Revealing the Illusions of Smart Cities: Exploring Digital (In)Justice

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Digital (In)justice in the Smart City foregrounds discussions of how we should think of and work toward urban digital justice in the smart city. Read the full blog post by Debra Mackinnon, Ryan Burns, and Victoria Fast below.

What defines a city as “smart?” While digital technology, such as data flows, sensors, and internet-connected devices, is often involved, the concept of a smart city holds different meanings for different groups of people. Unfortunately, the outcomes of smart city initiatives too often reinforce and amplify existing urban inequalities, such as economic and cultural marginalization. The widely publicized debacle of Sidewalk Labs’s invasive and extractive data-driven neighbourhood in Toronto drew attention to the complexity and potential downsides of smart cities. With these concerns in mind, we compiled a book titled Digital (In)Justice in the Smart City not only to explore the implications of smart cities but, more importantly, to question whether they strengthen or weaken just cities. We are now faced with the uncomfortable realization that “smartness” may not be as straightforwardly positive as many assume.

Dominance of Smartness in Future City Debates

It is astonishing to observe how smartness dominates discussions surrounding the future of cities worldwide. In our book, we delve into the subject matter in 24 chapters and 5 dialogues with leading smart cities researchers collectively grappling with the question of how to conceive social justice within the contemporary digital urbanism milieu. Federal governments are launching national smart city challenges, private firms leverage smartness to justify taking over public services, and public discourse often indulges in new tech utopias. These trends show no signs of dissipating, as exemplified by Canada’s 2023 budget allocation of funding for a new round of the Smart City Challenge. In the face of this pervasive smartness, how do we continue to envision just futures for cities?

Prioritizing Urban Digital Justice

Our book serves as a platform for in-depth discussions on urban digital justice within the smart city context. We thoroughly explore the sources of injustice that permeate smart city programs and question whether achieving more just, sustainable, livable, and egalitarian cities necessitate looking beyond the notion of smartness altogether. By envisioning alternative cities and outlining the role that the commons, utopia, and law can play in shaping better urban environments, we strive to move beyond the limitations of smartness.

Origins and Unique Approach

The idea for this book came to us in conversations about how some of the most important tenets of social justice were missing in smart cities research. Over two years, we organized an interdisciplinary working group at the University of Calgary called “Social Justice in the Smart City,” which yielded intriguing insights into how researchers can apply long-standing social justice literature to this new digital context. While many individuals had profound ideas on the topic, few had actually documented them. Thus, we took on the clear mandate to fill this gap through our book.

One distinctive feature of our book is the inclusion of dialogues between the editors and leading smart city researchers – including Stephen Graham, Rob Kitchin, Vincent Mosco, Ayona Datta, and Alison Powell – at the beginning of each section. These dialogues resemble fireside chats, encompassing discussions on the philosophy of technology, community activism, and reflections on the state of higher education. Through these dialogues, we highlight the valid reasons for concern regarding prevailing perceptions of what smart cities can and should accomplish.

Rethinking Smart Cities

Overall, we conclude that the concept of a smart city is far from straightforward, as its implications and effects vary significantly depending on different perspectives. We invite readers to contemplate the need to move beyond smartness and consider alternative paths toward just, sustainable, and equitable urban futures. By chipping away at the utopian façade and glitzy marketing of smart cities, we lay the foundation for what might come after them: instead of cities guided by corporate hallucinations of “smart,” perhaps we should work toward caring, messy, engaged, analog, collective, active, verdant cities. Just cities, in other words.


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