Visualising the Smart City

The term ‘Smart City’ encompasses a somewhat new way of talking about, representing and visualizing cities. Much like the infamous buzz word ‘green,’ ‘smart’ entails discourse, imagery, technology and subject positions.

According to the Smart City Council, the smart city sector is still paddling in the “I’ll know it when I see it” phase, without a universally accepted definition. However, they do note that a Smart City is generally considered one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions.

Speaking at the African Centre for Cities’ first brown bag event of this year, on March 15, ‘Visualising the Smart City, Professor Gillian Rose a cultural geographer from The Open University (UK), presented some background and insights from her pilot research on ‘Seeing the city in digital times: image, flow and friction.’

The project seeks to address two core questions: who pictures cities in what kinds of ways? And, how are technologies creating new ways of looking at and conceptualizing cities?

Rose explains that scholars have argued for the importance of narratives of the Smart City to be realised, given that they are depicted as the latest, technologically advanced future scenarios. Because of this, companies are investing a great deal of money into visualizing Smart Cities. For example, Rose showed a picture of ‘The Crystal’, in Docklands London—a sustainable cities project sponsored by Siemens. The project is “partly appetizing, partly not,” says Rose, because such projects suggest that corporations are trying to enact a shift towards the default values of digital visuality — they’re not trying to show us what a Smart City looks like, but are trying to train us into a particular form of urban visuality. The empirical questions Rose therefore wants to ask are: what are the values in this urban visuality, and how do these corporations actually picture people in these cities?

Quoting from Dr Rubenstein (2015), Rose notes that “The problem is that in a post-Fordist society the locus of political agency and of cultural relevance has shifted from the object – as visually arresting as it might be – to the processes that (re)produce and distribute the object.” She announced that her pilot work on imageries will focus on the effects of spatialities, visualities and mobilities, which will involve three kinds of imagery: 1) CGI visualisations, 2) graphic cartoon explanatory images for Smart Cities, and 3) neon data ‘glow maps.’

Rose explained that each of these imageries serve to stage, costume and intensify urban life and the urban vision. Therefore, Rose stressed that the software used to create these imageries is very important. The manipulation of images in space and over time has led to the emergence of a global visual aesthetic — where there is a visual language emerging, that gives this software some kind of agency that is ‘post-pictorial’ and beyond the frame.

The take home message from Rose was that “opting out of the digital/Smart City is not really an option.” These imageries, that depict cities, not only show mobility and flow, but they themselves are also highly mobile. Therefore in an age where the digital is embedded in almost every sector of society, especially cities, we need to better understand the way these imageries flow and become mobile within and between cities.

Photo credit: Kake

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