Urban and Urbanization

Smart city as anti-planning in the UK

Critical commentaries have often treated the smart city as a potentially problematic ‘top down’ tendency within policy-making and urban planning, which appears to serve the interests of already powerful corporate and political actors. This article, however, positions the smart city as significant in its implicit rejection of the strong normativity of traditional technologies of planning, in favour of an ontology of efficiency and emergence. It explores a series of prominent UK smart city initiatives (in Bristol, Manchester and Milton Keynes) as bundles of experimental local practices, drawing on the literature pointing to a growing valorisation of the ‘experimental’ over strong policy commitments in urban governance. It departs from this literature, however, by reading contemporary ‘smart experiments’ through Shapin and Schafer’s work on the emergence of 17th-century science, to advance a transhistorical understanding of experimentation as oriented towards societal reordering. From this perspective, the UK smart city merits attention primarily as an indicator of a wider set of shifts in approaches to governance. Its pragmatic orientation sits uneasily alongside ambitions to ‘standardise’ smart and sustainable urban development; and raises questions about the conscious overlap between the stated practical ambitions of smart city initiatives and pre-existing environmental and social policies.

more articles from

Volume 37 Issue 3