Smart City Planning: Complexity

Smart City Planning: Complexity

Ulrik Ekman
Copyright: © 2018 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/IJEPR.2018070101
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This article reflects on the challenges for urban planning posed by the emergence of smart cities in network societies. In particular, it reflects on reductionist tendencies in existing smart city planning. Here the concern is with the implications of prior reductions of complexity which have been undertaken by placing primacy in planning on information technology, economical profit, and top-down political government. Rather than pointing urban planning towards a different ordering of these reductions, this article argues in favor of approaches to smart city planning via complexity theory. Specifically, this article argues in favor of approaching smart city plans holistically as topologies of organized complexity. Here, smart city planning is seen as a theory and practice engaging with a complex adaptive urban system which continuously operates on its potential. The actualizations in the face of contingency of such potential are what might have the city evolve over time, its organization, its wholeness, and its continued existence being at stake from moment to moment.
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This paper aims to address and alleviate the current lack of explicit and agreed-upon definitions of the terms ‘smart city’ and ‘smart city planning’ by discussing their implicit meanings in both existing research and a number of concrete urban projects during the last 25 years. In particular, this paper will analyze and evaluate the three main tendencies at play in the adoption of reductivist approaches to ‘smart city planning.’ These concern the three key reductions of complexity made operational when singular priority and privilege are granted to strategic national politics (as in South Korean U-city projects), to advances in the third wave of information technology (as in the four major smart city projects in Japan, urban projects in the European Union, and the Cyberjava project in Malaysia), or to a new ICT-cognitive corporate business logic (as in the IBM project for “Smarter Cities” and the “Smart + Connected Communities” initiative by Cisco System Inc.). As an alternative to these as well as to any reductivism that simply reorders primary objectives, the last part of this article discusses and argues in favor of a holist approach to planning smart cities with complexity.

Both the notion and the theory of ‘urban planning’ call for complexification today. They are in need of different and more explicitly complex discursive negotiation and theorization. The vastly increased and often hyperbolic usage in research as well as broad public mediations during the last dozen years of the terms ‘smart city’ and ‘smart city planning’ bear witness to this. Both terms remain underdeveloped and underdetermined, but they nonetheless obviously call for something ‘smarter’ and more complicated than existing notions and approaches.

During the last quarter of a century it has become obvious to large segments of entire populations that urbanization is massively on the rise in global culture and presents a vast set of unresolved issues, both existential and research-specific. It has also become evident, at the very least to academics, that research and practical developmental work still in the main draw on modern and late modern notions of the city and urban planning even though these have become problematic or insufficient due to the new challenges that have emerged after 1945 and especially after the mid-1990s. The latter challenges emerge especially from the rise of globalization, late capitalism, neoliberalism, and network societies which are today well into their second major phase of development. The pressures of these new challenges are visible in the prominence granted in the urban planning of 1990s to globalization and the virtual reality of e-planning. They are then also visible in the tempered revision of this prominence in the early 2000s as the import of physical territory, the nation state, and the local returns, along with a different pursuit of mixed urban realities.1

Towards the end of the second decade of the 2000s, ‘smart cities’ have become a discursive signpost, a theoretical urgency symptomatic of the challenges faced by contemporary urban planning. One could say that ‘smart urban planning’ and ‘smart cities’ have become key stand-ins, in the history of the present, for the latency of urbanisms and cities to come. With respect to smart cities and their planning one would expect little return to talking about them as an exercise in ingenious design and architecture. It appears too simple to think of them as an applied art with certain functional requirements to be integrated, in the way that town planning could still be approached in Europe as late as 1945-1960 – although key insights from this modern tradition are still considered today, mostly on the local and tactical scales (Van Assche, Beunen, Duineveld, & de Jong, 2013). It is much more to the point to recognize in the current underarticulation of ‘smart city planning’ a call for a ‘smartness’ that has to engage with a contemporary situation in which systems and rational process views of planning have both already been hegemonic for a period and have seen a set of upheavals from postmodern planning initiatives.2

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