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Critical Geographies of Smart Development

By Kendra Kintzi, Cornell University, and Hilary Faxon, University of Copenhagen

In a world where everything seems to be ‘getting smart’, global development is no exception. The past decade ushered in a wave of “smart” development programs, which mobilize new technologies to solve old problems of poverty, health, and democracy. Multilateral development agencies like the World Bank have initiated hundreds of projects promising “smart” outcomes, from smart villages in Niger to smart governance in Mongolia. This “smartification of everything” elevates systems that employ real-time, two-way, location-based data with the goal of improving efficiency and service delivery. These initiatives rely on mobile phone apps, solar panel sensors, and vast quantities of data, but raise familiar questions about the agents, impacts, and politics of international development efforts. 

Our research in Southeast Asia and Southwest Asia investigates how the deployment of smart infrastructures intersects with older practices of global development. Ongoing struggles over land, labour, and livelihoods are central to how smart development unfolds in the postcolonial world today. From electricity provisioning in informal settlements in Jordan to telecom tower construction in the farmlands of Myanmar, our ongoing research shows how the new technologies of smart development are built and inhabited in highly uneven ways.  

We arrived at our collaboration through separate ethnographic research projects in Myanmar and Jordan. Over the past decade, both former British territories were at the forefront of efforts to promote market-based democracies in their respective regions, in part through major foreign direct investment in smart energy and telecommunications. While both were imagined as blank slates, our own travels through the hilly streets of Jordan and the rice paddies of Myanmar revealed that smart infrastructures were woven into the ongoing, everyday struggles of tilling the land, finding enough work, and configuring the home to protect against the extreme temperatures of a changing climate. Grounding smart development in these daily practices and situated struggles reveals the limits of smart programming and opens pathways for imagining more emancipatory futures. 

Locating Smart Development

The promise of smart systems rests on the idea that vast quantities of data can be exchanged and governed, at least in part, through algorithmic control. Smart development uses such systems in service of global development projects, especially those enacted by donors and transnational experts to “improve” lives and landscapes considered impoverished, disconnected, or “underdeveloped.”

Smart systems have garnered both popular and academic attention. While proponents often depict smart systems as efficient, objective alternatives to faulty human systems, critics highlight the ways that broader social and spatial processes of exclusion intersect with digital practices, for example through the racialised and gendered effects of purportedly “neutral” big data technologies.

Beyond the urban metropolises of the Global North, cities and countrysides in the postcolonial world are playing a key role in the unfolding development of smart systems. Recent scholarship shows the pivotal role of postcolonial contexts as sites of smart experimentation. Building on this work, our research brings focus to the processes and practices that connect seemingly disparate field sites. Places like Jordan and Myanmar, where we work, have historically been framed as places in need of Western civilization and improvement. In many ways, this new wave of smart development updates and extends older ideas about what it means to be modern. 

Towards a Grounded Approach to Smart Development 

In a recent paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, we argue that the development of smart infrastructures is a political act that intersects, in powerful ways, with ongoing decolonial struggles in the uneven landscapes of the postcolonial world. While critics often focus on unpacking “smart,” we argue for provincialising data-driven initiatives within these global histories of uneven development.  In other words, technology does not operate in a vacuum, but through localized inequalities – inequalities that are rooted in histories of colonial extraction and ongoing processes of unequal exchange.

In Myanmar, we explored how telecom towers, proliferating in rice paddies and military bases, were built on landscapes marked by histories of violent dispossession in ways that continue to benefit local and national elites. In Jordan, we analysed the creative ways that residents reconfigure their living spaces to beat back icy winter winds and skyrocketing electricity bills. Together, the building of smart infrastructures on contested lands and the continued use of low-cost, analog “hacks” demonstrate how smart development is intimately bound up with ongoing struggles to make a life. 

These ongoing struggles take place within the precarious conditions generated by waves of violent dispossession, dependent industrial development, and neoliberal reform. We draw on Gillian Hart’s notion of D/development to show how geopolitical development projects intersect with broader processes of economic transformation. Development, in this view, cannot be separated from colonial histories of extraction of dispossession and the ongoing cultivation of new frontiers of accumulation. Provincializing smart development in this way reminds us that, whether digital or analog, the central challenge of development is not a problem of information, but rather a problem of power.

Centering Ongoing Equity Struggles

Smart infrastructures are imagined, built, and inhabited in diverse ways around the world. By grounding our analysis in existing struggles over land, labour and livelihoods, we show how rooted inequalities shape smart development. In Myanmar, telecom towers are not neutral technologies, but are built into ongoing struggles over land and power. In Jordan, the development of the smart grid is woven into longer histories of dispossession and urban landlessness. By thinking comparatively about our field sites, we offer insights into the ways that smart infrastructures become entangled with ongoing equity struggles.

As we approached this work, our key motivation was to centre the daily practices and aspirations of real people living in places where smartification unfolds. By centring these ongoing equity struggles, we hope to highlight alternative visions of what a more just and decolonial development could look like – from supporting equitable life on the land to sustaining accessible life in the city.  

Our work invites further dialogue that thinks relationally from the postcolonial world. Our central provocation is that smart development does not evenly, equitably, or universally recode space. Rather, it operates through rooted histories of dispossession on ongoing equity struggles. Recognizing these ongoing struggles is key to building and inhabiting a more just world.

About the authors: Kendra Kintzi is a doctoral candidate and Global Racial Justice Fellow at Cornell University. Hilary Faxon is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Social Science at the University of Montana, on leave during the AY22-3 as a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Copenhagen.

Suggested Further Reading

This post is based on a paper recently published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers:

Faxon H. & Kintzi K. (2022). Critical geographies of smart development. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

How to cite: Kintzi, K & Faxon, H. (2022, 6 October) Critical Geographies of Smart Development Geography Directions. Available from:

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