Evicted from the Smart City: No Citizens Needed

Opinion

Tech vendors know when they knock on the doors of local politicians to pitch smart cities technologies and promising billions in savings, they are going to find a receptive audience. Big Tech promises what politicians desperately want to hear: that we can address deep-seated, structural urban problems through business-led technological innovation and somehow sidestep the messiness of inclusive politics. Democracy? It just gets in the way.

Smart cities are all about data. Sure enough, you can measure cities just like you can measure anything else, but the numbers will only tell you what and never why. As Adam Greenfield put it, cities are miracles of self-organization. They’re unpredictable. Financial analysis has shown that New Yorkers prefer Chili’s to ethnic restaurants, but do you know anyone who lives in NYC and says how great the food is at Chili’s? No, because homogenized, prepackaged food doesn’t square with their image of New York as a great international city and cosmopolitan melting pot. Instead, New Yorkers will tell you about this amazing Peruvian or Ukrainian place they stumbled upon, or a fantastic new food cart with Icelandic desserts that shows up on Tuesdays.

Smart city technological solutions don’t explain why New Yorkers might say one thing while the data reveal something different. Their selling point is to put sensors everywhere, measuring every dollar we spend, every mile we commute, every square foot we inhabit. They only care about rows and columns in a spreadsheet. They choose the what over the why.

It’s astonishing how many smart city presentations ignore the people—or the inhabitants, as the industry prefers to say. By their standards, an engaged citizen is an inhabitant who is tracked and measured. In their parlance, a smart city is optimized for machines, not people.

What we get as a result is a Foucault-esque Panopticon, with an all-seeing administrative control system that resembles a war room more than anything else. IBM built one for Rio de Janeiro and it has been compared to a Bond villain’s lair. Centro de Operações Preifetura do Rio de Janeiro (COR) is a dark room filled with 70 people staring at glowing screens filled with data from hidden nodes and cameras. It’s a window on any place or object in Rio. But when a real threat of mudslides came in, the control center’s staff was bickering over how to interpret data instead of responding. In the words of the COR’s then-chief, Pedro Junqueira:

We debated all night whether to send a notice to those communities. We were over the protocol number after which you must decide whether to sound the alarm. We were on the edge, and we’re talking about people’s lives.

COR was also used to monitor the protests against the FIFA World Cup and Olympics held in Brazil, because it’s easier to watch protesters than it is to listen to them. The result of a nearly $4 billion investment is a thinly-veiled surveillance system.

Or what about the city of Palava? The Indian government spent more than a billion dollars to make it a cutting-edge technopolis. The self-proclaimed “city of opportunity” with thousands of solar panels, modern transportation and sky-scraping glass towers also comes with smart surveillance and identity cards. Why? To make sure poor people don’t get in. Palava is one of many similar projects in India. Laveesh Bhandari, an Indian economist, was quoted in the Guardian: “This is the natural way of things. For if we do not keep them out, they will override our ability to maintain such infrastructure.” And this is in a country with over 300 million of people living in poverty.

A few years ago, Singapore rolled out Siemens’ City Cockpit, advertised by the tech giant as a tool for “Real-Time Government.” The City Cockpit claims to support better and faster decision-making by consolidating information from a wide range of administrative systems. This kind of technobabble is common. The idea is that with tools like these, mayors will be able to track multiple processes that drive their cities in real time, like a player in a strategy game. This arrogance and absence of citizen participation that has long been a theme for the tech industry is now creeping into policy. Technology journalist Om Malik summed it up best when he called out Silicon Valley for what he described as an empathy vacuum:

We talk about the filter bubbles on social networks—those algorithms that keep us connected to the people we feel comfortable with and the world we want to see—and their negative impacts, but real-world filter bubbles, like the one in Silicon Valley, are perhaps more problematic. People become numbers, algorithms become the rules, and reality becomes what the data says.

It’s important to understand that introducing data-driven decisions into our lives and politics is not a sin. On the contrary, it’s an incredible opportunity and we’d be ignorant not to take advantage of it. But we also cannot let tech corporations use urban innovation as an excuse to make a quick buck, consequences be damned. City people are not there to be exploited. Cities are our homes, not an artificial space made for rich tourists and photo-ops.

City people know how to think for themselves, so how about including them in the decisions about innovation? How about governments and Big Tech put technology in place to support and enhance the lives of all citizens, not only the elites with the deepest pockets or the greatest hunger for power?

[Editor’s note: This is part 2 in a series on Smart Cities. Here are parts 1 and 3.]

Mark is the general manager at Treeline, a US-based technology development and advisory firm. He has co-founded five venture-backed companies, with three successful exits. Follow @

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