well as municipalities.”

Drawing on fieldwork in aspiring smart cities, Baykurt and Raetzsch argue that the development of smart city initiatives has followed divergent paths in the United States and Europe.

“Over the last five years, I've been studying how urban inequalities change or persist in smart cities,” Baykurt says. “I’ve looked particularly at Kansas City as it became a testing ground for a range of companies, including Google and Cisco. In this paper, we are interested in how logics of smartness have changed across time and place. By comparing U.S. and European cities, we found that tech companies in the U.S. positioned smart cities as a project of efficiency and energy-saving in the early 2000s, aimed at climate change and sustainability.

“The financial crisis of 2008-09, however, radically altered what smartness stood for: tech companies began to offer cash-strapped cities smart tech under the promise of innovation and growth, ostensibly enabled by the use of sensors, dashboards and machine learning. Places like Las Vegas, San Diego, Columbus, or Kansas City were just a few examples of many, many cities that embraced digital infrastructures with the hopes of becoming an innovation hub for emerging technologies. A few years forward, their efforts led to little or no measurable outcomes.”

When the authors examined the implementation of smartness across the Atlantic, they found that European cities may downplay or even consciously avoid the term “smart” these days, but many have embraced the “living lab” approach that uses the toolkit of smartness to grapple with complex urban problems. Living labs employ a user-focused design environment, a strategy of co-creation, and, increasingly, an institutionalized space wherein citizens, administrators, entrepreneurs and academics come together to develop smartness into concrete applications. They help identify and join localized expertise, real-life testing and prototyping with strategic networking of resources to address challenges that cannot be solved by single cities or departments.

“When we look at Europe, we do not necessarily see a dashing success story for the smart city, but we certainly find a different approach that uses smartness to build partnerships among municipalities, academic institutions, tech companies and civic organizations,” Baykurt says. “There’s also a more moderate expectation from becoming a smart city, one that focuses on incremental change through living labs rather than massive transformations.”

Rather than substituting an old technology with a new one, such as modernizing traditional street lights with sensor-equipped LEDs, the authors write that living labs create environments for collective problem-solving that address conflicting demands of inclusion, equality, accessibility and innovation around technological questions.

Ultimately, while 21st century cities try to come to terms with both the demands of citizens and the technological solutionism aggressively promoted by tech corporations, the authors conclude that municipalities that chase smartness are trying to “address novel challenges that require new domains of expertise and lack the necessary capital and labor for meaningful interventions.”

“These taxing conditions do not justify the insufficient public accountability and rapid privatization of local governance in any smart city-in-progress,” they write. “But they may explain the ongoing appeal of smartness and why legions of public officials, and even residents, are enamored with the idea – even when they are careful not to use the term itself.”

In fact, Baykurt says that the global coronavirus pandemic may spur another round of cities and tech firms teaming up to attempt to incorporate new smart initiatives.

“Despite the unwinding of the hype,” she says, “smartness, yet again, seems to be adapting to the current moment, as COVID-19 provides an opportunity for tech companies and governments to continue mobilizing funds into emerging digital infrastructures, such as artificial intelligence or centralized apps, without actual proof that ramping up digital surveillance is a reasonable solution on its own.”

The full article, “What smartness does in the smart city: From visions to policy,” is available online via Sage Journals.