Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Michel Foucault and the Smart City: Power Dynamics Inherent in Contemporary Governing through Code

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Michel Foucault and the Smart City: Power Dynamics Inherent in Contemporary Governing through Code

Article excerpt

Abstract. Drawing upon Michel Foucault's approach to power and governmentality, this paper explores the internal logics and dynamics of software-mediated techniques used to regulate and manage urban systems. Our key questions are as follows: what power and regulatory dynamics do contemporary smart-city initiatives imply? And how do smart information technologies intervene in the governing of everyday life? Building on the Foucauldian distinction between apparatuses of discipline and apparatuses of security, the paper approaches these questions on three broad levels, namely: how contemporary 'governing through code' relates to its referent object (referentiality axis), to normalisation (normativity axis), and to space (spatiality axis). Empirically, the paper investigates two high-profile pilot projects in Switzerland in the field of smart electricity management, aimed at (1) the assessment of customer needs and behaviours with regard to novel smart metering solutions (iSMART), and (2) the elaboration of novel IT solutions in the field of smart electricity grids for optimised load management (Flexlast).

Keywords: smart city, governmentality, power, smart meters, smart grid, security, Michel Foucault, surveillance


Recent urban policy debates have been heavily influenced by discourses reiterating the promises associated with 'smart' information technologies (ITs) in terms of optimising the managementat-a-distance of urban infrastructures. In Switzerland, as elsewhere, numerous IT-based smart initiatives are being set in motion, relating to a wide range of services and systems, from electricity grids to public transport and traffic management. One of the many terms used for towns and cities embarking upon such initiatives and developments is 'smart cities'.

Although there is today no consensus regarding how exactly to define the IT-mediated 'smartness' of urban infrastructures (Giffinger et al, 2007, page 10; Hollands, 2008), or which projects, practices, and technologies to subsume under the umbrella term 'smart cities', it is possible to identify at least three interrelated centres of gravity around which most approaches navigate. This outline takes into account only those literatures that understand smart cities as instrumented--ie, computerised--urban systems [for a wider overview of alternative smartcity approaches, stressing creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, see Kitchin (2013)].

Firstly, discourses on smart cities emphasise the novel possibilities of generating, gathering, and processing data which arise from the digitisation of urban systems in the present-day world. Secondly, smart-city developments are presented as the result of novel possibilities to interconnect and to fuse various types and sources of data relating to various aspects of everyday life. Thirdly, the smartness of cities is frequently set in relation to data analytics, thus approached as the correlative of the increasingly automated management of urban systems. The key point here is software, understood as predefined lines of code that process and analyse data with a view to generating automatic responses (Kitchin and Dodge, 2011; Thrift and French, 2002).

In sum, smart cities are presented as the object of a wide range of technologically mediated practices of management at a distance, based on orchestrated assemblages of computerised systems that act as conduits for multiple crosscutting forms of data collection, transfer, and analysis. At their core, efforts towards smart cities thus imply a world of optimised ordering and regulation that relies fundamentally on the coding of social life into software (Haggerty and Ericson, 2000; Lyon, 2007). In other words, smart cities subsume a heterogeneous range of techniques and efforts aimed at governing through code.

Of course, techniques and efforts towards the increased IT mediation of urban systems are neither new nor unique to smart cities. …

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