Overnight, the COVID-19 crisis has uprooted us from the office or classroom to the kitchen, bedroom or garden shed. Whether through Zoom calls, movie streaming or the explosion in online retailing, urban society seems to have been shaken to its core.
Much has been written in recent years about the notion of smart cities: a vision of plugged in, connected places, where communications are by fibre-optics and big data is king. Concepts of autonomous vehicles, 5G video-conferencing and the Internet of Things were once the province of science fiction. They are becoming part of everyday life and promise great things for our future jobs, transport, health and well-being. For some of us.
This timely book (published in February 2020, so pre-pandemic) argues that many of the purported benefits of greater connectivity and other attributes of smart cities are limited in their reach and, far from levelling out social and economic disadvantages, are predisposed to worsen them. The downside of a reliance on big tech – the democratic deficit – is all too apparent, with a few global players wielding disproportionate influence over public institutions, fiscal systems and governance. Companies like Uber are blurring the lines between employers and consumers, creating flexible but precarious work.
Jennifer Clark is Head of Planning at the Knowlton School of Architecture at Ohio State University. Her background is in regional economics, and her book draws on her experience of studying de-industrialisation and the resulting policy implications. Clark brings a refreshing scepticism to the more extravagant claims for smart cities, arguing that more emphasis has been put on the marketing of the concept than on looking at what happens to the urban environment. The result is ‘uneven’ innovation, in other words inequality, which sits alongside deep-rooted problems of sex, race and class discrimination.
The book is densely written, and the narrative is always easy to follow. Perhaps it will appeal to an academic readership rather than city planners or policy makers. It does not provide much by way of evidence on the ground and the urban examples – mostly from the US – are sketchily referenced. The images are few, and not very illuminating.
It is however worth persevering with, as Jennifer Clark sounds alarm bells about a huge subject and the need to reconcile commercial gain with public interest. The author concludes that communities (as represented by city governments) need to take charge of the technological challenge and develop local solutions, using local legislation or policy to capture the benefits for all.