Smart yet (in)Sensible? Feminist Critical Perspectives on Smart Cities

— Nassim JafariNaimi, Kathi R. Kitner and Beth Coleman —

Amid the hype about ‘smart cities,’ what do feminist perspectives have to offer? On September 2, 2017, as part of the annual 4S conference held in Boston, we organized two sessions on smart cities titled “Smart yet (in)Sensible? Feminist Critical Perspectives on Smart Cities.” The title referenced this year’s conference theme of STS (In)Sensibilities, which intersected our concerns with the way technologies are integrated in cities with little or no attention to their social, political, and human consequences. We convened this panel out of our collective dissatisfaction with the technology-centered and industry-driven initiatives under the umbrella of smart cities. These initiatives are often accompanied with discourses that evoke images of a techno-utopic city: where traffic flow is managed efficiently; where data move at lightning speed to underpin “smart” decision making; or where negative environmental impacts are sensed and defused. How might we understand “smart” technologies in relation to sense (e.g., visible, accessible, and actionable) and sensibility (e.g., effective, reasonable, and inclusive)?

The eight presenters came from a variety of fields—anthropology, communication, journalism, geography, community development, and computing policy—representing work from the United States, France, Brazil, and South Korea. We embraced this diversity, which indeed provided insight into the similarities and differences of issues that are of current and emerging importance. The presentations were well-aligned with the panel’s call, which encouraged submissions that engage smart cities from the feminist and critical race perspectives and exemplified some of their key tenets as described below.

The presentations engaged specific applications within local settings and the embodied and situated experiences and practices they entailed: Kijun Yun and Yoonjung Lee of Kaist University highlighted the gap between urban experience of women within the South Korean context and the underlying assumptions of safety apps and high-tech emergency response systems that equate being watched with safety; Hamil Pearsall and Michele Masucci of Temple University together with Alan Wiig of the University of Massachusetts illustrated the distance between youth’s perspectives on the future of cities in Philadelphia. Contrary to what one might expect and in spite of their fluency and excitement about technology, the youth did not see technology as the solution to their cities’ problems and instead highlighted low-tech interventions such as voting.

The presentations put forward cases that were attentive to social differences and politics: Sreela Sarkar of Santa Clara University presented Mission Convergence in Seelampur, the largest resettlement colony in the capital city of New Delhi. She illustrated the subtle ways that the program represented itself as networked, inclusive governance but failed to account for deeper structural inequities and inadvertently reinforced them. Burcu Baykurt from Columbia University noted how the rollout of Google Fiber in Kansas City brought a group of civic entrepreneurs together in their commitment to assure access in low-income neighborhoods yet still failed to address issues of digital divide in any meaningful way. Félix Talvard of Mines ParisTech noted the blurring line of public and private enterprises illustrated in the context of “Medellínnovation,” an experimental district created in Medellín, Colombia, with aspirations to serve as a model of smart city development in the Global South.

And, last but not least, the presentations highlighted the situated and value-laden nature of smart city projects and initiatives: Alessandro Angelini from Johns Hopkins University highlighted the ideological drivers of Rio’s Operations Center such as its technophilia, which assumes intrinsic value to big data and presumes technological solutions to urban problems. Aaron Shapiro from the University of Pennsylvania examined the development of LinkNYC, a public-private partnership to replace New York City’s aging payphone infrastructure. He contrasted LinkNYC with rejected proposals from the Reinvent Payphones competition to show design possibilities in the smart city’s infrastructural imaginaries that could promote more progressive ethics. Meg Young from the University of Washington presented an ethnographic study of smart cities in Seattle to show its unresolved intersection with the Washington State Public Records Act, the law that is recognized as being one of the most pro-transparent of its kind. In this context, she asked whether data collected in smart cities and recorded by governments should be understood as public record, a question that remains unsettled by the courts and brings to fore the intersection of technology deployment, policy development, and the law.

In broader public discourses of smart cities, technocratic sensibilities remain hegemonic. However, this two-part panel at 4S marks an important site at which scholars have started to articulate urgent critical feminist perspectives. Together, they help to chart out a critical terrain of smart cities that holds great promise for further politically-engaged STS scholarship.