Does Infrastructure Reflect the Polity? A Overview of Smart Cities Development in China

Bolun Zhang, University of California, San Diego
Yi Jing, National University of Singapore
Donghyun Koo, UCSD

We have witnessed a rapid growth of “smart cities” worldwide in the last decade. The introduction of technologies like IoT and cloud computing quickly places smart cities at the crux of the infrastructure of public data collection. Advocates of smart cities argue that smart city programs are crucial components of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The existing research about smart city either believes that the smart city belongs to a progression of technology, or sees it as an instance of the Deleuzian control society . We argue that this debate is largely hindered by a problematic ontological premise shared by both sides. They all assume that the technical artifact, data infrastructure in this case, is external to city politics. To understand “actually existing smart cities” and their social consequences needs us to intervene in this debate both theoretically and empirically, which this paper is devoted to. Theoretically, following many STS research, we argue that the city should not be seen as merely an object of technological transformation, nor as a wielder of technological tools related to smart cities. It is rather a sociotechnical apparatus by itself actively transforming through social relations of multiple scales. Empirically, we support our theoretical reasoning via a detailed study of smart city practices in China. Drawing on sources from government policy documents to data of all government procurement of smart city infrastructure in China since 2013, we delineate how smart cities developed in China. We show that smart cities in China are products of multiple forces: central government, local government, and business actors. As a consequence, smart cities in China resulted in a heterogeneous infrastructure of data collections. In this sense, it is a relevant case of what Donald Mackenize called Material Political Economy, in which artifacts are also imprinted with previous social political relations.

See extended abstract

 Presented in Session 249. Urban