A smart city is a technological framework to develop, deploy, and promote sustainable living living in a smart way. Critics of smart cities take issue with the entrepreneurial nature of their development. Meanwhile, smart city planners and enthusiastic CIOs reiterate explanations about why smart cities are needed now.

The key narrative framework used to describe the need for smart cities is that cities need to be updated to house the world’s future population. Plans and presentations about smart cities repeat the statistic that approximately 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. However, cities are said to be broken or at least in need of a makeover. They are represented as polluted, congested, unsanitary, inefficient, dangerous, and uninformed. Images of traffic congestion or of unwieldy crowds imply not just impending or actual overpopulation but abundance of entities and data points that need to be managed and ordered.

The anticipated exponential rise in urban population and the space and resources needed to support it serves as an explanation of imminent realities and a situation that requires immediate action. To adapt and accommodate increasing populations and changing economic, environmental, and communication needs, cities must be flexible, efficient, and healthy in terms of living conditions and climate. While many smart city developers claim that cities are broken and need to be fixed, others present smart city development as a preventative measure. Urban transformation from disorganized organism to ordered, streamlined, responsive layers of controlled technological systems becomes both the goal and the justification for smart city development.

While there are thematic overlaps among justifications made by smart city developers, technology companies, and public officials, each promise is self-serving. A company that specializes in energy-efficient devices constructs smart cities as solutions to environmental problems. Corporations selling high-tech lighting infrastructures emphasize public safety and security issues. If a smart city developer is able to provide network management services and broadband infrastructure, then the smart city as a responsive environment will dominate conversations. All of these claims consider smart technologies and initiatives as “solutions” that will “improve quality of life” for urban residents.

Operating like a computer is presented as an urban ideal. Computers can retrieve, store, calculate, and process data. If the city is like a computer, it can be programmed to produce desired outcomes and structure urban interactions. The benefits of computation are integrated into smart city narratives in ways that rely on emerging technologies and current visions of the future of computing such as artificial intelligence (AI), IoT, and big data. Therefore, critiques of smart cities and their promises often overlap with critiques voiced about these technology trends.