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.