Towards a Theory of Smart Cities

I have been thinking about smart cities, lately...

There is no agreed-upon definition of smart cities, but as Hollands (2008) puts it, it is commonly understood as an "urban labeling" phenomenon. It is a much hyped vision for new urban agenda that is still operating under the old principles of government. Smart cities is basically a rebranding of cities that have existed for centuries, inheriting all the basic features of cities that offer a wide range of services in both public and private domains.

There are two theoretical definitions about smart cities. The first definition pertains to the multiple sub-dimensions of smart cities. Cities as a field, or more specifically urban planning, contains a number of specialized sub-fields, such as land use, housing development, transportation, and environmental planning. These sub-fields are often regarded as theories in cities. Smart city theories, therefore, follow the same operationalization of the existing city functions and operations. Therefore, smart cities as a field, will include a specialized subject, such as smart building, smart mobility, sustainable development and resilience, and so forth. Much of these specialized fields are still under development, and are likely to create confusion to many people (Albino et al, 2015). But, that's the nature of cities as a field and a discipline.

A second theoretical definition about smart cities is related to epistemological or meta-physical construct of smart cities. This approach takes the cue from the traditional theories of cities. Theorizing the concept of cities calls for philosophical and epistemological understanding of what it exactly means to be urban (Brenner and Schmid, 2015). A theory of smart cities, therefore, is about metaphysical representation and conceptualization of cities as an independent agent or entity with its own characters and operating principles.

Does new technology fundamentally change how we understand cities? Some people will contend that smart cities is just like an old wine in a new bottle. In other words, there is no fundamental shifts in understanding of cities from an epistemological angle regardless of how disruptive or innovative the smart city theories are. Some other will argue that theories of smart cities call for an entirely new approach to understanding cities, and that this is truly an uncharted territory.

It is an open question whether smart city theories themselves call for an entirely new epistemological thinking. But, my understanding is that most urban theorists and researchers have been quite silent when it comes to theorizing smart cities from an epistemological point of view. Perhaps, there is a slight reservation, if you like, in looking at smart cities as a new and fundamentally different concept of urban theories. This is somewhat true in that smart city theories inherit much of the existing urban theories, or even build on the entire history of western philosophy.

To develop a theory of smart cities, I must start from the genealogy of urban theories and their immediate parents, namely Kantian philosophy and Nietzsche's critique of Kant. These two philosophers are often regarded as representing the opposite side of the philosophical schools, namely idealism versus existentialism (Kantian transcendental idealism vs. Nietzsche's nihilism). The Nietzsche's account of existentialism can be traced later in Deleuze's assemblage theory, which is quite relevant in theorizing the smart city epistemology.

All these philosophical thinking will come to the table when I discuss the nature of smart cities, operating under the mechanism of artificial intelligence or algorithms, which is understood as either inanimate or animate objects, depending on how we look at it. Kantian philosophy will emphasize that there is a fundamental difference between human and non-human beings that make up the smart city phenomenon. Nietzsche, on the other hand, will avoid the discussion about the epistemological distinction between humans and robots, but instead will focus on how the existing patterns and connections between the two make up the world as we live in.

When it comes to making decisions in the context of smart cities, algorithms can be either neutral or somewhat biased depending on how its philosophical principles are hard wired or programmed. Is there a moral view of a machine or an algorithm? The answer will depend on how we define moral or ethics and how machines can assimilate or even instill human moral views. Even so, it will be difficult to make a clear distinction between choices made by humans and by machines. That is, the future of smart cities or algorithmic cities will be in a hybrid form of human and non-human actors making decisions collectively. Auto-pilot feature in a car with human intervention for emergency is one example. The distinction between human choices/preferences and algorithmic choices/preferences will become increasingly blurry as our reliance on algorithms to make everyday decisions will likely to grow as algorithms become smarter and smarter. This is already happening in e-commerce domain and will likely to penetrate deeply into cyber-physical systems and even to a purely physical realm.

This is the synopsis of how I would write about the theory of smart cities. These thoughts will be embraced into developing a (new) theory of smart cities or algorithmic cities.


Hollands, R. G. (2008). Will the real smart city please stand up? City, 12(3), 303-320.

Albino, V., Berardi, U., & Dangelico, R. M. (2015). Smart cities: Definitions, dimensions, performance, and initiatives. Journal of Urban Technology, 22(1), 3-21.

Brenner, Neil, and Christian Schmid. (2015) Towards a new epistemology of the urban? City 19.2-3: 151-182.

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