Technology is transforming global cities. But we need to think hard about who controls a system where all people and things are tracked, all of the time.
There’s the tank factory in Beijing that they have turned into an arts complex. There are the coffee joints around Tahrir Square, Cairo, where hijab-wearing women hunch over their laptops. There’s the pubs in Pittsburgh, heaving on the days the Steelers play, carved out of the factories and workshops that once made the city great.
All over the world, cities are being reborn. By one estimate, about 80% of global GDP is generated in cities – driven by a mixture of urbanisation, geographic sprawl and concentrated zones of innovation. As a result, a whole new market has opened up for so-called “smart cities”. The truth about smart cities: ‘In the end, they will destroy democracy’
The engineering consultancy Arup defines the smart city as one where “the seams and structures of the various urban systems are made clear, simple, responsive and even malleable” through technology and design. Specifically, a smart city happens when three specific networks interact: the communications grid, the energy system and the so-called “logistics internet” – which can track people and things through transport and supply systems.
But there’s a problem: who controls the project and who owns the data it generates? We live in an age when your supermarket’s software knows who you are from your buying choices; where your email provider can send you advertisements matched to key words in your supposedly private messages. But issues raised by smart cities go beyond privacy – they raise problems for democracy and control.
More than 2.5 billion people, mostly urban dwellers, voluntarily wear a tracking device – their smartphone. It can tell you the nearest coffee shop, order you a taxi and even find you a nearby potential sex partner because it knows where you are. Hire a bike and the city transport system knows where you start and finish. The privacy issues here are dealt with by limiting the flow of data between public and private sectors, and by making the individual the centre of the information flow.
But in a smart city, you need data to flow freely across sectors that, in the commercial world, would normally be separate. The energy system needs to know what the transport system is doing. And the whole thing needs to be run like a “God game”: the city government, not the individual, must exercise control.
For this reason, early on, the technology companies realised smart could only be built with a new kind of city government. You would have to run the entire city as an integrated system, where every recorded change reconfigures activity elsewhere – so, a traffic incident at point A can temporarily reroute buses, redraw cycle lanes and send additional public transport to affected suburbs. Right now, at every conference and jamboree, mayors and council leaders are being bombarded with marketing pitches for smart-city technologies.
The risks are obvious to anybody familiar with the history of big computing. The first is obsolescence – where a giant company’s software, in industry parlance, “moulds like putty, sets like concrete” around existing systems, preventing further innovation and extracting a lot of revenue in the process.
Once you’ve avoided that, there is the danger of “lock in”: 20- to 40-year contracts signed with an IT provider whose code you are not allowed to see, and which gets to utilise all the data generated freely by citizens. In the worst case, this locks out smaller, more innovative information businesses and freezes out any attempt to make the city’s data open source, free and shareable.
But the biggest challenge is to democracy. Arup points out that running a smart city with today’s city-government structures would be like a local bookshop trying to run Amazon. As a result, the marketing push for smart cities comes with an obligatory nod to “bottom up” solutions and community involvement.
But there’s a more radical way to do this, and it is spelled out in a consultation document ordered by the new leftwing government of Madrid. Instead of seeing the city as a “system”, to be automated and controlled, the vision being mulled in the Spanish capital conceives of the city as an “ecosystem” of diverse, competing and uncontrolled human networks. Instead of asking: which of the city’s grids and networks do we want to automate and connect, Podemos-backed major Manuela Carmena asked advisers: what are the social problems we want technology to solve?
The result was the vision of a “non-neoliberal smart city”, incorporating three principles not welcome in the world of high-profit tech companies: openness, democratic participation and a clear policy that data generated from public services should be publicly owned. “Rather than keep funding proprietary systems with public money, support open-source collaborative technologies,” Carmena was advised. Instead of beginning with the transport system, the first deployment of new technology should allow citizens to “raise issues of corruption, equity in the distribution of resources and open the question of access to power”.
As a result of Madrid’s early engagement with the smart cities concept, there is in Spain – almost uniquely in the developed world – a real debate about what we want technology to do for cities, and who should control the technology.
Smart cities represent a genuine and potentially massive new market for the private sector, breathing economic life into the old structures and patterns of cities. But if faced with somnolent and uninformed local governments, the results are going to be chaotic and unwieldy systems, and an erosion of democracy. If the movement is to generate a new vigour and vision, city governments must stop being patsies to the IT giants and start to think, from first principles, what technology would look like if it served the people.