Is there anybody out there? The place and role of citizens in tomorrow’s smart cities

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Is there anybody out there? The place and role of

citizens in tomorrow’s smart cities

Alberto Vanolo

Dipartimento Culture, Politica e Società, Università di Torino, Italy

Draft; final version published as:

A. Vanolo (2016), “Is there anybody out there? The place and role of citizens in tomorrow’s smart cities”, Futures, v. 82, pp. 26-36. doi:10.1016/j.futures.2016.05.010


Imagining tomorrow’s life implies, to a large degree, imagining the kind of cities we will inhabit in the future. In this framework, the smart city is actually a popular vision in discourses on urban development. This paper explores alternative ways in which citizens are positioned within different imaginaries of the smart city. The premise is that most mainstream discourses implicitly assume that smart city projects will empower and improve the lives of citizens. However, their role is often ambiguous. While some visions of the smart city are characterised by the absence of citizen’s voices, others are populated by active citizens operating as urban sensors. Furthermore there are fearful visions of a future in which citizens will be subjugated by technologies that will hamper their freedom. This paper analyses the role of citizens in four alternative smart city imaginaries. The thesis proposed is that all four imaginaries are characterised by citizens playing a subaltern role, and hence the smart city is a relatively poor concept if intended as a model of the urban life of the future.


1. Introduction: setting the problem

Various contributions in the field of future studies have emphasised the meaningful role of cities as agents of global change and key elements in foresight exercises (see for example Inayatullah, 2011; Daffara, 2011; Samet, 2013). According to Daffara (2011), rethinking tomorrow’s cities now, builds our capacity to act with foresight and create resilient and liveable places.

This paper focus on one of the most popular visions for the city of tomorrow, that is the idea of the ‘smart city’. A number of cities all over the world are, in fact, implementing smart city projects, supporting the diffusion of so-called smart technologies and trying to follow ‘smart’ urban development paths.

The aim of this paper is to investigate the kind of urban imaginaries at the heart of smart city projects, particularly by focusing on the role and place of citizens.

From a theoretical point of view, the analysis is mostly grounded in debates on citizenship, subalternity and utopian urbanism. Specifically, the analysis focuses on four different smart city imaginaries, which are intended as vignettes, written by the author, assembling popular ideas and diffused stereotypes, emerging from a sample of recent cultural products, such as newspaper articles, documentary films and videogames. In line with the theoretical understanding of spatial imaginaries proposed by Shields (1991), urban imaginaries in this paper are intended as collective mythologies, presuppositions and popular stereotypical ideas about the city and, specifically, about the city of the future (and, in this sense, the expression ‘vision’ is also used in order to describe an imaginary projected into the future; on the concepts of imaginary and vision see also Stevenson, 2009; Baker and Ruming, 2015). The thesis purported here is that the four imaginaries of the smart city considered in this paper place citizens in subaltern positions.

In order to develop the argument, the paper is organised as follows. The next session introduces a brief overview of the literature on smart cities. It is follow by a discussion on the concepts of citizenship, subalternity and utopian/dystopian thinking in urban studies. Then, Section 4 discusses the methodology used in order to assemble popular ideas about urban smartness. Section 5 analyses four different smart city imaginaries, while the final section presents some concluding remarks.

2. A brief overview of the literature on the smart city

According to many commentators, the smart city is the urban utopia of the XXI century (Townsend, 2013; Datta, 2015). At the same time, the smart city is not a well-defined concept, because it is associated with different interpretations, ideas, visions, projects and experiments (Hollands, 2008; Vanolo, 2014), and actually the idea assumes slightly different meanings in different parts of the world, triggering different development policies: competing visions of the smart city are basically competing visions of society.

Most commonly, the idea of smart city relies on the implicit assumption that urban infrastructures and everyday life are optimised and ‘greened’ through technologies provided by information and communication technology (ICT) companies. This idea is crucial if considering that major environmental problems, such as global warming, are more and more framed as urban problems because of the growing global urbanisation and the rise of giant megacities in the global South characterised by huge environmental problems and growing levels of energy consumption (Davis, 2010).

2.1 A genealogy of the concept

Tracing the history of the concept, it is useful here to recognise the smart city discourse as the assemblage of several pre-existing urban imaginaries.

On one hand, smart city is obliged to policies and planning ideas from North America, in particular the concept of Smart Growth developed within the frame work of New Urbanism in the eighties (Falconer Al Hindi and Till 2001; Hollands 2008). In a nutshell, ‘new urbanism’ in planning aimed at improving the quality of life in cities by promoting communitarian ideas and by limiting urban sprawl, land consumption and private mobility. One of the major intellectual results of the ‘new urbanism’ is the idea


of Smart Growth, a planning strategy and a political idea aimed at making cities more compact and less greedy and soil-consuming.

On the other hand, the adjective ‘smart’ is indebted to the concept of ‘intelligent city’ (Castells and Hall 1994; Komninos 2002; Hollands 2008), mainly involving the relationship between urban space and technology, and including issues such as the ability to generate innovation, transition towards forms of e-governance, social learning and the provision of ICT infrastructures. Singapore has probably been the city that identified most with the imaginary of the intelligent city, as it funded a huge computing infrastructure project destined to both businesses and citizens as part of its branding as an ‘intelligent island’ (Arun and Yap 2000). A number of cities around the world have integrated the vision of the ICT city into their development strategies, and it has to be mentioned that the expression ‘smart specialisation’ – intended as a policy framework aimed at helping regions to “restart economic growth by leveraging innovation led/knowledge-based investments in regions” (OECD, 2013, p. 17) – has become popular in debates on regional development in the last decade, testifying a certain conceptual and semantic hybridisation between ideas of smartness and knowledge economy.

2.2 Recent ideas on the smart city

Without going into much detail, it is reasonable to imagine that the smart city concept partly stems from the overlapping and assembly of these two concepts of ‘intelligent city’ and ‘smart growth’ (Hollands 2008; McFarlane 2011; Allwinkle and Cruickshank 2011). Yet, looking at the evolution of the smart city narrative, it is not an academic concept that has progressively informed urban policies and that has subsequently raised the interest of economic actors, as, for example, ‘creative cities’ introduced by Richard Florida (2002), and then implemented at a global scale (Peck 2005). In the case of the smart city, the discourse has been firstly (and mostly) developed by a small number of multinational companies (cf. Graham and Marvin 2001; Paroutis et al. 2014; Söderström et al. 2014). Cisco, for example, began to adopt the smart city concept in the late nineties. IBM is now a major player in the development of smart city projects, mainly involving data collection systems and public administration management: the company has already started partnerships with cities like New York, Chicago or Madrid in order to work in the fields of urban safety management, healthcare and energy distribution, and it officially registered the term ‘smarter cities’ as a trademark (Söderström et al. 2014).

In Europe, the concept has become extremely popular, especially after the expression smart city became part of the complex mechanisms of EU research funding (Vanolo 2014). The Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development and the current Horizon 2020 introduces the term ‘smart city’ in the energy policy issues. Financial support is provided to initiatives aiming at reducing greenhouse gas emissions through improvement in the energy efficiency of buildings, energy distribution networks and transport systems. However, despite the fact that several billion Euros have been allocated in the pursuit of energy and technology-efficient cities, it is relatively easy to perceive that the idea of smart city is still unclear and undefined. For example, it is connected to a rather simplified visual vocabulary, characterised by stereotyped images with lights representing digital flows, tall buildings and a lack of people in the streets: see for example the curious case of Figure 1, which has been extracted from the European Commission’s official website on the Digital Agenda (which is closely connected to smart cities), and which curiously echoes the covers of old-style science-fiction books.


Figure 1 – The imaginary of the smart city of the future: aesthetical stereotypes

Sources: Image acquired from As discussed in the text, the same image is visible in EU’s webpage – last accessed 9 June 2015. Cover of Arthur Clarke’s novel The city and the stars – originally published in 1956 – courtesy of The Orion Publishing Group, London.

2.3 The literature on smart cities: three broad categories

Currently, it is possible to classify the literature on smart cities in urban studies and social sciences in general in three strands.

Firstly, there is a large body of literature situated at the crossroads between social, technological and managerial studies. These contributions analyse and evaluate the potential benefits and problems relating to the implementation of smart technologies, for example through the pages of international journals such as Journal of Urban Technology or International Journal of e-Planning Research. Technical and policy-oriented documents from the European Commission, the OECD and other international bodies have also contributed to this body of literature.

Secondly, there is an increasing amount of critical debates developed within social sciences. Contributions focus on the relations between smart city projects and neoliberalism (Hollands, 2008 and 2014; Vanolo, 2014), the corporate-oriented and profit-oriented logics behind smart city projects (Söderström et al., 2014), the new forms of power and control triggered by these initiatives (Greenfield, 2013; Townsend, 2014; Kitchin, 2015; see alzo Morozov, 2013), the socio-technical regimes enacted (Skjølsvold, 2014; Hu et al., 2015), and specific analytical perspectives on issues of bottom-up governance, surveillance, anonymity and the management of big data (Graham, 2012; Townsend, 2014). Thirdly, a new strand of literature, still rather limited in size, explores ‘diverse’ smart city initiatives, proposing critical analysis that looks beyond both ‘celebrative’ and ‘always critical’ approaches, via the consideration of different and various cases of smart city projects, and at the various ways in which new urban technologies are used, negotiated and even subverted by citizens. This may be the case of the analysis of Gabrys (2014), Datta (2015) or Rabari and Storper (2015).

This contribution lies in the second line of the literature reported here, and it aims at filling a gap in the current existing literature by critically investigating the possible position of citizens within different imaginaries of tomorrow’s smart city. In other words, the analysis does not investigate already existing smart city projects, but rather it focuses on discourses, ideas, stereotypes and visions circulating in relation to these projects and to the future of urban life. Rather than trying to access the impact of smart projects on urban sustainability, urban development and the functioning of cities in general, as in most of the mainstream debates on smart technologies, this article aims at sketching some alternative hypothesis about trajectories of citizens’ subjectification in smart city imaginaries.


3. Theoretical frameworks: on citizenship, subalternity and urban utopias

In order to develop the argument, this article will mobilise concepts developed in debates on urban citizenship, subalternity and urban utopias/dystopias.

3.1 Urban citizenships

The traditional understanding of citizenship refers to the civil, political and social rights and responsibilities that accompany membership in a national community (Marshall, 1950); however, this has become more and more inadequate for a number of reasons. Particularly, the centrality of the state as the political community to which citizenship is attached has been widely questioned, and many scholars have explored the extent to which new ideas about citizenship and belonging are being forged outside the idea of nation (see particularly Purcell, 2003; Staehli, 2003; Secor, 2003; Varsanyi, 2003; Baubock, 2003). Specifically, it is possible to conceptualise membership in multiple communities beyond the state, on the basis of facts such as ethnicity, religion, sexuality and gender, which unfold throughout transnational networks and spaces of flows which invest and connect globalising cities (Varsanyi, 2006; Isin, 2000; Sassen, 2007). A ‘cosmopolitian’ understanding of citizenship refers to the recognition of membership in all cross-cutting political communities, from the local to the global. It implies a processual understanding of citizenship, as opposed to a static one based on mere legal status. Citizenship is intended as an institution which is constantly challenged and reshaped. Cities, as prime sites of public space and encounter, are significant locales for the performance of citizenship in daily life (Isin, 2000; Secor, 2003). For example, rights-claiming activities, which are on the margins of formal citizenship, are part of the process of citizenship formation and may be hints for future reconfigurations (Varsanyi, 2006).

3.2 Subalternity and the multiple positionalities of urban citizens

Feminist and post-colonial studies have strongly contributed to debates on citizenship. Particularly, many scholars have challenged the assumption of ‘city life’ as a ‘sameness of experience,’ in which the subject is universal, i.e. presumed to be white, male, heterosexual, and otherwise not marginal, oppressed, or transgressive (Secor, 2003). Analysing citizenship, in this framework, goes beyond the study of the legal rights associated with state citizenship, to encompass more broadly the formal and informal power relations between individuals and social groups in society. Instead of a singular, homogenous sense of citizenship, the urban sphere is populated by a number of different citizenships inflected by identity, social positioning, cultural assumptions, institutional practices and senses of belonging (Secor, 2003). Many of these positionalities are, however, marginal, minoritarian or even subaltern. Although the expression subalternity is often used as a synonym of marginality and oppression, many scholars – and particularly Gayatri Spivak (1992) – have proposed a narrower understanding, connected to a lack of agency and self-determination, due to the exclusion from hegemonic culture. Subaltern subjects are hence silent and invisible subjects, deprived of credibility and agency; they cannot express their ways of knowing and thinking, and instead they must conform to (or be defined in negative terms with respect to) the dominant culture (Sharp, 2009).

3.3 Utopias and dystopias in urban studies

Debates on urban citizenship, and urban life in general, have been often linked to reflections on urban utopias and dystopias. It is well known that the expression ‘utopia’ was introduced in the XVI century by Thomas More, and much has been written about the role of utopias and dystopias in analysis and reflections about the past, the present and the future, and in relation to political, ecological, religious and technological utopias (on the pages of this Journal, see for example the recent contributions of Brown, 2015 and Morgan, 2015).

In the perspective of this paper, it is relevant to stress that the concept of utopia is deeply embedded in spatial imaginaries. More’s utopia was set on an island, a geographical trope that represents the physical detachment from the mainland and allows for entirely different sets of perspectives, possibilities,


identities, temporalities, and spatialities (Edmond and Smith, 2003; Minca 2009). When utopias are not located on islands, most fictional literature places them in enclosed spaces such as gardens, ships and, more crucially for the arguments of this paper, cities (Mumford, 1965; Pinder, 2005).

The concept of utopia is relevant in urban studies under, at least, three perspectives. First, utopian projects have been associated with the famous names of architects and planners such as Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Constant, who share the ambitious goal of producing good societies through the construction of good cities (Friedmann, 2000; Amin, 2006). Secondly, philosophers, such as Foucault (1984) and Lefebvre (1970), have reflected on utopias in relation to space, emphasising the potential role of utopian thinking in triggering transformative forces for societies, as recently discussed, for example, by Morgan (2015). Third, many contributions investigated the meaning of dystopias. For example, various contributions troubled conventional distinctions between utopias and dystopias, arguing that many utopian projects are revealed to be sort of ‘degenerated utopias’, as in the case of totalitarian societies (Baeten, 2002). As it will be discussed, the smart city may be conceptualised both as a utopia and as a dystopia. Finally, dystopian thinking has also been mobilised in relation to global change, environmental disasters and the related politics of global fear. Scholars like Hjerpe and Linnér (2009) and Swyngedouw (2013) emphasised the post-political nature of such dystopian thinking, which seems to picture an unavoidable future of pain and despair, without apparently leaving room for real and meaningful social change.

4. Exploring smart city imaginaries: methodological remarks

The analysis proposed in this paper focuses on four imaginaries concerning the smart city. Urban imaginaries are nurtured by planning documents, white papers, promotional videos, newspaper articles and many other sources (see Gabrys, 2014), but I will not propose a specific analysis of these documents, privileging a more subjective and qualitative approach: the four imaginaries have been assembled on the basis of discourses emerging from a sample of cultural products, which have been detected in different phases of the research process.

First, I extensively searched for documentary movies concerning smart cities. Being involved in research and teaching activities concerning smart cities for some years, I have had the possibility to collect various movies on this topic, and I searched the Internet Movie Database ( to identify missing ones and to amend them. As a result, I collected 8 documentary movies explicitly focusing on smart cities, and other 13 movies that, despite not mentioning smartness in their titles, they develop meaningful discourses on the topic. Among these movies, it is possible to mention Naked Citizens by Journeyman Pictures, 2013; Digital Amnesia by van der Haak, 2014; SmartCity: In Search of the Smart Citizen by Zandbergen and Blom, 2015.

Secondly, I searched and collected newspaper articles published in The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times mentioning ‘smart city’ in their titles from 2012 to October 2015, in order to explore journalistic representations. Documentary movies and newspaper articles have been firstly watched and read in order to acquire familiarity with discourses, debates and recurrent examples. It is relatively easy to argue that the boundary between documentary and fictional materials is often blurry and ambiguous, particularly when developing forecasts and discourses about the future,1 and

actually, several of the documentary movies and newspaper articles introduce references and connections with fictional materials. In this sense, I decided to expand the sample of materials by adding a number of them. Specifically, I collected books, movies and videogames mentioned in the documentary movies and newspaper articles, limiting the field to materials produced since 2010. In the case of novels, I considered the 2010 book Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngar, and the 2013 novel The Circle by Dave Eggers. Then, popular movies presenting alternative visions of technologies and urban life in the future have been detected, including The Hunger Games (directed by Gary Ross, 2012, and based on the 2008 book by Suzanne Collins), Elysium (directed by Neill Blomkamp, 2013), and Her (directed by Spike Jonze, 2013), together with the CBS tv-series Person of Interest. Finally, in the case of

1 As well as the boundaries between social science and fiction, and journalism and fiction: for a discussion on this complex topic, see for example the works of Latour (1993), Banks and Banks (1998) or, more recently, Caulley (2008).


videogames, Watch Dogs (by Ubisoft, 2014) has been considered because mentioned as the first videogame set in a smart city.

This collection of sources is surely partial, limited and in no way representative of the multiple, different ways in which the smart city discourse develops in different parts of the world and in different social stratifications. Specific analysis, for example focusing on particular discourses and perspectives, may be developed in order to reach a better understanding of the phenomena. At the same time, the sources at the basis of this analysis may arguably allow a first mapping of the cultural construction of alternative imaginaries of the smart city, setting the agenda for future researches.

These sources have been explored in order to extract and summarise key ideas. They have been then classified by the identification of various keywords (for example ‘totalitarian state’, ‘fear, surveillance and security’, ‘dystopian environmental catastrophe’, ‘optimistic solutionism’, etc.). Then, these keywords have been combined into four patterns (cf. Boyatzis, 1998), in order to assemble the four imaginaries, which lie at the basis of the storyline of this article. Of course, given the high level of subjectivity implied in this process and the relatively small sample of cultural products and media considered in the analysis, the four imaginaries do not have to be seen as ideal-typical in the traditional Weberian sense, but rather a proxy and a portfolio of the examples of the many ways in which the smart city discourse is intuitively framed in popular debates.

5. Four smart city imaginaries

The four imaginaries discussed in this section are not presented in a specific order, and they are not part of a single narrative. The first imaginary concerns smart city experiments produced by ICT companies, such as Songdo and Mazdar City, questioning the relative lack of human presence, at least at the imaginative level. It is followed by a description of the fear that the utopian smart city may turn into a dystopian city, characterised by surveillance and totalitarianism. The third imaginary concerns the hypothetical role of citizens in the ‘ordinary life’ of smart cities, and specifically the progressive resubjectification of citizens as active smart citizens. Finally, the last imaginary refers to the ideological construction of the ‘citizen of the future’, who has the right to live in a city that is smart enough to cope with the errors we have made and we still continue to make.

5.1 Imaginary #1. Smart cities without (or with invisible) citizens

One of the more diffused and stereotyped imaginaries of the smart city resonates with recent and ongoing projects to build new smart cities ‘from scratch’, thanks to public-private partnerships and to the production of new hyper-technological urban spaces. Songdo (South Korea), Mazdar City (United Arab Emirates) and, to a lesser degree, PlanIt Valley (Portugal) are arguably the most known cases in the field, but there are a number of similar ongoing projects all over the world (Carvalho, 2015; Glasmeier and Christoperson, 2015; Hu et al., 2015)2. Kitchin (2015) and Shelton et al. (2015) are surely right in arguing

that these cases are rather ‘exceptional’, and do not need to be considered as ‘typical’ examples of smart cities. But, on the other hand, these smart cities built from scratch are incredibly popular, and Kitchin’s argument may therefore be interpreted in the opposite way: despite their eccentricity, Songdo and Mazdar City are widely considered flagship smart city projects, and for many people, these are the quintessence of the smart city imaginary (Carvalho, 2015).

At the same time, the imaginary of the ‘instant urbanism’ characterising these smart city projects, is by no means confined to the abovementioned examples, as it pervades ideas of new urbanism in the Global South. Datta (2015), for example, has recently analysed the case of India, and the recent project of building 100 new smart cities3. Specifically, Dholera will be the first Indian smart city:

Masterplanned by UK-based global consultancy firm Halcrow, and partially paid for by the Indian state and Japanese corporations, it is envisioned that Dholera at 903 km2 area, will be twice the size of present-day

Mumbai by 2040. Marketed as the pinnacle of technology-driven urbanism, Dholera smart city turns its back to the challenges of existing Indian cities struggling with pollution, traffic congestion and slums. Dholera promises to be a new city without the ‘annoyances’ of everyday urban life (Datta, 2015, p. 4).

2 See Sennet’s commentary ‘No one likes a city that's too smart’, The Guardian, 4 December 2012.


This quotation highlights a meaningful, cultural feature of the utopian imaginary of smartness: in an era of global urbanisation, it is well known that Indian cities – and cities in the Global South more generally – are places of injustice, fragmentation and social exclusion, epitomised by the ideal-typical space of the slum (Roy, 2011; see also Davis, 2006; Angotti, 2006). In this scenario, the smart city seems to offer a solution to the problems of urbanisation in the Global South, despite the fact that such projects, in reality, run the risk of reinforcing long-standing social inequalities. It is not a coincidence that smart city projects (as well as many other modernisation projects) are coupled with the fantasy that new urban spaces are built on ‘empty land’, thereby evading public and democratic debate on mass-scale expulsions of marginalized citizens from their land and livelihoods (Watson, 2014; Datta, 2015).

In a somehow similar logic, a business report entitled ‘Africa is ready to leapfrog the competition through smart cities technology’, by the multinational company Deloitte, discusses how the lack of infrastructures characterising most African cities, may turn into a resource, as cities can directly implement new smart technologies, without adapting pre-existing technologies. 4 The African city is

hence conceived as a sort of tabula rasa for the construction of a new typology of futuristic city. Putting it differently, cities from the global south are denied to have a meaningful trajectory path, and hence urban planners and developers may apparently do not care for issues of path-dependency and coherence, both in terms of existing infrastructure and in terms of existing citizen’s political orientations. In these visions, in fact, there seems to be little room for local protests and grassroots political action: on the contrary, these urban visions are connected to the idea of citizens as invisible and silent political subjects. There seems to be no need for democratic decisions, struggles and politics. Rather, the building of a smart city looks very much like a technical issue: developing the more efficient technological solutions in order to build cities that are ‘diverse’ from the ‘badly urbanised’ actually existing cities of the Global South. On the contrary, in cities of the Global North, the smart city discourse tends more easily to be perceived as an issue of making the existing cities more smart, as testified by a number of ongoing projects of ‘smartification’5

5.2 Imaginary #2. Dystopian, pervasive and totalitarian smartness; or, the subjugated citizen

The fantasy that technologies will lead us to a dark urban future, where totalitarian regimes will seriously hamper our freedom, has been deeply embedded in popular culture for a long time.

Although public debates on smart cities are relatively new, there are already a number of cultural products based on the imaginary of smart urbanism. This may be the case of the popular videogame Watch Dogs, published in 2014 by UbiSoft. The game is set in a fictional version of Chicago, where urban infrastructures and urban services are managed by the central operating system called ctOS. The protagonist can use his smartphone in order to hack into various electronic devices tied to the ctOS, so that he can control urban infrastructures for his own benefit; for example, by stopping trains, raising security barriers and blacking out public lights (Figure 2). Hacking cameras, mobile phones, garage doors, ATMs, fuse boxes and electronic devices is, in general, fundamental to the game, which also provides the opportunity to profile ordinary people walking down the street, for example detecting their incomes, the keywords they google or to intercept their conversations. This is, to my knowledge, the first video game explicitly set in a smart city, and it provides a clear picture of a dystopian smart city imaginary. The main ideas at the heart of the game, such as the interconnection of urban infrastructures, the systematic collection of big data and the possibility of accessing sensitive personal information, are heavily grounded in collective ideas regarding the kind of urban life we will experience in the future. It is not a coincidence that, from the point of view of the company that produced the game, everything is based on

4 (last consulted 3 November 2015).

5 This is particularly the case of Northern European cities, which are often mentioned as ‘benchmarks’ in the field (cf., such as in the cases of smart city projects developed in Amsterdam (, Copenhagen ( and in various Northern European cities in general (such as the Smart Retro project by Demos Helsinki: – last consulted 24 April 2016).


potentially ‘real life’ hacking technologies, and that the game was developed with the assistance of various hi-tech experts.6

Figure 2 – Watch Dogs: smartphones and the imagined loss of privacy

Source: courtesy ©2014 Ubisoft Entertainment. All rights reserved. Watch Dogs, Ubisoft and the Ubisoft logo are trademarks of Ubisoft Entertainment in the U.S. and/or other countries.

We can mention here that one of the most diffused fears relating to smart city developments concerns issues of privacy, security and control, as testified by many critical newspaper articles7. A limited number

of ‘new’ political subjects, such as Anonymous, cyberpunks, hacktivists, and whistle-blowers, both base much of their activities, and are empowered by the possibility of accessing private or secret information; however, the ‘other’ citizens are apparently passive subjects when confronted with new technologies for surveillance. Consider the case of new ‘intelligent cameras’, which are iconic elements of the imaginary landscape of smart cities: through facial recognition systems and complex algorithms, they track ‘strange’ behaviors, where ‘strangeness’ is basically defined using statistical parameters (‘deviation from the norm’, in the statistical jargon). But there are a number of different ways in which all of us may behave strangely, and there are various examples of people who have been targeted because of intelligent cameras, or due to keyword checks of what they wrote in their emails.8 The smart city can also

be imagined, in this sense, as a technology of government, producing political subjects which are suspect and suspicious, ultimately harming our freedom. The 2013 novel, ‘The Circle’, by David Eggers, discusses the implication of the worldwide diffusion of intelligent cameras: if everyone is being constantly monitored, will we have more honest citizens, due to the impossibility of behaving wrongly without being detected? But what about the consequences, in terms of a loss of freedom?

Consider a further example: big data analytics are leading to experiments in predictive policing, that means generating forecasts concerning the profiling of subjects and places where it is likely that crimes will occur (Perry at al., 2013). This idea resonates with the policing techniques described in sci-fi movies, such as the recent tv-series Person of Interest, and curiously one of the sections of the book by Perry et al. (2013), which is highly supportive of this policing technique, is entitled ‘This is not Minority Report’. The rationale is to use big data analysis in order to concentrate police forces in specific urban spaces and 6 (last consulted 7 October 2015).

7 See Steven Poole’s ‘The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy’, The Guardian, 17 December 2014.

8 See the documentary movie Naked citizens, 2013; (last accessed 9 June 2015)


at specific times, and results from ongoing experiments in American cities such as Memphis and Santa Barbara, and are quite encouraging in terms of the decrease in the number of crimes (Vlahos, 2012). This may sound efficient, but it is dangerous from a social point of view, because it means stigmatizing and militarizing ‘dangerous’ places more and more, such as urban slums. Brazilian favelas, for example, are less and less interpreted as poor and marginalized areas, but are increasingly seen as dangerous areas to be surveilled and cleansed, also by the means of hybrid police-military forces, using technologies, weapons and also a language that is typical of warfare (urban blitz, raids, etc.) (Wacquant, 2008; Graham, 2012). But are we sure that the ordinary favela inhabitants will consider the military force a solution, and not, rather, part of the favelas’ problems? And, more generally, can the ‘other’ dystopian space of the favela be normalized, which means losing its dystopian features and its dystopian aura, because of utopian smart city technologies and smart interventions which are supposed to remove the fears and the stigmas associated with such places? It is not a coincidence that, searching on the web for images connected to smart urbanism, the picture of Rio de Janeiro’s Control Center – developed in partnership with IBM – is by far amongst the most popular ones (Figure 3), despite the well-known criticism that the system allows the monitoring of the favelas, however most areas are still largely inaccessible to policemen, and therefore the overall usefulness of the project is debatable.9 In this sense,

a meaningful hypothesis may be that the imaginary of the smart technologies will blur with the imaginary of the global slum, leading to the construction of new technological visions of technological, but still dystopian, global slums, populated by citizens aware that, potentially, they could be constantly monitored.10

Figure 3 – The Control Centre in Rio de Janiero

Source: Image from the documentary movie 'Urbanized', by Gary Hustwit, 2011. Courtesy of the film Director.

5.3 Imaginary #3. Active citizens and inhabitants-as-sensors

Many critical scholars have discussed how a key feature of neoliberalism is the responsibilisation of citizens (as well as cities and local communities: see Rose, 1999). As discussed, citizenship is not just a static social institution, but rather it may be interpreted as a dynamic and contested instrument of social rights and obligations, as well as inclusion and exclusion (Kurtz, 2005). In this sense, authors such as 9 See ‘World Cup 2014: inside Rio's Bond-villain mission control’, The Guardian, 23 May 2014. The image displayed in the article is the popular one mentioned in the main text.

10 This urban imaginary is quite popular in science fiction. Among the movies considered in this paper, this may be the case of Elysium and The Hunger Games.


Marinetto (2003) have discussed the new roles and new subjectivities that are attributed to citizens in the neoliberal scenario, often by the means of discourses on participation, involvement and responsibility. This is visible also in the sphere of environmental sustainability: as discussed by Brand (2007), urban environmental management can be understood as contributing to the constitution of the self-governing ‘active’ citizens who engage with eco-friendly behaviours, eco-friendly forms of consumption, etc.

The point is: what kind of active citizens are supposed to live in (and to give life to) smart cities? Basically, the primary way in which sustainability is to be achieved within the smart city imaginary is through more efficient processes and responsive urban citizens participating in computational sensing and monitoring practices. Urban citizens become active sensing nodes, or citizen-sensors (Gabrys, 2014; Rabari and Storper, 2015). In this vein, one of the most popular urban imageries about smart technologies refers to a city that receives feedback from its citizens’ smartphones and gathers data from sensors spread throughout the city; then, the smart city performs ‘big data’ analytics in web-connected data centres. In this way, the smart city can autonomously adjust and deliver better services in real time, for example, by changing the colours of the traffic lights according to changing traffic conditions. This urban imaginary is quite appealing and it resonates with the diffused hope that future technological advancements will solve most of our current problems – especially the environmental ones, but also the problems concerning safety, economic growth, etc. (Vanolo, 2014). Of course, the citizens that are expected to live in a smart city are supposed to be rather homogeneous: s/he is digitally educated, s/he possesses a smartphone and a pc, s/he constantly generates data and feedback about everything in her/his daily life. Non-digital citizens have apparently little room and a limited voice in the city of the future, as ironically showed for example in the novel Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngar. Maybe one day avoiding the use of a smartphone, or not having a Facebook, or Twitter, or Linkedin, or Tripadvisor account will stop being somehow tolerated or even considered radically chic (I believe it is so among many academics I know including myself), and it will start to be stigmatised, just like non separating wastes. This has been described in the dystopic novel ‘The Circle’, which hypothesises the case that, when technologies will allow that, we will start using our new medias not just for voting for the best singer in a talent show, but also for ‘serious’ referendums or political elections, making the smartphone the ultimate symbol of citizenship.

5.4 Imaginary #4. The citizen of the future in the city of the future

The most common definition of sustainable development which is the one from the Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987), emphasises the needs of the future generations. The introduction of an inter-generational concept of justice and sustainability has had a huge impact on debates on development, also in the field of urban studies, and it fuelled the imaginary at the basis of many recent science-fiction movies, in which ‘future citizens’ will cope with devastated environments due to environmental problems we are creating today. However, from a theoretical point of view, taking into account the needs and the problems of future citizens is not at all an easy task, because they are not actually existing, and because their location in time (and arguably in space, too) is ambiguous as much as the ‘proper’ timescale for sustainable development (see Catney and Doyle, 2011). If we assume that new technologies will be the key to sustainability and/or for coping with environmental change – elements at the heart of the smart city imaginary – it calls for the need for active, smart citizens embracing new eco-friendly technologies. All this leads to a rather ambiguous ‘politics of time’. In this politics, paraphrasing the psychoanalytic language, the ‘past citizens’ are basically guilty, because they irresponsibly produced the development pattern that will supposedly lead to an environmental catastrophe. Past citizens are mostly invisible subjects in the smart city imaginary, i.e. they are located in a sort of sub-conscious sphere. Conversely, future citizens are undefined subjects, claiming for an inescapable (and even post-political) right to live in a decent world: using the psychoanalytic metaphor, these forces are driven by the superego, which stands outside any political, social or philosophical discourse. In this framework, ‘actually existing’ citizens are condemned to constantly trade off welfare (pleasures) of now for the politics of the future. Of course, the result of this tension is frustration.

This is not the place to discuss the philosophical implications of this imaginary, but it has to be noted that the discursive construction of the ‘universal we’ of the present facing the ‘universal we’ of the


future is politically dangerous because it shadows the evident injustices characterising the citizens of today. The citizen of today is by far not at all a uniform subject, first of all because of different positions in terms of wealth. For people struggling with poverty, malnutrition and life in insane environments, bearing the costs of the politics of the future is rather difficult, costly and unjust if compared to the wealthy people living in smart eco-friendly neighbourhoods (Davis, 2010; Catney and Doyle, 2011). And it is even more unjust the fact that people living in ‘dystopian’ slums, despite being far from considered ‘smart citizens’ in mainstream discourses, find incredible and creative ways for coping for scarce resources, giving birth to urban lifestyles which are much more environmentally sustainable than those of most cities of the Global North (see McFarlane, 2011).

6. Concluding remarks: can the smart citizen speak

As mentioned in the theoretical section of this paper, philosopher Gayatri Spivak (1988) introduced, in a famous essay, a key issue in post-colonial thinking, which is the problem of the voice of the Subaltern. Particularly, in order to explore subalternity, it is useful to distinguish between ‘speaking of’ and ‘speaking for’ the Other, because the lack of voice is supposed to be the primary characteristic of the Subaltern. The thesis proposed in this article is that the four imaginaries discussed in this paper speak about the citizens of smart cities, and speak in the name of them, but very little is known about citizens’ real desires and aspirations.

The first among the four urban imaginaries considered in the paper is basically deprived of citizens or, more specifically, the citizens are the quintessence of the subaltern: they are silent, blind, and arguably even ‘stupid’. In fact, they need a city that may infuse smartness and that may support smart lifestyles. This is evident in the project of building new cities in order to solve the urban problems of actually existing citizens of the global south. There is arguably little space for citizens’ voices in this imaginary, because planners and technological gurus seems to know exactly what citizens desire and how to provide it to them, much in line with the approach assumed in the tradition of colonial and modernist utopian planning. It is possible to argue that this imaginary is particularly meaningful and relevant in the field of technocratic policymaking.

The second imaginary is dystopian, referring to popular fears connected to new technologies. There is a long tradition of urban fears stimulated by technological developments: among the others, Thrift (1996) and more recently Rushkoff (2013), argued that the present complex world may nurture the fascination for more simple lives and societies, from archaic to dystopian ones (Rushkoff’s brilliant analysis of zombie movies echoes some of the arguments presented in relation to this second imaginary). At the heart of this imaginary lies arguably the fear of becoming more and more subaltern subjects, and specifically subjects that are dominated by the technologies themselves. As I have discussed elsewhere, the salvaging idea of technology at the heart of the smart city project is super-organic, which means that technologies are imagined as things that are external to society, people, and human agency (Vanolo, 2014). The urban fears connected to smart cities have a similar origin: the idea that technological fetishes may eventually run out-of-control, much like in science-fiction movies such as Terminator, and hence citizens will ultimately lose the possibility of having a voice. It is not a coincidence that this second imaginary is crucial in smart city discourses in the sphere of the entertainment industry.

The third imaginary is somehow in opposition to the first one, and it partly overlaps with the second one. It refers to cities fully populated by active citizens. Inhabitants apparently have a real voice in this scenario, but this is not entirely true. The real agency of the active smart citizen populating this imaginary is very limited, because it is reduced to the generation of data that are manipulated, controlled and mobilised in ways that are completely out of control of most of citizens’ understanding of technologies. In other words, there is the serious danger that we are not going to create machines that are more and more similar to humans, but rather humans who are more and more similar to machines, both in their bodies and in their behavior (see the pioneer works of Haraway, 1991 or Braidotti, 2002; see also Adam Curis’ provocative documentary movie All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, 2011). Maybe citizens have a voice here, but they seem to lose humanity (as in Egger’s The Circle) and to speak metaphorically with the metallic voice of a computer. In its most basic and celebrative form, the virtues of the citizen-sensor urbanism are popular in discourses developed by ICT enterprises, but at the


same time these arguments often nurture the critical narratives at the basis of dystopian imaginaries (cf. imaginary #2).

Finally, the fourth imaginary concerns the citizens of the future and the politics of time connected to them. In this case, we have an imaginary of the smart city that resonates with a cacophony of voices and denied voices, which are quite complicated to map. The citizen of the past surely does not have a voice. The citizen of the future cannot surely speak as well, because it does not exist in strict sense: it is the citizen of the present who is speaking for her/him. And the citizen of the present, the ‘universal we’ discussed in the vignette, is a controversial subject, because it is an ideological construction that runs the risk of denying the contrasting voices of those suffering the injustices of the actually existing world, for example by obliterating class differences.

Of course, these reflections do not aim at arguing that smart city projects are necessarily disempowering citizens or producing subaltern subjectivities. Rather, these conclusions are aimed at emphasising that smart technologies are likely to change our political subjectivities; what we think about the way in which we understand ourselves as political subjects, subjects who have rights to speech, access, and privacy, rights that constitute us as political, as beings with responsibilities and obligations (Isin, 2015). In this scenario, the political subject ‘smart citizen’ should not be assumed as a coherent and unified being. Rather, composites of multiple subjectivities are likely to emerge from different situations and relations, and there are a number of ways of becoming smart citizens. Particularly, as stressed by authors such as Townsend (2013), Kitchin (2015), Isin and Ruppert (2015), there are a number of ways citizens can cope with digital technologies, and even subvert them: citizens are by no means passive subjects. However, a huge gap in the positionalities associated with smart citizenship is emerging. On the one hand, a limited number of new political subjects such as Anonymous, cyberpunks, hacktivists, and whistle-blowers seem to have an influential voice; on the other hand, many people – arguably, most people – simply think that most smart technologies are too difficult to be fully understood, and sometimes even too difficult to be used, and therefore technological subversion is out of the question. Secondly, divisions between those ‘having’ and those ‘not having’ technologies are likely to determine new forms of exclusion in the process of becoming citizens. The emancipatory aspect of smart city projects is rather absent for these subjects, and the proliferation of dystopic imaginaries concerning life in the smart city may probably be connected to this phenomenon.

Specifically, what seems to lack in utopian imaginaries of the smart city is the idea of citizens’s empowerment, and precisely the idea that smart cities will be also sort of huge agora in which every citizen will have the possibility of having a voice: as stressed by Bauman (1999), the public agora is desperately needed by people in these post-modern times characterised by uncertainty, solitude, liquidity and lack of control. Re-incorporating the voices of ordinary citizens – including the poor ones, the inhabitants of the slums of the Global South, and other technologically marginal or even subaltern subjects – means finding a credible way of imagining a nexus between citizens and urban technologies that is truly empowering and respectful of citizens’ wishes and hopes. More than 30 years ago John Gold (1984), writing about urban utopian thinking on the pages of Futures, stressed that planning for the city of the future must be based on real social needs. The point is that mainstream understandings of the smart city have a limited consideration of actual social needs and aspirations.


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