"The smart city is the ultimate free-for-all"

Opinion: is the idea of the smart city really just another way for big businesses to make even more money, asks Reinier de Graaf, who revisits the subject against his own better judgement.

I don't know what prompted me to speak at yet another smart city conference, but I did. Perhaps because it was organised at my old university, a place I still held in high regard for its seriousness and relative immunity to pervasive academic trends.

Anyway, here I was, on stage in front of a large crowd of digital technology experts, corporate CEOs, academic luminaries and government officials, with a head set and a laser pointer as my only aides.

The introduction video, which had been recorded the week before, set me up for trouble. With bravado as calculated as it was probably misplaced, I had confessed on camera that I had no real clue what the smart city was; in my view the main impact of digital technology on the built environment was that there was none.

What exactly is the smart city? Despite attending many similar conferences, I have never received a clear answer. For a long time, I thought it was me, that I was the only ignorant person in the room. But the more conferences I visited, the more the possibility dawned on me that perhaps I was not alone, that there were others like me; that this is a subject of which nobody has a clear notion. Maybe that is the whole point.

Perhaps the smart city is such a perfect subject precisely because it allows everybody to speak in the absence of knowledge – or rather, to display their own specific knowledge without having to go through the trouble of checking the relevance. Maybe the smart city is the ultimate free-for-all, a "jam session" of otherwise incompatible minds.

The smart city's momentum has built tremendously over the last decade, to the point that by now the cost of candidness seems to have become unaffordable. Admitting ignorance of the smart city's intricacies is not an option. There are simply too many people who have too much to lose from exposing it as a potential hoax – not least their face. This is a bubble that cannot burst. We cannot afford to deny the smart city's many blessings, even in the absence of any real evidence.

The title of this particular conference was Engineering Smart Cities of the Future. I decided to conduct a little experiment. The conference title contained one adjective and two nouns, city, smart and future. I entered each term in a Google image search, and this is what the results returned:

City. A collection of more or less typical images of cityscapes and skylines emerges on the screen. As an architect, it is easy for me to relate to these images. I know most of the cities from experience; in some our office has built buildings. For most part, the images look similar. The effect of modern technology (skyscrapers clad in curtain walls) seems universal. It is difficult to identify one city as more advanced or intelligent than the next. These cities are either all smart, or not at all.

Smart. The pictures that appear on screen are of cars. In fact, only one brand of smart car – the Smart. Corporate infiltration of the English language is apparently such that it can claim a monopoly over certain words within Google.

Future. Road signs emblazoned with the word "Future" fill the screen, like a new screensaver designed by somebody trying to be funny. Baudrillard once described highways as places of conformism: "a route that leads nowhere, but keeps one in touch with everyone. Any speculation about the future is pointless... The whole point is to keep thinking about the future, if only as an existential ritual... It is important to suspend any definitive conclusions... we're all going somewhere, even if it doesn't matter where." Google seems to have understood.

Cars and road signs. I felt disoriented and wondered, is the smart city about cars? Clearly the phenomenon was closely related to the computer, but the emphatic presence of the car was new to me. I continued my Google deep dive. On a whim, I typed in cars and computers. The site that popped up was www.vwdieselinfo.com: Volkswagen Diesel Information.

What conclusion should be drawn from this somewhat unfortunate Google journey? Does the Volkswagen scandal, ultimately the outcome of a combination of cars and computers, reveal the true nature of the smart city? Is it a way of bending the rules, of beating and cheating the system? How seriously should we take the smart city as a credible way of dealing with, and intervening in, the ancient and complex phenomenon of the city?

Once considered the exclusive expertise of architects and urban planners, the city is now a crowded field of innovators, digital entrepreneurs, software vendors, social engineers, real estate moguls, urban consultants and tech giants. In offering services like healthcare, energy, public safety and education, smart city initiatives claim the responsibilities formerly attributed to the public sector.

The combined advertising brochures of IBM, Siemens and Cisco (the largest three of the smart city protagonists) go well beyond the competences of the traditional urbanists. They offer resolutions to climate change, dwindling resources, ageing populations, rising energy prices, economic turmoil, population growth and rapid urbanisation.

In predicting the apocalypse only to offer redemption, the rhetoric of the smart city unwittingly invokes a 2,000-year-old formula: that of the bible. And, as so often when the bible is invoked, the smart city reeks of hypocrisy, a desperate search for a good cause to ease a bad conscience.

It is the pursuit of business that lies at the core of the smart city. Nothing more, nothing less. While eager to claim a large, lucrative portfolio of public tasks, the smart city refuses any public accountability. It is the perfect veil for an aggressive form of privatisation, one that reduces the actual city to the cadavre exquis of corporate interests.

Corporate representatives in the audience nod approvingly. The conference is about to end. People make their way to the buffet and exchange business cards. After a day charged with key messages, conference participants seem generally content. A middle-aged man wearing a bright green tie introduces himself as an environmental and social urban engineer. He congratulates me on my performance: "We need more of those!" The robustness of the smart city has once again been confirmed, able to absorb a rich and diverse array of viewpoints – even ridicule.

Reinier de Graaf is a partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) where he directs the work of AMO, the research and design studio established as a counterpart to OMA's architectural practice.