Book review: Frankenstein Urbanism: Eco, Smart and Autonomous Cities, Artificial Intelligence and the End of the City

reviewed by Nathan Olmstead

20 Dec 2022, 3:45 p.m.
Nathan Olmstead

Frankenstein Urbanism

Federico Cugurullo, Frankenstein Urbanism: Eco, Smart and Autonomous Cities, Artificial Intelligence and the End of the City, New York: Routledge, 2021; 213 pp.: ISBN: 9781138101784, £27.99 (pbk)


In Frankenstein Urbanism: Eco, Smart and Autonomous Cities, Artificial Intelligence and the End of the City, Federico Cugurullo brings political theory and urban geography together to show how an emphasis on experimentation is producing unimagined and potentially catastrophic consequences in cities around the world. Leveraging Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a thematic and structural guide, Cugurullo examines two specific trends in contemporary urbanism, the eco-city and the smart city, using Masdar City and Hong Kong as respective cases. In both cities, Cugurullo argues, the utopic promises of urban planners are undone by a neoliberal entrepreneurialism that subordinates social and environmental sustainability to profitability and economic growth. The result is fragmented, contradictory and unsustainable development, with dangerous implications for those on the margins of existing cities. The book concludes by proposing a more coordinated and democratically accountable urbanism, one that balances innovation with effective, vigilant and ongoing forms of governance.

Frankenstein Urbanism contributes to growing research into ‘actually existing’ urban experiments, highlighting the dissonance between the promises of technologists, on one hand, and lived experience, on the other (see Shelton et al., 2015). As Cugurullo says, the book ‘is about the perennial tension between ideas, theories and visions on one side, and facts, practices, and results on the other … [it] is a story of visionary urban projects … and of the monsters that followed’ (pp. 1–2). Drawing on his extensive fieldwork in both cities, Cugurullo shows how privileging profit has produced fragmented development in Masdar City and Hong Kong, exacerbating inequality and undermining efforts at sustainability. The book thus advocates for a more nuanced understanding of innovation as piecemeal, historically informed and contested, challenging the idealisation of innovation within contemporary urbanisms. In this sense, the book also affirms a growing body of literature that reimagines the urban in more processual terms, irreducible to the built environment of the city itself (p. 4).

The book unfolds across three sections, mirroring the different stages of Victor Frankenstein’s experiment. The first section, ‘The Literature’, mirrors Victor’s dive into existing research, and explores the genealogies of ecological urbanism and the smart city movement. The eco-city is positioned against the backdrop of the modernist tradition, and the legacy of environmental degradation that figures like Le Corbusier have left in their wake. Whereas modernism sought to shape and exploit nature for human ends, ecological urbanism emphasises equilibrium between human and nonhuman environments. Ranging from Ebenezer Howard’s ‘Garden City’ to Richard Register’s coining of the term ‘eco-city’ in 1987, Cugurullo unpacks the evolution of the eco-city over time, and the heterogeneous visions associated with the label today. The smart city, by contrast, is framed as a more direct extension of modernism’s dispositions, amplified by technological innovation. Fuelled by expanding computational capacity, Cugurullo frames smart urbanism as a ‘second burst of modernity’, one that affirms mastery as the key to sustainability (p. 55). Despite their differences, both the eco-city and the smart city share an appreciation for what Cugurullo calls the ‘urban equation’: ‘the core elements of a city which combined in a given proportion are supposed to produce sustainable cities’ (p. 2). Just as Victor Frankenstein sought to improve upon the human form, the pursuit of this equation is seen as a direct response to the deficiencies of the contemporary city, and the conviction that ‘a formula for urban sustainability’ can be found (p. 1). It is a remarkably Aristotelian idea, Cugurullo suggests, imagining governance in terms of coordination and administration, tending towards the top-down, technocratic and authoritarian visions of the privileged few.

The second section of the book, ‘The Experiment’, builds on Cugurullo’s fieldwork in both Masdar City and Hong Kong, combining archival research with in-depth interviews of those working behind the scenes. Masdar City, Cugurullo explains, is a new urban settlement central to Abu Dhabi’s Vision 2030, a long-term agenda that aims to transition the region towards a more sustainable, post-oil economy. The city is viewed as an incubator for technologies that might help Abu Dhabi achieve this goal. Despite being marketed as an eco-city, however, this underlying economic reality pressures local planners to prioritise the economic feasibility of proposed innovations over their environmental impact (p. 69). The result is a fragmented and contradictory approach to development, as planners pursue projects deemed most beneficial to the local economy. There is a similar fragmentation in Hong Kong, where a ‘laissez-fair capitalism’ has placed few restrictions on development in the area. In this context, the government’s recent smart city strategies have affirmed private sector innovation as a ‘silver bullet’ for existing challenges, outsourcing development and service delivery to the highest bidders (p. 98).

In the third and final section of the book, ‘The Apocalypse’, Cugurullo shows how these fragmented processes have produced new dangers and exacerbated some of the same problems they sought to address. In Masdar City, for instance, there is tension between the city’s Personal Rapid Transit system, which was meant to replace private cars, and Mitsubishi’s new electric vehicle pilots. The latter, while profitable, undermine the effectiveness of the former and, since manufacturing electric vehicles is resource intensive, further entrench the region’s dependence on oil (p. 128). In Hong Kong, the city’s approach has likewise privileged independent, profitable projects at the expense of the area’s broader vision, catering to the wealthy and affluent enclaves while leaving current inequities unaddressed. Like Frankenstein’s monster, these externalities are unimagined (and unmonitored) by their creators, produced by compilations of innovation that fail to coalesce (p. 127). This lack of supervision is especially dangerous in the case of what Cugurullo calls autonomous cities, wherein artificial intelligences are coming to surveille and coordinate the city with little oversight.

Cugurullo ends Frankenstein Urbanism by outlining two prospective interventions. First, he calls for more effective monitoring of urban innovation, and balance between coordination and flexibility (p. 144). In this sense, the book moderates the calls for decentralisation and friction that have come to characterise critical discourse, advocating for participatory forms of master planning that avoid ‘the trap of urban utopias’ (p. 144). For Cugurullo, this more moderate approach is grounded both in the apparent dangers of fragmentation and in a second, more theoretical intervention, developed in the epilogue of the book. Drawing on the work of Max Horkheimer, Cugurullo suggests that contemporary urbanisms reflect the privileging of ‘subjective reasoning’, the self-interested pursuit of convenience, personalisation and profit over collective benefit. What is needed is a transition towards ‘objective reasoning’, which would subordinate personal gain to the collective needs of human and nonhuman environments (p. 195). Instead of relying on the utilitarian calculations of individual actors, this view orientates development towards ‘higher concepts’, or, as Cugurullo says, ends, such as justice, happiness, equality and sustainability.

Frankenstein Urbanism represents an ambitious blend of theory and fieldwork. The book traces the far-reaching ancestries of contemporary imaginaries and charts an important and measured path forward for both theorists and practitioners of the urban. Throughout, references to Shelley’s Frankenstein serve as more than a simple metaphor, clarifying the stakes of urban experiments in a visceral and insightful way. There is an ambiguity in the book’s concluding pages, which raise as many questions as they answer. For starters, there is a lingering association between urbanity and human nature that remains unchallenged in the turn to Horkheimer, raising the spectre of an Aristotelianism that leaves the posthuman currents of Cugurullo’s other work relatively underexplored (see Cugurullo, 2018). There is also the question of how the book applies to the more tightly regulated urbanisms of cities like Helsinki and Montreal. The fact that Frankenstein Urbanism leaves its readers with a sense of open-endedness is, in some sense, the point, with this ambiguity hollowing out a space for both hope and peril in equal measure. This ambiguity reinforces the need for vigilance, particularly in an era when many new technologies take on a life of their own.



Cugurullo F (2018) Exposing smart cities and eco-cities: Frankenstein urbanism and the sustainability challenges of the experimental city. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 50(1): 73–92. Crossref  ISI  Google Scholar

Shelton T, Zook M, Wiig A (2015) The ‘actually existing smart city’. Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society 8(1): 13–25. Crossref  ISI  Google Scholar


Related articles

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

Urban eco-modernisation and the policy context of new eco-city projects: Where Masdar City fails and why by Federico Cugurullo

This article investigates how new eco-city projects interpret and practice urban sustainability by focusing on the policy context that underpins their development.

Worlding and provincializing smart cities: From individual case studies to a global comparative research agenda by Byron Miller, Kevin Ward, Ryan Burns, Victoria Fast and Anthony Levenda

Miller et al. argue for a more-than-Global-North smart city research agenda focused on the comparative analysis of smart cities, an agenda that foregrounds the conjunctural geographies of relationships and processes shaping these cities.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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