“Smart” Is Not a Thing: Epistemological Framings and Limits of Smart Cities

Authors: Ryan Burns*, University of Calgary
Topics: Geographic Information Science and Systems, Urban Geography, Geographic Theory
Keywords: Smart cities, knowledge politics, digital geographies, urban geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: 8222, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Researchers over the last 20 years have spilled considerable ink seeking a comprehensive definition of smart cities. These inquiries are primarily parameter-setting: what is the smartness of smart cities? How should we distinguish the smart city from other urbanisms? Many answers to these inquiries are in tension with each other, if not in direct contradiction. Moreover, this definitional approach positions the smart city as ontics: material assemblages of digital technologies and built urban form. While this approach contributes fundamental conceptual insights, and acknowledges the innate materiality of the digital and the urban, it cannot attend to the discursive and performative nature of smartness. It does not, then, help us think about the epistemological work that smart cities do.

In this paper, I argue that the smart city concept's persistent ambiguity is due to the epistemological axis of 'smartness' that particular self-interested actors leverage in contingent and context-specific ways. I displace questions of what smartness is in order to explore how it structures what we can know about cities and frames the knowledges we produce about them.
I draw here from an ongoing database ethnography of the City of Calgary, Alberta, to illustrate how knowledge of cities is framed, filtered, and mediated through “smart” technologies. These empirics illustrate how artifacts like databases comprise an important locus of struggles around knowledge capture and representation. More importantly, by juxtaposing this knowledge politics with a nascent grassroots-level data sharing platform, it replaces notions of “smart city” as ontological category with a performative epistemological framework.

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