Smartness? Between Discourse and Practice

Catalysing Cross-scales: Emergent Urbanism and Smart Nodes

Annuska Rantanen: Tampere University of Technology, Finland

Ari Hynynen: Tampere University of Technology, Finland


KEYWORDS: Emergent Urbanism, Smart Nodes, Hybridity

Many scholars have called for more human-oriented interpretations of smartness. Therefore, smartness can refer to, for example, digital empowering tools for urban commoning, as well as to innovation nodes, platforms and networks of new economy. Or more generally, it may refer to urban self-organization, adaptation and exaptation, concepts highlighting bottom up emergent patterns, which catalyse urban transformation. We call this emergent urbanism.

Emergence refers to the rise of qualitatively new system properties, behaviour and patterns, from interactions between actors/agents without an external control mechanism. New bonds are developed between urban actors, between social, material, ecological and institutional domains, meaning mutually beneficial interaction. This leads to new regimes represented in differentiating cultures of civic engagement, hybridity of evolving agencies, emerging of new urban qualities and novel cultures of planning. Emergent urbanism covers diverse initiatives from production of space and services to nurturing urban commons in everyday surroundings, helping make cities more inclusive, resource-wise and resilient.

How do civic initiatives rise and scale to larger ecosystems, and how can they be supported by authorities and spatial planning? We invite scholars, actors and innovators to disseminate their knowledge and experiences on the ‘new smart turn’, which builds on civic engagement and new forms of co-governance mediated by digital tools. We are interested in various dimensions of smartness and how they emerge in space, time and governance practices. You may focus on some of the following themes:

  • systemic transition and practices (new economies, P2P, DIY, innovation platforms, commoning, sharing economy).
  • concepts of emergent urbanism (innovation, adaptation, self-organisation, co-evolution, empowerment, co-creation)
  • spatial manifestations: new nodes of urbanity; resilient heritage and ecologic memory; typological process and mobility in the algorithmic age; multi-functional infrastructures

Smartness as Ideological Practice: Is Smartness an Empty Signifier in the Discourse of the Future Built Environment?

Chuan Wang: University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom


KEYWORDS: Empty Signifier, Ernesto Laclau, Ideology, Discourse Analysis

In recent years, smartness has emerged as a keyword in the discourse about the future built environment. Numerous ‘smart’ concepts, such as smart city, smart growth, smarter city, smart home and smart parking, are leading to the discursive changes in academic discussion, city initiatives, urban policies and development practice. However, the question on the scope of smartness emerges when smartness is interpreted variously in discourse and practice. For example, Cocchia (2014: 13) concluded that: ‘the concept of smart city embraces several definitions depending on the meanings of the word “smart”’.

This session aims to explore whether smartness is merely an empty signifier to mask the tension between the desire of technological advancements and the demand to solve the existing urban problems, such as reducing urban inequality, improving environmental quality and retaining public interest in development. According to Laclau (2006: 107), the production of an empty signifier ‘signifies a totality which is literally impossible’, since the rhetoric with empty signifiers keep the calmness among conflicting parties in politics. If the common core of urban futures is absent, an equivalent relationship cannot be reached among different positions of antagonism or united by any shared positive features. Therefore, as an empty signifier, smartness may play a unifying role in the process of belief and aspiration of urban futures, giving coherence to a group of conflicting meanings by signifying it or giving a general label of explicit connotation and agreement for this contested ground (Gunder and Hillier, 2009). The session calls for papers, Pecha-Kucha presentations or short films to uncover the ‘floating meanings’ of smartness in the discourse and practice of the future built environment and explore how smartness channels the various ideologies under this overarching concept.