Review: Adam Greenfield’s Against the Smart City

Adam Greenfield comes to bury the Smart City not to praise it. His new book Against the Smart City is both a whirlwind tour of the state-of-the-art in “Smart City” rhetoric and a methodical and withering takedown of the same.

The Smart City is a “putatively urban-scale environment designed from the ground up with information processing capabilities embedded in the objects, surfaces, spaces and interactions that between them comprise everyday life” which are “held up as the kind of urban environment we might inhabit once the cities of Earth have been decisively colonized by networked informatics at some point in the not-too-distant future” (Loc 73/2464, Greenfield, 2013).

I’ve been following Adam’s work for quite some time now. It was on his recommendation that I read Jane Jacobs The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Bernard Rudofsky’s Streets for People and James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State. Greenfield’s book owes a lot to Jacobs and Scott and it wears this allegiance to situated, local and above all bottom up urbanism proudly.

Where Greenfield goes beyond Jacobs and Scott is in his focus. Jacobs was concerned with the changes being wrought in NYC, down to the block level in some cases, by various kinds of top-down urban planning. Scott addresses a larger stage, considering the failures of modernism and totalitarian planning (tautology alert) at the levels of cities and regions of countries. But both Jacobs and Scott are interested in the past. Greenfield’s attention is directed at the yet-to-be.

Against the Smart City begins with a description of ways that particular software vendors describe their wares and present the “Smart City” as being in the “proximate future” (see this paper (pdf) by Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell) – just around the corner. Greenfield demolishes, step by step, the main selling points of the smart city. He argues that not only is the smart city overly generic in its specification but that all of the rhetoric about the smart city actually requires a generic, blank-slate perspective on how cities come about, what cities are and they do. He goes further, too, arguing that the rhetoric about the Smart City is built on discredited principles of modernist urbanism and that the Smart City practically predicates an authoritarian neoliberal state.

There are, it must be said, flaws with the book. Not with the argument made, which is, I think, exemplary, but sometimes in the tone which can be hectoring and in the imagined audience which is, perhaps unapologetically, people like us. And the middle few chapters lack the drive of the front and back parts. But these are minor criticisms.

If you care about cities and how people live in them, Greenfield’s book is essential reading. The only downside is that the people who most need to read it, those who are the purveyors of the top-down process-driven technology-enabled “smart city” will actively avoid it.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Adam Greenfield’s Against the Smart City

  1. So, A, thanks, Ben, for that lovely and flattering review. Any writer could hope for no fairer a verdict.

    And B, I’ll totally cop to the charge of “hectoring,” despite my best efforts to avoid that particular pitfall. (In fact, I’ve used just that word to describe the piece’s tone.) I couldn’t quite figure out why I’d been unable to steer the voice in a more accommodating direction until a week or so after I shipped the final manuscript. I was out at drinks with a friend who, in her middle age, has taken up a close reading of the early Christians, in particular Tertullian. And she mentioned that she was having a hard time getting through his work because the tone was overly methodical and plodding and redundant and, yes, hectoring.

    And it just flipped a bit in my head, because that’s exactly how ASC reads to me — again, despite any intention I might have brought to it. So I suggested to her that this may well be the kind of voice that emerges when the writer perceives a hegemonic consensus to have sealed over in preëmption of the point they’re trying to make, and the only way to get a wedge in the door is to do so from first principles, and just keep hammering away. Not that I’m comparing myself to Tertullian, or excusing my lapses of literary taste in the present case, but I felt like I understood that kind of voice a little better in the wake of finishing ASC.

    Again, superthanks for the generous comments. I’m really, really glad you enjoyed it.

  2. I agree it’s the kind of piece where hectoring is warranted. I really think that you’re going to have your work cut out for you reaching the people who need to read ASC.

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