No shame in shrinkage

Paving the way for smart urban decline

Kris Hartley

Government and governance, Trade and industry, Science and technology, Arts, culture & society | The World

12 April 2019

Population shrinkage can encourage cities in the developed world to reassess their attitudes towards new technology. However, cities must also acknowledge technology’s limitations amidst deeper structural forces, Kris Hartley writes.

The narrative about population growth, resource depletion, and their contribution to declining sustainability has taken an interesting detour into the smart cities discourse.

Technology, once a slapdash solution for minor personal and urban inconveniences, is now sold as a plug-and-play method for building urban resilience, whether through micro-scale projects like flood monitoring or macro-scale efforts to strengthen global linkages among devices of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Technology is even being touted as a means to achieve softer strategic goals. In global organisations such as the United Nations, smart cities are being proposed as a model to activate a transition not only to sustainability but to deeper social inclusion as well.

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However, technology’s ability to address global systemic problems – macro-level uncertainties threatening the stability of society itself – is limited. The inconveniently wicked, interconnected, and synchronous convergence of global crises strips the technology emperor of his clothes, because it lays bare structural deficiencies that elude technocratic reductionism.

Examining smart cities in the context of population shrinkage presents opportunities to explore some interesting frontiers.

First, the capitalist system is predicated on the notion of perpetual growth. Any challenge to the model or proposal of an alternative –  such as actually embracing population shrinkage – is seen as heretical.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence that stagnation or shrinkage has been regarded not merely as an unavoidable fate but as a normative policy goal. Youngstown, Ohio is one such example.

As early as 2002, city leaders acknowledged that the recovery of the American Rust Belt city’s lost population was a quixotic policy goal, and instead crafted a more grounded narrative around shrinkage as a catalyst for improving quality of life. This perspective led the city to embrace neighbourhood renewal programs built on the demolition of abandoned structures and a re-greening of ‘blighted’ districts.

While these strategies had the practical advantage of reducing the city’s utility service burden and some of its fiscal stress, they provided in their humble origins the seeds of a new way of thinking about urbanisation as shaped by the realities of late-stage capitalism.

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Liberating the idea of shrinkage from images of impending doom allows both academics and policymakers to realistically discuss the transition towards an inevitable future of contraction – a future facing many cities on global and national peripheries in advanced but stagnating economies.

The second issue is the role of shrinking cities in a macro-economy that is coalescing into a small clique of wealthy, privileged, and interconnected ‘global’, or core, cities.

According to Henri Lefebvre’s notion of planetary urbanisation, the world is at or moving towards 100 per cent urbanisation – not in the sense that every person lives in cities or that every corner of habitable land is urbanised, but in the sense that urban society subordinates non-urban, or peripheral urban, society to serve the growth and maintenance of core cities and lifestyles therein.

This idea has both practical an­­­­d epistemological implications. Not only must society wrestle with core-periphery economic inequality, as well as the operational and political problems involved, but it must also reckon with the forces of capitalism that generate and perpetuate such inequality.

While it is farcical to imagine a fully urbanised planet in a literal sense, it is not a stretch to anticipate an urban dystopia in which the feudal and exploitative relationship between shrinking peripheral cities and booming core cities mirrors that between wage workers and the economic elite.

The evolving role of technology will differ between these types of cities. In core cities, technology will continue to serve the sophisticated lifestyles of urbanites in ways currently recognisable – enhancing consumer convenience, improving public services, and generating exciting new leisure experiences. A more pessimistic reading holds that technology will also further enable surveillance and social control.

In peripheral cities, technology will be used to further economise agricultural, industrial, and resource extraction processes, escalating shrinkage through the displacement of workers and their migration towards better economic opportunities.

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Both cases raise the prospect that the digitisation of society will lead to a techno-sceptical Luddite pushback, with technology as the scapegoat.

What, then, is the outlook for urban policy in shrinking cities? Shrinkage is driven largely by macro-structural forces such as globalisation, and is shaped at the highest conceptual level by capitalist logic. Handwringing and policy panic about shrinkage merely tinkers at the margins without addressing the core systemic issues described above.

Nevertheless, there remains a role for urban policymakers. Utilising smart city technology to support sustainable and inclusive growth models, including the emergence of ‘green’ industries, can provide economic mobility to displaced workers while improving quality of life.

From there, technology’s connection to systemic restructuring around alternatives to capitalism becomes less clear. An exogenous shock is likely the only thing that will jolt the global capitalist system into a new paradigm. Unfortunately, this would likely come from climate change or other kinds of societal collapse resulting from political-cultural discontent about inequality, or even from the transformation of civilisation by artificial intelligence and ‘run-away’ automation.

While this outlook may seem bleak, the world still has the opportunity to rally by rejecting techno-evangelism and confronting the underlying determinants of existential crises.

Such a neo-enlightenment should start with conversations about modern industrial production and legacy ideologies, like market fundamentalism, that have ossified while sealing the economic fate of workers, shrinking cities, and nations.

Residents of urban and rural areas must be equally invested in systemic reform and sustainability. Influential thinkers in academia and practice should welcome a discussion about how to flatten the global urban hierarchy and mobilise both core and peripheral cities in search of a shared and non-exploitative future.

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