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Smart City Humanities Frameworks

This project is a collective effort led by Dr. John Monberg and students in the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University. We work to create a sustainable, usable humanities frameworks for city managers grappling with the consequences of new smart city initiatives by drawing upon sophisticated humanities perspectives for understanding issues of agency, representation, deliberation and equity.

Over the next 20 years, $41 trillion will be invested in smart city initiatives. Under the banner of smart city new assemblages of sensors, databases and algorithms give cities new capabilities as they grapple with a rapidly changing economic, technological, political and environmental climate. Smart City projects promise efficient solutions to energy usage, traffic management, stormwater runoff, economic development, crime management and many other issues city managers face.

This focus on efficiency is driven by budget concerns, but the political consequences extend far beyond the value of efficiency. These consequences are deeply political, not just in their consequences for the distribution in the allocation of resources that differentially impact different geographic areas. The social categories entangled in algorithms constitute new collective identities. How are these identities represented? What new values and visions of the future arise? How will deliberations be structured to include emergent groups?

Smart City projects are run by engineers, corporate managers, and government bureaucrats with deep pressures on their budgets, time, and technical expertise, giving rise to a gap between the new technological capabilities and key actors’ ability to make sense of their new governance challenges.

The humanities are well prepared to grapple with issues around shared collective identity and the ethical issues of negotiating disparate visions of the future. But the knowledge the humanities creates must be usable and relevant to decision makers if the humanities are to make a difference.