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 … Next Page »

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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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