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When Cities [are] Smart

“When Cities [Are] Smart”

Welcome to the participants of the Beyond Smart symposium, April 26, Georgia Tech.

Event description: The Beyond Smart Symposium will bring together interdisciplinary scholars to reflect on the issues of researching smart city deployments and projects. Some of the questions we will consider are: What comes after 'smart' in the assessment of technology deployments and analytics capabilities? How do we address equity, inclusion, and sustainability in the smart city and What can smaller or less dense regions learn as they move toward implementing a smart agenda?

When Cities [Are] Smart: I would like to deliver greetings on behalf of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication, a Georgia Tech unit that is deeply involved in research, scholarship, and creative activity at the intersection of the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and technology. When my colleague, Chris Le Dantec, asked if I might present a quick welcome to the participants, I did what I always do as someone with the training of a historical linguist: I observe how this academic meeting describes and defines its goals: First of all, I notice that all the words chosen for describing and defining this meeting are polysyllabic and have their origins in either Ancient Greek or Latin, indicating epistemological abstraction and complexity: The ‘symposium’ invites us to think of Plato’s famed symposion, the kind of convivial philosophical exchange held after a meal; ‘technology’ unites the Greek techne, ‘craft’, and logos, ‘word’, which comes to mean the systematic treatment of knowledge for practical purposes; ‘analytics’, from Greek analytikos, means to operate by analogy, and therefore, in rhetoric, the distinguish between good and bad arguments; ‘equity’ conjures up social justice as well as forms of capitalist valuation; ‘inclusion’ brings to mind diversity practices as well as the practice of relative dating in geology; and ‘sustainability’ links up with environmental protection as well as continued economic growth.

Then, fascinatingly, when Chris, Debra Lam, and their colleagues pick a title for the meeting, they resort to two simple words of Germanic origin: Beyond Smart. Was it the pithy character and rhythmic quality of these two words that rendered them attractive? Was it the higher familiarity of pithy Germanic terms with a larger audience that suggested itself to the conveners as a way to bridge the epistemological chasm that often separates academic researchers from successfully reaching out to the less polysyllabically minded communities that surround them? Whatever their reasons, the semantics of SMART is an incredibly appropriate choice, especially in Atlanta: While the immediate association of SMART is with intellectual and social ability or cleverness, especially as an adjective, in the US south the word has maintained the meaning of “intense in feeling, painful,” which dates back to its earliest meanings in proto-IndoEuropean smerd, to bite, to sting, to hurt, and its contemporary Scottish, Dutch, Swedish, and German cognates, smert, smarten, smärta, and schmerzen, respectively. Just like today’s common meaning of SMART evolved from the Old English experience of ‘sharp pain’ into modern English ‘mentally sharp’, ‘incisive’, so today’s SMART cities signal to us the urgent need to help relieve the ‘sharp pain’ many citizens feel about how our increasingly networked urban environments. The intellectual and abstract SMARTness we most often envision may well exacerbate, not remedy, already existing environmental, social, and racial inequalities because of issues with infrastructure, security, privacy, social and racial exclusion, exploitative funding and business models, to name but a few. The CUTTING-edge quality of concept cities like Bill Gates’ Belmont may well cause additional ‘sharp pains’ among those already at the margins of the technological revolution. I am glad to see that this symposium is conscious of such dangers and aims to use the experiences of SMARTing communities to develop inclusive and human-centered future habitats. Thanks to all gathered here for your awareness, together with me, that we still have ways to go to get Beyond Smart.



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