The COVID-19 pandemic was one of the most significant reasons for the rapid implementation of new technologies in daily life. Authorities decided to use emerging technologies to monitor citizens and prevent the spread of the disease. Smart cities, combining multiple ways of control, became time-space cartographers, i.e., profound surveillance systems engaging in the spatiotemporal tracing of people who have or might have been infected.
Smart cities are often described by scholars as fixed and permanent in their programs and policy implications. However, the financial crisis in 2008 radically changed smart cities’ focus from sustainability and climate change to entrepreneurship and innovation. Thus, smart city concepts change over time in reaction to sociopolitical transformations. Nevertheless, current smart city research struggles to explain how these transformations occur. Similarly to the transformation of the 2008 crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic caused changes in the objectives of smart cities. To show this, I use the Moscow Smart City strategy case, where specific changes, like the implementation of a surveillance “Social Monitoring” system, exemplify such shifts. Even though it was already described with a focus on control, biopower and affordances, I propose broader research with a focus on the pandemic’s implications on the program itself and discourses around it.
In public discourses, the actors who made transformations possible are usually not identified. I argue that there is no pandemic transformation itself, meaning that the pandemic does not transform socio-political reality on its own, but it enables other actors to become intermediaries in this process. I use a theoretical framework of the Social Construction of Technology to identify two different perspectives of the Moscow Smart City strategy and trace how it changes. The empirical material consists of a video archive of sessions from 2017 to 2021 on the Smart City program from Moscow Urban Forum (MUF), the largest annual congress for authorities and the public, held in Moscow, Russia.
Bringing smart cities into STS: SCOT approach to cities
Current smart city research positions itself as pragmatic and non-ideological, so there is a lack of critical scholarship elaborating on non-classical examples with in-depth empirical material. To overcome the shortcomings of smart city research, this article suggests studying smart cities using an approach from science and technology studies (STS). STS is helpful in connection with urban studies, as it shows both the social shaping of technology and the technological shaping of society.1 STS scholars primarily avoided topics of smart cities, as it was enormously discussed in other fields.2 Therefore, the study proposes to involve the smart city in STS, as it could provide a more critical view of the subject.
The study uses the theoretical framework of the social construction of technology (SCOT), introduced by Pinch and Bijker, as a continuation of the social constructivism paradigm. Challenging the idea of linear technology development, SCOT argues that technology development is a process of alternating variation and selection3; thus, it is essential to pay attention not only to successful stages but to others as well. To enlighten this process, the paradigm uses the concept of interpretative flexibility, which draws attention to the flexibility in how people think of and interpret technological artifacts, as well as how they are designed. Different interpretations, called technological frames, exist as notions of different social groups. Relevant social groups constitute specific problems regarding the artifacts, which the technology developer is trying to solve. The critical point is that social groups are trying to constitute their problem as the most important, though the developer could solve it and choose their interpretation of technology. Thus, multiple designs or interpretations could exist while a technological artifact is developing.4
As technology is developed, the stabilization stage starts. Thus, controversy should be closed, meaning that there is no more interpretative flexibility. The relevant social group must think that the problem has been solved for this to be achieved. When rhetorical closure is done, fixed interpretation and technological design are stated. However, closure is not permanent, so if new relevant social groups appear, interpretative flexibility could be recovered.
The SCOT approach was used in studying urban planning and policy previously. Aibar and Bijker described Cerda’s plan for Barcelona’s plan as a form of technology, or technological artifact, and thus a subject of influence for social groups. They show different frames of the plan from architects and engineers, as well as disempowered voices of the working class, stabilized in “amortization of vested interests”5 when the authority decided to close the controversy with a compromised solution.6
As illustrated, the paradigm of the social construction of technology could help analyze the development of new technological artifacts as well as the reopening of new ones. It could show the negotiation process in the form of urban plans or visions and how one is stabilized. The study conceptualizes a smart city as a technological artifact. It examines its construction through the actors’ statements, the relevant social groups’ problems, and the means by which city authorities as “developer” resolve them.
Note on the method
I used mixed content analysis of the MUF video archive (n=12) in this research. The video archive consists of panel discussions, lectures, and interviews from 2017 to 20217 with representatives from Moscow and foreign authorities, small and corporate businesses, researchers, and experts. It was held both in Russian and English. Some videos had synchronized translations with errors and mistranslations, reducing meaning transmission. So, whenever possible, I chose original records. To make a sample, I used the search function on the MUF website with different keywords related to smart cities, such as smart, tech, and digital, both in Russian and English. Records are distributed roughly evenly over the years. However, there were no videos related to smart cities at MUF 2020. The 2020 forum was canceled and conducted as an online conference mainly focusing on urban health-related topics in December instead of the usual June.
All videos were transcribed and then coded using an inductive approach. Throughout it, I marked the main topics and narratives of the discourse and, following the SCOT approach, the social groups of those who speak. I also analyzed the current version of the Moscow Smart City Program. It is 111 pages policy document available on the government website and was first published in 2018, with some minor changes later.
Smart city before the pandemic: better life through new technologies
In 2018, the Moscow Mayor’s office announced a full-scale smart city strategy titled “Smart City – 2030” as the third stage of city digitalization. The Moscow Urban Forum was one of the spaces where the Moscow IT Department presented part of the future vision and then discussed it with Russian companies and foreign colleges. Even though not all sessions at MUF are supposed to discuss the case of Moscow rather than general issues, moderators always suggest speakers refer to it, so all of the discussions on the smart city become discussions on Moscow’s Smart City vision.
The general narrative on the smart city in the discursive space of MUF from 2017 to 2019 is making (citizens) life better in terms of general convenience, infrastructure, or improving urban life. The crucial point on the necessity of smart city implementation or the goal in developing new technologies sounds similar to “our key KPI for success,” which “is not the number of services or applications we have launched but the level of happiness of our people.”8 However, different actors choose different ways to reach this goal.
Russian speakers, both from business and government, suggest that one of the crucial goals of smart city vision is to ensure security for the city and its citizens.9 They argue that new technologies, such as biometrics identification and computer vision, could enhance surveillance systems, so the life of Muscovites would be safer by finding and identify wanted citizens faster.10 Foreign businessmen and governors addressed this vision with skepticism and critique about the lack of anonymity and the impingement of citizen digital rights.
Implementing new technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, the Internet of Things, and 5G, is essential for Russian business and government representatives. They talk about these technologies as a benchmark of smart city progress: the more technologies there are, the better urban life and the smart city itself could be. When actors answer moderator questions about what they are currently working on or the problems they are trying to address, the answer consists of cross-referencing cutting-edge technologies rather than explaining how they will solve current urban issues. In general, this technocratic approach in policy-making is largely prevalent in Russia.
Russian businesses also sees smart cities as a way to make urban life more efficient. They believe that optimization of services and automatization of infrastructure, like entering private parking seamlessly with sensor recognition of car plates, is a way to fulfill the “better life” narrative; hence they will be able to sell their product as a part of a future smart city.
These themes of efficiency and problem-solving constitute the technological frame of Russian stakeholders. Their conceptual similiarity is explained by the fact that most MUF business representatives are Russian government corporations such as VTB Bank, Russian Post, or Rostelecom, who work closely with Moscow officials and develop smart city programs together. Therefore, officials and businesspeople pointed out that government–business communication is the most crucial part of building a smart city and new technological products.11 Thus, these actors conclude a single frame.
However, another technological frame of foreign actors, government, and business present an alternative version of the smart city vision.12 One of their main concerns is dealing with environmental issues and achieving sustainability using smart city technology. The actors consider climate change as the most significant problem not only for their cities but for humanity. They adopt the same rhetoric of new technologies and efficiency as in the Russian technocentric frame, but focus on more energy efficient cities by using blockchain, decreasing the carbon footprint, and building a circular economy based on digital services. In this frame, environmental concern is significantly more critical than the general narrative of a “better life;” thus, they suggest focusing attention on environmental resources rather than improving urban life or making the city more convenient, as in the Russian frame.
Another direction of the foreign smart city vision, powered by government officials, is a dialogue with citizens, a feature of neoliberal urbanism. Here, smart city solutions include citizens in the decision-making process and allow them to propose smart city projects funded by participatory budgeting capital. Despite the active involvement of citizens, actors also claim that smart cities should be focused on reducing inequality and embracing inclusion. In their view, technologies should uplift individuals, help to achieve gender equality, and make city services more accessible.
There are also shared directions for both frames, such as how to work with data, especially aggregation of data for the benefit of smart city and how to achieve data privacy. Other questions address grounds for innovations and implementations of new technologies, where representatives within the Russian frame are more concerned with adjust laws and regulations for emerging technologies, while representatives of the foreign frame are more about attracting funding and human capital to work on smart solutions.
Closure and reopening of controversy
Publication of the Smart City program at the end of 2018 was a rhetorical closure of ongoing controversy around Moscow’s design as a smart city. The Moscow government13 decided to use a strategy of amortization of vested interests, meaning that the final vision consists of parts of the Russian technocratic and foreign social and environmental-oriented frames. However, a close reading of the document shows that the program is actually an adapted technocratic frame rather than a synthesis of both. Its main focus is on implementing new technologies, efficiency and security, while parts regarding environmental and social issues are extremely short and unfinished.
Once the controversy closed, some discussion at MUF 2019 occurred, but was focused on smart solution implementation and progress instead of the development of Moscow Smart City Vision. As noted previously, there were no smart city discussions during MUF 2020 due to the change in conference format and the focus on more pressing issues like urban health. Public dislike of the program halted discussion because the program failed to manage the pandemic and increased surveillance and inconvenience, causing the program to be temporarily discontinued.
Nevertheless, the pandemic became the basis for reopening discussions of smart city visions, as previous attempts at implementation in the middle of the first pandemic failed. Moscow citizens faced a new digital control service called “Social Monitoring.”14 The app monitors its users’ locations and regularly requests selfies to ensure that a person infected with COVID-19 remains at home. The app was developed in only a month, resulting in bugs and personal data issues that led to public discontent and multiple lawsuits against the government. Additional hate was caused by mentions of nano-robots and ‘personal wearable devices’ for medical services in the Smart City program, which some considered “сhipping.” All of this led to the temporary deletion of the program from the Mayor’s website.
At MUF 2021, discussions on the Moscow Smart city program were renewed so previous and new technological frames could have a chance to state another interpretation of technological artifact.
Smart city in (after) the pandemic: working on mistakes
After the pandemic, the general direction of the smart city in MUF remained the same, as well as a general narrative on ‘better life’. Nevertheless, the pandemic has made some narratives more critical. Firstly, due to the wave of public hate on social monitoring and other controlling services, as well as a general discontent with the smart city program, the issue of citizen dialogue appeared in the Russian technocratic frame. The representatives of the authorities started to focus on the importance of communication and explanation of new smart city solutions: “[…] For us, as a representative of the innovation block within the Moscow government, it is a huge task to communicate, deliver, and work with residents to show that this [technology] is not really a threat, it is an opportunity, and [provides] tools to take advantage of this opportunity”15 (author’s translation). Governors also pointed out Moscow’s democratic platforms, such as “Active Сitizen” and “Our city,” allowing Muscovites to vote on urban issues like the name of the new metro station or city beautification projects. Secondly, the idea of Moscow as a living lab emerged. Russian businessmen started to define Moscow as a “test bed” for new technologies, services, and smart city solutions, which could then be transferred to other Russian and global cities. They claim to have had a successful experience in test driving new technological solutions, which makes Moscow a “real smart city.” These statements mainly refer to the Moscow pandemic experience, when the city became an “example” of COVID-related technological solutions, including surveillance systems in the rhetoric of government and some of the media. As these new directions emerged, old directions like securitization became irrelevant, which in the pre-pandemic Russian technocratic frame was one of the most important and had the most influence on COVID policy. Safety for Muscovites or improving surveillance was no longer mentioned.
Some changes also occurred in the foreign frame as well. Business representatives began mentioning decentralization as a vital requirement of smart city development. Actors highlighted the importance of a shift from hierarchical order and a general reimagining of the smart city and the city itself. Despite minor changes, the foreign frame stayed approximately the same in the main vision of the smart city, as did common topics for both frames, such as working with data and ground for innovation. However, in contrast to the pre-pandemic period, actors started to question the necessity of smart cities as a business model. They question whether smart cities are for financial efficiency and return on investment, versus the public good for improving urban life, without regard for financial measurements.
The study shows that the pandemic did not cause changes like the implementation of surveillance systems, but rather reinforced already existing development directions. While security was discussed before the pandemic, the pandemic became a reason for establishing new ways of governing the city. Therefore, this “triggering nature” of the pandemic could be relevant for urban technologies such as smart cities and other social shifts which appeared during the pandemic.
The SCOT approach showed that smart city transformations had been pushed by specific social groups with different interpretations of technological artifacts. The approach allowed identification of two different technological frames of Moscow’s smart city: the technocratic Russian frame emphasizing new technologies, securitization and efficiency, and the foreign frame focusing on environment and inequality. Despite these different interpretations, observed frames mixed in the Moscow Smart City strategy and the controversy appeared closed: the technocratic frame remained dominant, with little emphasis placed on inclusion and climate change . However, the pandemic reopened the controversy and changed previous frames, leading to the emergence of new smart city development directions. The Moscow Smart Сity program was formulated as a subject for additions and changes and the controversy remains open, giving room for future research.
1. Anique Hommels, “Studying Obduracy in the City: Toward a Productive Fusion between Technology Studies and Urban Studies,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 30, no. 3 (July 2005): 329, https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243904271759.
2. There is a recent paper analyzing smart city and its cooperative narratives using STS concept of sociotechnical imaginary.
3. Trevor Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker, “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other,” in The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology, ed. Wiebe E. Bijker, Thomas Parke Hughes, and Trevor Pinch, Anniversary ed (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2012), 22.
4. One of the classic STS cases is the development of the bicycle, whose design was shaped by different social groups, such as women, movements against bicycles, manufacturers, and others.
5. Eduardo Aibar and Wiebe E. Bijker, “Constructing a City: The Cerdà Plan for the Extension of Barcelona,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 22, no. 1 (January 1997): 17, https://doi.org/10.1177/016224399702200101.
6. There are a lot of other examples of how SCOT could be applied to study urban planning, and not only the development of urban artifacts but also the reopening of controversies regarding them. Describing controversy around a plan to redesign the Dutch city Utrecht city center, Anique Hommels showed that despite the closure, the city government, which in the SCOT paradigm acts as developer, decided to reopen the discussion about the redesign project after six years due to shifts in goals and stakeholders. However, the different technological frames could also benefit from each other, as shown in the case of the post-disaster reassembling of one of the Dutch neighborhoods. The frames of “survivors,” who cared about vulnerability, and “rebuilders,” who planned to enhance the city’s resilience, were linked to staying in touch with the past. Due to this, both frames benefitted from each other, leading to a fast rebuilding of the neighborhood.
7. Curious readers might ask what happened at MUF 2022. The answer is that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changes its format from a conference to an exhibition with a few public lectures from Russian experts, as public discussions experience prohibition in Russia. Foreign experts did not come as an act of condemnation of war. Smart city-related topics have not been mentioned.
8. MUF2018/ Lecture of Technology Expert “Smart City as a Path to Happiness”: Dr. Aisha Bin Bishr, 2018, 3:42, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCQWiaA7XCg.
9. Some argue that it is essential to consider the authoritarian regime established in Russia, hence it influencing Moscow politics. However, STS rejects the idea of context and focuses on how specific actors produce certain assemblages, as this description may be more productive rather than relying on widespread context.
10. The best example of the efficiency of the surveillance system in Moscow is a result of the 2018 Soccer World Cup, part of which was held in Moscow. As the developers of surveillance technologies and officials state, it helped identify aggressive soccer fans and block access to the events for them.
11. For instance, the head of the famous facial recognition project NtechLab during the pitch session stated that the company will work only Business-to-Government sector and does not want to consider other options, as they are less productive.
12. There is another technological frame of researchers, both foreign and Russian. However, they were not almost represented at MUF, so, in terms of SCOT, their’s voices regarding smart city visions were not so powerful, so the “developer” government did not consider this technological frame. For a detailed explanation and critique answers for such an approach, see Aibar and Bijker, “Constructing a City,” 25.
13. It is essential to note the distinction between officials on Moscow Urban Forum (from the IT department of the Moscow government), who constituted the “Russian” technological frame and government as a whole, who acts as a developer of technological artifact, Moscow Smart City program, and close the controversy, stating one interpretation of technology.
14. Social monitoring case is similar to surveillance systems developed in Singapore. It consists of the TraceTraceTogether app, which traces individuals and evaluates the possibility that it was exposed to COVID-19, and the SafeEntry system, which manages access to different city amenities based on COVID-19 status.
15. Сумма инноваций. Синхронизация опыта и решений для «умной» трансформации [The Sum of Innovation. Synthesizing Experience and Solutions for Smart Transformation], 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zNhJXW871Q 10:37.
Artem Pankin is an urban studies undergraduate at Hunter College, CUNY. His research is focused on intersections between cities, technologies, sensorium, and materiality with an emphasis on post-socialist cities. You can find out more and contact him using artempankin.simple.ink.