Smart Cities: Novel Urban Policy Model in the Making

Funding: COST
Duration: 18 mois

Coordination: Francisco Klauser & Ola Söderström

Research Fellow: Till Paasche


‘Smart’, or ‘smarter’, cities have been a recurring theme in recent urban policy debates. In Switzerland, as elsewhere, numerous ‘smart initiatives’ are being set in motion, yet there is to date no ‘smart city’ as a whole, or as a fully established urban policy model. Today, smarter cities must be understood as a wide and disparate range of efforts which aim at the creation of the ‘future city’ as an interconnected, digitized and ‘technologically empowered’ (IBM, 2010) system of connections, processes and flows. There are extensive literatures emphasising the promises associated with smart initiatives in terms of security, urban management and sustainability.

Drawing upon the interdisciplinary field of Surveillance Studies, combined with literatures on urban policy mobilities, the suggested research wants to move beyond such generalised promises: At their core, efforts towards smarter cities imply a world of perfect ordering and regulation-at-a-distance that relies, fundamentally, on the surveillance and coding of urban life into software (Haggerty, Ericson, 2000; Graham, 2005 Lyon, 2007 ). Surveillance Studies have highlighted a number of critical issues arising from such developments, including the effects on privacy, social trust, human behaviour and public space; the depth of accountability and transparency; the risks associated with information sharing; the role of private interests in urban public policies; the cost-benefit and effectiveness of technological systems, and the prevalence of errors in such systems; etc. (Cost Action IS0807, 2008).

The proposed research aims to empirically address these issues. It adopts a micro-perspective, locating the multiple power relations and problems surrounding smarter cities in the context of a specific range of projects and sites. Our basic assumption is that novel technoscientific solutions to smarter cities become examinable in their making in distinct locations that act as laboratories for assembling ‘whole’ architectures of composite technologies, guidelines and approaches. Thus our project investigates two initiatives which are designed and framed as laboratories – albeit of different kinds, scales and ambitions – for the development and testing of novel urban-centred smart solutions:

  • Future Cities Laboratory, a research platform inaugurated on September 1st 2010 as a joint initiative between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore.
  • Ittigen, a municipality situated in close proximity to the city of Bern. Ittigen partners with four institutions (Swiss Post, BKW FMB Energy Ltd., Swisscom Ltd. and IBM Switzerland) to form the association inergie, which was founded in September 2008. inergie is devoted to developing and testing new smart solutions in the fields of building technologies, energy, electricity and mobility (inergie, 2009).

Anchored in an ANT line of thinking (Latour 2005; Callon, Law, 1997), our purpose is to unpack the chain of mediations through which relevant actors, ideas and things connect and interact in the co-production of the two sites, and to investigate the relationships, forces and mechanisms that tie them to each other and to other sites and projects. Thus the proposed research places centrally the processes, relationships and interests through which current efforts towards smarter cities are conditioned and co-produced. There are various qualities relevant to this investigation, but two of these are especially important: the public-private coalitions of authority and the interacting forms of expertise in the making of smart cities as an urban model for the future.

To address these issues, the proposed research will follow three methodological pathways: 1) textual analysis of literature and reports; 2) ethnographic non-participant observation and ‘shadowing’; 3) semi-structured interviews. The project is exploratory in ambition and scope and intends to lead to further, follow-up research proposals in connection with smarter cities.