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Rethinking the Smart City: Democratizing Urban Technology

Democratizing urban technology.

Following the celebration of the “creative city” (as described by Richard Florida), the “smart city” has become the new flavor of the month—and a brand. It makes clever use of resources, and it attracts money, corporate power, and private industries. Offering us cheap, effective solutions to social and political problems, the smart city is functional, optimized, and safe rather than participatory, sustainable, and fair. However, the problem is not merely the regulatory impulse of smart technologies. 

Coming from a political-economic rather than a purely technical perspective, the smart city can only be understood within the context of neoliberalism. In order to remain competitive in the era of austerity politics, cities hand over the management of public infrastructure and services to private companies, both de-centralizing and de-personalizing the political sphere.

What can cities do to ensure the democratization of technology? One of the main solutions is for them to preserve their ability to implement independent, effective policies. Also, they should preserve a degree of autonomy and establish a buffer between themselves and their technology providers in order to ensure their “technological sovereignty”. This idea of technological sovereignty encompasses the citizens’ capacity to have a say and participate in how the technological infrastructure around them operates and what ends it serves. Finally adopting a wider and more ambitious goal for rethinking the political and economic models which make cities work, while taking on long term urban challenges such as wage gaps, affordable housing, sustainable mobility, public corruption, as well as aggregating the collective intelligence of citizens through participatory processes in political decision-making can lead to a more democratic use of urban technology.

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