Book review: Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology, and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias

reviewed by Giulia Belloni

25 Jul 2023, 3:02 p.m.

Dream States book cover

John Lorinc, Dream States: Smart Cities, Technology, and the Pursuit of Urban Utopias, Toronto: Coach House Books, 2022; 286 pp.: ISBN: 9781552454282, £12.99/CA$21.95 (pbk)


Smart cities represent a difficult object of study within the interdisciplinary field of urban studies. In the last few years, it has become accepted that a unifying definition for the term is not only difficult to provide but might also not represent an efficient heuristic option in the attempt to describe existing applications of such complex ideas (Hollands, 2008). Lorinc’s effort responds to a much-needed update on smart cities technology, combining a specific case study with a complete analysis of the arrays of technologies that constitute the panoply of technology that might make a city ‘smart’. However, the book doesn’t stop here. The best contribution of the book to urban studies consists in positing smart cities technology within a broader history of conceptual and material developments of the idea of planning the urban site, all the while proposing a balanced understanding of new technologies, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. As appears clearly from this concise summary, Lorinc’s ambitious compendium has multiple goals that might appear difficult to reconcile. Despite such complexity, the structure of the book aids the reader in finding their way in the labyrinthic technological dreamscapes the book sets out to explore. Indeed, the volume is divided into three sections: the first section explores the history of the entwining of technologies and the development of cities, with an attention to multicultural histories; the second and largest section is concerned with the connection between smart urbanism and utopian thought, without forgetting the actual affordances of technologies and the material risks they might pose for the urban landscape; the third section is concerned with the role of technologies and planning during the pandemic and possible future scenarios.

In the introduction to the book, Lorinc narrates how he followed the evolution, and eventual disappearance during the pandemic, of the proposition of Sidewalk Lab, a Google spinoff company, to renovate Quayside, a rather forlorn part of Toronto’s waterfront. Lorinc was already familiar with the application of data analytics to city problem solving, having followed for journalistic purposes the work being done in the nascent field of ‘urban informatics’ in New York and then in universities in USA and Canada. The interesting feature about the Sidewalk project is that, although heralding a great number of sensors for data collection and sorting, the official documents never used the popular phrase of ‘smart city’, preferring a rhetoric of disruption, quite common in the tech niche, conjoined with a claim of openness and transparency, regarding the processes being installed in the repurposed area, which would make it a virtuous example of a ‘living laboratory’. Lorinc, captured by such features in the proposition, decides to explore the relaunch of the engineered solution in the history of city building, inspired by the work of the historian Mark Rose. Digital innovations are therefore plunged into a wider history of technology, considered, through the elaborations of physicist Ursula Franklin and sociologist Manuel Castells, as everything that applies scientific thought to various actions, made of different methods and processes, that can be repeated. The first section of the book, titled ‘The Technology of Cities’, sets forth to explain how urban technologies represent the core of the historical development in the architectural and socio-political evolution of cities around the globe. Dreamscapes of cities (p. 32) are the result of imaging and then materially building the city through the ambitions and experiences of political as well as engineering personalities. City building has been influenced by the need to provide transportation and sanitation in densely populated hubs, attested to by the canal-building efforts of fifth-century China, as well as the pipe systems found in both Mayan and Aztec archaeological remains. City networks have been shaped by telecommunication innovation only recently, and Lorinc proposes a close reading of the writings of Wiener, the famous inventor of cybernetics, in the application of his computational ideas in the attempt to design resilient cities in the face of atomic threat.

Having established the connection between civil engineering, infrastructure networks, materials and the recent application of technology to planning, the second and largest section of the book is dedicated to a compilation of a wide array of technologies encompassed within the smart city framework. After a compendium of the technologies that usually make up the arsenal of digitally interconnected urban landscapes, Lorinc provides a history of urban planning, a rather recent idea in the history of city building. Smart cities are seen as the latest incarnation in a longer utopian desire to reshape messy cityscapes as optimisable complex mechanisms, declined, though, through the lens of tech companies’ interests. Some predecessors in the utopian side of urban planning are enlisted and described: modernist architectures, garden cities, green cities and the 15-minute city. After the genealogy, the application of the smart city ideal is explored in the ambivalent desire to reshape selected areas of existing cities or in the development of ex-novo megaprojects. Problems arising from questions of data governance, surveillance and policing are also tackled. The section closes with recommendations to establish a solid foundation for municipal entities on how to design pipelines for policies that might avoid risks hidden in unregulated data mining, sorting and management.

The conclusion of the book elaborates further on the idea of the importance of urban governance in technological development analysing how the crisis represented by the Covid-19 pandemic saw the rise and fall of specific digital technologies. For instance, experimentation around driverless cars saw a halt in favour of the diffusion of last-mile automated robotics. Communication technologies like video conferencing saw an explosion, as a way to manage the new distances imposed by social distancing. This not only had a strong impact on the commuting practices of the labour force but also highlighted enduring troubles caused by the digital divide, in spite of the rhetoric of the city as a place saturated by communication networks. Managing social dispersion as well as finding solutions to control the spread of the virus, such as sewage waste surveillance, and the new attention given to architectural practices that ensure the quality of indoor air, showed to urban planners how less-than-automated practices are still at the forefront of finding practical solutions in the face of crisis.

Overall, the book accomplishes the goals set out in the introduction by the author in an elegant way, striking the right balance between complexity and streamlined explanation, making for an enticing read as well as a great primer to the multifaceted questions posed by the introduction of new technologies in the urban landscape. The most compelling idea, sustained in the third part of the book, and advanced through strong arguments, makes the case for the prevailing importance of urban governance, concerted with engineering experience and scientific perspicacity, in devising solutions for urban life and the arrays of troubles and wonderful, chaotic opportunities it fosters. Having underscored the importance of political choice, with supported by experience observation of urban phenomena in providing a specific solution, allows for not falling prey to conceited and farfetched technological solutions, sold by a wide array of entrepreneurs. At the same time, this view concedes ground for a balanced recognition of positive as well as negative effects heralded by the diffusion of digital and networked technologies. Nonetheless, given the high ambitions of the book, suspended between empirical analysis and theoretical conceptualisations of smart cities, a longer pause upon the utopian origins of this version of urban planning might have enhanced the theoretical contributions of the book to the study of the intersection between technological innovation and the urban site. And, given the expressed desire to recognise the multicultural origin of city-building technologies presented in the first part of the study, a space for post-colonial analysis around the modernist implications within the architectural propositions of designers like Le Corbusier might have helped build a stronger theoretical position. For instance, contrary to the expressed idea sustained in the book that utopian designs can evolve into pernicious planning choices (pp. 126–139), a closer reading of Le Corbusier’s writing might reveal a tighter connection between modernist thought and exclusionary zoning practices (Çelik, 1997). Nonetheless, the study remains an excellent addition within the field of urban studies connected with questions of technology and governance, and, together with Sadowski’s (2020) contribution around the same case study of Sidewalk Lab tackled from a political perspective, provides a much-needed updated summary around the problems posed to critical inquiry by smart cities technologies.



Çelik Z (1997) Urban Forms and Colonial Confrontations: Algiers Under French Rule. Berkley, CA: University of California Press. Google Scholar

Hollands RG (2008) Will the real smart city please stand up? Intelligent, progressive or entrepreneurial? City 12(3): 303–320. Crossref | Google Scholar

Sadowski J (2020) Who owns the future city? Phases of technological urbanism and shifts in sovereignty. Urban Studies 58(8): 1732–1744. Crossref | Google Scholar


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Roadmaps to utopia: Tales of the smart city by Alan-Miguel Valdez, Matthew Cook, and Stephen Potter

Exploring the tensions arising as the idealized smart city narratives are locally inflected and used to frame smart city projects.

Who owns the future city? Phases of technological urbanism and shifts in sovereignty by Jathan Sadowski

In this critical commentary, Sadowski outlines three phases of how technology capital is being urbanised—from smart cities to platform urbanism to territorial control—and their implications for urban sovereignty.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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