KU author questions smart city assumptions

Published: Aug. 1, 2020 at 5:58 PM CDT
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LAWRENCE, Kan. (WIBW) - A University of Kansas author is questioning assumptions on smart cities.

The University of Kansas says in “Smart Cities,” Germaine Halegoua reviews smart cities and argues that ordinary citizens need better tools to evaluate the promises and pitfalls of the public-private developments.

“That everything is double-sided, or that there’s a duality to a lot of these promises and justifications, is exactly what makes the smart city so interesting to look at and so troublesome,” said Halegoua, associate professor of film & media studies. “For every innovation, there are not just unintended consequences, but there is so much complexity within urban environments and so many different populations that use and experience the city so distinctly, that to design this sort of one-size-fits-all model of smart urbanism, it’s not really accurate, and it’s not really useful.”

Halegoua says her research focuses on networking, including the topic of dark fiber, a physical legacy of the dot-com boom. She says this is her second book published in 2020, following “The Digital City: Media and the Social Production of Place.” She says the newest volume is part of MIT Press’s Essential Knowledge Series, consisting of pocketbooks on current topics.

Halegoua says she she wrote the book to question to what extent the smart cities help residents. She says before they can even understand what is being proposed and who might benefit, many have found their hometowns retrofitted with internet-connected devices and called smart cities. She says she hopes her book can empower people to talk with planners about what they want from future cities.

According to Halegoua, her book questions the smart city’s tendency to collect big data and worry about how to use it later. She says she critiques “solutionism” that sees every urban phenomenon as a problem with a technological fix.

Halegoua says while she wrote the book before the George Floyd protests or the crackdowns in Hong Kong, she has long been concerned about the smart city’s potential as a surveillance system.

“I don’t want to say across the board, 100%, that the smart city is always a surveillance city,” Halegoua said. “But if you think about the smart city as one that ubiquitously implements digital technologies in order to gather data, and that data is supposed to lead public officials or municipalities to make changes or decisions based on that data collected, then the smart city is always about surveillance because it’s always about measuring, monitoring, collecting.”

“There’s also this idea that if things are happening in public spaces they should be measured, they should be analyzed, they should be surveilled. And that’s not always the way that the people who are being surveilled feel about sharing information about their whereabouts or their purchases or who they talk to.”

Halegoua says contrasting to smart from the start cities that were built on green fields or the retrofitted ones the U.S. is currently seeing, she prescribes an alternative model of smart-city development that she dubs the “social city.”

“Social-city models are ones that aspire to something other than optimization and efficiency,” she said. “Their planners and residents think more critically about the types of places that they’re creating when they’re implementing digital technologies and who the city and technologies are actually serving, who the smart cities are being built for.”

Halegoua says she urges readers to keep in mind that the retrofitted smart city builds on and is “limited and restricted by preexisting inequities.” She says with new paradigms, things do not have to be the way they are currently.

“There’s nothing innate about the technology that is necessarily bad,” Halegoua said. “Technologies like cameras and data analytics and the Internet of Things are tools, right? They’re culturally embedded tools, and people design these tools within the social and economic conditions that they’re a part of, which means they’re not inherently bad or good, but they’re never politically or ideologically neutral, either.”

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