Technology, infrastructure, and the smartification of cities
Location Frankland Colloquium (Faraday Complex)
Date and Start Time 28 Jul, 2018 at 09:30
Sessions 1


  • Davide Orsini (Mississippi State University) email
  • Regev Nathansohn (University of Haifa) email

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Discussant Prof Davide Orsini (Mississippi State University)

Short abstract

What are Smart Cities? This panel seeks contributions that explore what is involved in processes of smartification, and examine what kind of infrastructural work is required to enact and harmonize potentially diverging technopolitical goals in the designs and everyday life of Smart Cities.

Long abstract

A growing number of cities define themselves as "Smart Cities" based on the widening and deepening of the technological platforms they implement. From focusing on infrastructure and public services to culture and sociality, Smart City projects allow for confluences, collaborations and intersections of various stakeholders, such as developers and users, decision-makers and residents, experts and non-experts, programmers and artists, entrepreneurs and researchers.

Some stakeholders and observers argue that smart city projects contribute to governance efficiency, to social connectedness, and to improvements of climate, health and security. At the same time, critics show skepticism regarding the goals assigned to urban digital tools (such as sensors, CCTV cameras, and other digital tools), the practices of their operation, and their derived political and ethical considerations (such as algorithm governance and ubiquitous surveillance).

Since cities "smartification" is a vague social process with different, sometimes contradicting meanings, this panel seeks papers drawing from ethnographic explorations of Smart Cities' confluences, collaborations and intersections between the various stakeholders as well as between humans and the city's infrastructure. Such papers could focus on the various interests, strategies and tactics involved in the invention, implementation and use of Smart City projects; on processes of shaping urban sociality and denizens' subjectivity through the design of digital platforms and algorithms; on the formations of digital labor in the smart city's economy of datafication; on forms of exercising power on and resistance of cyborg citizens; and on the kinds of creative collaborations that evolve in and around smart city projects.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Ethnography and the "Smart City"

Author: Regev Nathansohn (University of Haifa) email
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Short abstract

This paper asks what could ethnographic research contribute to our understanding of "Smart Cities". I begin with a review of contemporary inter-disciplinary academic literature and the various potentials for ethnographic interventions, and then focus on two ethnographic case studies.

Long abstract

In the past decade, the term "Smart Cities" has become a title associated with many cities around the world and with a broad field of activity for high-tech entrepreneurs and investors. The advantages of smart cities are celebrated as designed to improve infrastructure management, government and security services and to develop mechanisms for democratization and community management. At the same time, critiques warn against widening digital divide, against digital surveillance and infringement of individual rights, against misuse of personal data, and against the tyranny of algorithms.

This paper asks what could ethnographic research contribute to our understanding of "Smart Cities". I begin with a review of contemporary inter-disciplinary academic literature and the various potentials for ethnographic interventions, and then focus on two ethnographic case studies. The first case is a series of professional encounters between various "Smart Cities" entrepreneurs and decision-makers from local and national politics, and the second case is a neighborhood project, based on social-media platform, which I regard as smarting the city from bottom-up. These case studies reveal gaps between the discourse on "Smart Cities" and the practices on the ground - both in professional meetings and among neighborhood residents. While the discourse deals with technology for improving efficiency, service and security, the conduct on the ground exposes technology's limitations and an intensive need for improvisations and for solving problems stemming from conflicting interpretations of data. The case studies also reveal that technological developments do not necessarily lead to the reduction of ethno-national and class inequalities.

Strategic planning and the 'smartification' of the city

Author: Uri Ansenberg (University of Manchester) email
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Short abstract

As smart cities are becoming a reality, urban strategic planning is greatly involved in the preparations and adjustments needed. Ethnographically following the planning processes of the Tel-Aviv strategic plan this paper portrays the relations between smart cities and urban strategy

Long abstract

With relation to the growing perception of cities as 'smart' entities, a growing number of STS scholars have taken an interest in the meaning of such qualities. Drawing on findings from 15 months' ethnographic research held in Tel-Aviv, this paper contributes to the study of smart cities through a shifting of our attention towards the relations between strategic planning and what is being portrayed as the 'smartification' of the city. This is done through concentrating on the findings gathered by the researcher as he was following the new Tel-Aviv strategic plan's consolidation processes inter alia public consultation sessions, 'inner' meetings of the strategic planners' teams, and 'ceremonial' presentations in which the plan was 'exposed'.

Focusing on the relations between strategic planning and real-estate valuations while presenting how these, so called, separated activities co-shape urban realities, this study aims to analyze the ways in which the formerly 'planned' and 'controlled' city is being transformed into a 'flat' financial surface organized by mere digits and algorithms. These processes are not as smooth and simple as it might initially seem, as they involve (and withstand) a long and complicated process of planning. Following these proceedings, the 'smart-city' emerges from the strategic planning as an automatic creature controlled by the liquidation of 'real-estate' (previously known as homes and houses) while doing its best to adjust to it. As part of this atmosphere the future appearance of self-driving cars, local digital currencies, shred-accommodation clean environment and etc., is being introduced into the new urban regime.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.