Figure 1. “Plug-in city,” Archigram, 1964

“Plug-in city,” Archigram, 1964

 

A frequently referenced forerunner of the smart city is this proposal by the British architectural collective, Archigram, for a “Plug-In City,” which supplanted fixed buildings with a moveable network of spaces and interchangeable “programs” for urban inhabitations.

 

gabrys_epd_fig2_citemultimedia

Cité Multimédia, Montreal, ca. 2000

 

Multiple information and digital cities emerged throughout the dot-com era. This example of the Cité Multimédia in Montreal documents the enfolding of imaginings of urban space with the capacities of computational rendering, which further inform actual development schemes.

 

“Smart World,” Libelium

“Smart World,” Libelium

 

The diagrammatic quality of informational cities designs can be found in newer proposals for smart cities, including this sensor world by Libelium, an “internet of things provider” based in Spain. In this proposal, numerous urban services and operations, from lighting to shopping, become augmented and newly articulated through wireless sensor networks.

 

“Horizon 2020: Sensors,” Telecom Italia

“Horizon 2020: Sensors,” Telecom Italia

 

The technology that is promoted as reconfiguring urban landscapes is computational sensors, relatively miniature devices connected to computational infrastructures of multiple different scales and generating an expanded array of command-and-control programs for making urban space more efficient.

 

“The city of 2020,” Tomorrow’s Cities, BBC

“The city of 2020,” Tomorrow’s Cities, BBC

 

As part of the imagining and promoting of smart cities, numerous schematic designs have emerged that capture an apparently symbiotic fusing of technology and nature. This special focus on“Tomorrow’s Cities,” gathered together by the BBC, envisions “farmscrapers” and efficient infrastructures combining into a bucolic scene with delivery drones and sensor networks.

 

“A blueprint for city transformation,” Connected Urban Development

“A blueprint for city transformation,” Connected Urban Development

 

The Connected Urban Development (CUD) initiative, formed through a partnership between Cisco and the Clinton Initiative, with MIT and the Connected Sustainable Cities project (CSC) joining the project as it progressed, is a clear example of smart cities developing into sustainable city initiatives, where sustainability–typically in the form of efficiency–becomes a guiding logic for reworking any number of urban services and operations.

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The perceived importance of reworking smart cities as sustainable cities is frequently narrated through the increasing numbers of people now living in cities, which have become dominant sites of resource consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. This particular CUD video provides example scenarios for how smart city initiatives will realize more optimal urban functioning. Efficiency emerges here within a (gendered) logic of gamification, behavioral responsiveness and optimization.

 

Madrid scenario, Connected Sustainable Cities, Mitchell and Casalegno (2008)

Madrid scenario, Connected Sustainable Cities, Mitchell and Casalegno (2008)

 

As discussed in the “Programming Environments” article, the scenarios developed by William Mitchell and Federico Casalegno as part of their Connected Sustainable Cities visioning document illustrate in graphic-novel style the ways in which everyday actions such as commuting, cooking and heating one’s home may be synchronized through ubiquitous computing to enable more efficient use of resources.

 

Eco-love contest, Connected Sustainable Cities, Mitchell and Casalegno (2008)

Eco-love contest, Connected Sustainable Cities, Mitchell and Casalegno (2008)

 

Beyond the use of resources, smart cities might also provide new ways of understanding relationality. Here, an eco-love contest becomes the site where an increasingly competitive approach to environmental monitoring is meant to ensure optimal mating opportunities.

 

Curitiba scenario, Connected Sustainable Cities, Mitchell and Casalegno (2008)

Curitiba scenario, Connected Sustainable Cities, Mitchell and Casalegno (2008)

 

Urban sensor landscapes are presented in this scenario as not just enabling more efficient transit options, but also as facilitating political participation here through making air pollution data more apparent. However, the steps from data to action remain an elusive proposition, and the more contested and conflicted practices of citizenship that might actually contribute to political change are absent in these data-to-action scenarios.

 

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Jennifer Gabrys is Reader in the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the author of Program Earth: Environmental Sensing Technology and the Making of a Computational Planet (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics (University of Michigan Press, 2011).