Sidewalk and Toronto: Critical Systems Heuristics and the Smart City

Curtis McCord, Christoph Becker

`Smart cities', urban development projects that design computational systems and sensory technology to monitor activity and regulate energy consumption and resource distribution, are a frontier for the prospective deployment of ICTs for sustainability. Often reduced to technological problems of optimization, these projects have implications far beyond narrow environmental and consumptive frames of sustainability. Studying them requires frameworks that support us in examining technological and environmental sustainability dimensions jointly with social justice perspectives. This paper uses Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) to examine the design of Sidewalk Toronto, an ongoing smart city development. We explore how the professed values guiding the project are contentiously enacted, and we argue that key stakeholders and beneficiaries in the planning process significantly constrain the emancipatory and transformative potential of the project by marginalizing the role of residents in determining project purposes. This analysis contributes an example that illustrates the relevance of critical systems thinking in ICT4S and offers CSH as a conceptual frame that supports critical reflection on the tensions between the visions and realities of `sustainable' ways of organizing human life.

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