From Smart City to Urban Digi-Doomsaying

The smart city has become the new utopia. Visions of urban spaces that are digitally monitored and navigated in a near-totalizing fashion are presented as a way to perfect everyday life in line with consumer culture’s key tropes of innovation, efficiency and growth. In the utopian paradigm of the smart city, ecological sustainability plays a central role. However, just like the imagination of technology-facilitated ideal urban spaces in itself, typical smart city ecology buzz words like ‘circular economy’, ‘upcycling’ and ‘sustainable garbage processing’ [3] are neither revolutionary, nor new. Thomas More’s [1] 16th century description of the sustainable urban practices of utopia’s inhabitants already offers us a text book example:

now their houses are three storeys high, the fronts of them are faced either with stone, plastering, or brick, and between the facings of their walls they throw in their rubbish. 

 

Similar to More’s example, visions of the smart city tend to feature – or, to use neoliberal jargon: ‘celebrate’ – clever ways to recycle waste that enhance everyday comfort, and in which waste management involves no sacrifices or efforts that would require to set limitations to convenience lifestyles. Meanwhile, bigger and further reaching problematic issues of materiality, such as the finiteness of natural resources, the uncomfortable labour necessary to sustain the leisurely lives of others, and the inevitability of waste remains that cannot conveniently be tucked away are more-or-less inconspicuously brushed aside. Some unwanted matter is demonstratively integrated in the urban grid to display the virtue of dedicated citizens, as in More’s rubbish wall filling or contemporary start-up initiatives to turn used coffee beans into bio fuel,  but when it comes to the inevitable broader and large scale impact of a culture of comfort on the environment and the others who are considered to be in a realm outside the ideal space, the reality tends to closely adhere to More’s description of waste management elsewhere in Utopia:

There are also, without their towns, places appointed near some running water for killing their beasts and for washing away their filth, which is done by their slaves; for they suffer none of their citizens to kill their cattle, […] nor do they suffer anything that is foul or unclean to be brought within their towns, lest the air should be infected by ill-smells, which might prejudice their health. 

 

While we are enthousiastically programming our domestic water kettle to save electricity with an intricate Internet of Things setup – impressing our friends and neighbours with our seemingly sustainable lifestyle – the ever increasing piles of waste that are generated despite our cosmetic sustainability efforts (not in the least by the ever faster replacement of said IoT devices themselves) are often conveniently ‘washed away’ to the global south where workers in labour conditions close to slavery are exposed to their ‘ill smells’.

 

While this aspect of imagining ideal spaces seems consistent since the 16th century, its persistence in smart city ideology is also coherent with a specifically modern trait. The foregrounding of the development of solutions for immediate challenges in everyday life, while refraining from taking appropriate action to foreclose impending large scale catastrophes is a mainstay in French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s critique of the so-called Precautionary Principle. In this world view, threats and challenges are perceived as occurrences with quantifiable and predictable outcomes, on the basis of which preventative measures are taken. This approach has two main consequences. Firstly, it conceives of disasters as simply the result of failed risk assessment and inadequate precautionary action. Environmental problems are understood as merely technological challenges that can be overcome through further optimization and efficiency of existing processes within a stable superstructure. Once the economy is truly ‘circular’ and everything is ‘upcycled’ or ‘sustainably processed’, exponential growth in consumption will be possible ad infinitum. Secondly, threats must always be quantified before action is undertaken. Not only does this often lead to a quantification pressure that is reflected in seemingly objective assessments that are based on speculative or fictitious figures, it also promotes a dynamic where threats that are highly complex – and thus virtually impossible to quantify in detail – remain unaddressed. No action is undertaken until ‘enough’ data has been collected, and instead attention is diverted to those issues that are on a more immediate and graspable scale.

 

Nowadays, it requires no more than straightforward common sense to realize that once expansive consumerism as it is practiced in the global north will have fully unfolded in China, India, Brazil and populous areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, global ecological catastrophe is imminent. However, dominant sustainability efforts remain mostly limited to implementing energy saving light bulbs and banning plastic straws. Smart city ideology and its dedication to technological solutions that bring immediate ecological improvement while at the same time promoting the persistence of the ideological framework of ever increasing consumption that will sooner or later lead to the total collapse of our habitat reflects this internal logic of the precautionary principle.

 

Advocating a radically different approach, Dupuy argues that catastrophes are singular and total. They cannot be quantified or compared to other catastrophes and should not be seen in the context of risk quantifications and calculations. While their eventual occurrence is in many cases clearly imminent, as in the case of climate change and its concurrent ecological collapse, disasters are in a realm beyond the potential of direct human understanding and intervention. They may be grasped in detail in hindsight, but their very nature is that they do not occur at a moment or in a way that could have been foreseen precisely at the time. Instead of engaging in the analysis of vast arrays of quantified, immediate risks we must therefore focus on the catastrophe as an absolute, totalizing event. We should take a doomsaying approach and invoke a confrontation with the full imagination and awareness of impending catastrophe and take this as a basis to consider our actions in the world.

 

Thus, when thinking about ideal spaces we must envisage a living space where we are confronted with the materiality of our environment in all its aspects, including its brutality, and thus facilitate confrontations with the full catastrophic potential of our current mode of existence. Instead of creating cleansed, harmonious spaces from which all “ill-smells” and ecological complexities are purged and relocated to the realm of the other, we must make spaces where we are confronted with the counterparts of consumption and where we dream about the ultimate flood, rather than comfort ourselves with the illusory vision of a sustainable world through smart technologies that tweak the AC in our living rooms and point out the shortest way to the nearest fair-trade organic coffee shop.

 

In this frame of mind, my online/offline work Post-Apocalypse Smart City Lagoon is a small-scale prototype of sorts for an alternate type of smart city. Caragliu, Del Bo and Nijkamp [2] from the Department of Spatial Economics at VU University Amsterdam conceptualize the smart city as the integration of physical space and digital communication technologies to ‘fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with a wise management of natural resources’. Reframing this perspective, my work proposes a smart city based on utilizing digital technology for catastrophic doomsaying, rather than direct process optimization. Appropriating the QR code as an iconic element of smart cities [3], the work connects trash cans – mundane and often unappreciated artefacts of everyday public space – to a digital space that hints at a post-apocalyptic scenario: after the sea has risen, trash cans float as reminders of the inevitable materiality of consumption.

 

Across Venice, QR codes have been attached to over 250 trashcans of three different types. When you scan a code with an Android smartphone it will load a 360 degree videoscape that shows trashcans of the same model you scanned, floating in a vast water mass, green like the Venice lagoon.

[1] Thomas More, 1516 (1967). Utopia. Trans. John P. Dolan. In James J. Greene and John P. Dolan, eds. The Essential Thomas More. New York, NY: New American Library.

[2] Caragliu, A; Del Bo, C.; Nijkamp, P, 2009. Smart cities in Europe. Research Memoranda 0048. Amsterdam: VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Economics, Business Administration and Econometrics.

[3] See for example: Businesswire.com, 2014. Smart Cities Turn to uQR.me Dynamic QR Codes to Share Information. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20141203005047/en/Smart-Cities-Turn-uQR.me-Dynamic-QR-Codes  [accessed 1 May 2018].