Smart cities – built by whom for whom?
Everywhere you look now there seem to be hints of a sci-fi future emerging in our cities. Will this future be built by the people for the wellbeing of the people, or by corporations for the wellbeing of their bottom-line and shareholders? Or a little of column A, a little of column B?
From smart meters and smart assistants in our homes, to loyalty cards and payments by mobile phone in stores, to testing driverless cars (way behind London's Dockland Light Railway, driverless since the '80s!), to state and security cameras everywhere, to the all-pervasive information super-highway in our pockets offering a layer of interaction with the world around us not possible before. The future is arriving now (odd statement that!).
Sci-fi novels, TV and films have long been a way to explore the ramifications of these possible futures. William Gibson's classic Neuromancer. Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon. Westworld. Person of Interest. Bladerunner. Fifth Element! A vision that stays with me from one (or multiple?) of these sources is that of a plucky protagonist being bombarded with ads for services as they make their way through a shopping centre, holo and physical screens adjusting to fit to the data held for our hero. Not that far fetched from how the web seems to function these days if you don't take precautions!
So, what kind of smart infrastructure do we want for ourselves and how can we achieve it? Is it already too late to prevent the vision I just described? We already see signs that different societies may choose different routes, for example with European legislative framework tilting more to the rights of individuals over corporations than American, while more authoratarian-leaning states develop parallel infrastructure of their own.
A few different moves into this space have caught my attention, the first example below spurring this blog post:
- Blockchain's proposed smart city in Nevada: I read a BBC article about it this week. It's a bold, transformative vision, all hinging on a technology best known for underpinning cryptocurrency. Hmm. Interesting experiment? Cyberanarchy? I'm not sure...
- Sidewalk Labs' (Alphabet/Google) ill-fated development in Toronto: Coronavirus may have delivered the nail in the coffin of this project but an interesting article by The Guardian highlights some of the “surveillance capitalism” misgivings as well as the more people-centric less tech-centric vision Toronto is now taking for developing this area.
- Amazon Go/Go Grocery/Fresh stores: Plenty has been written about these brick-and-mortar shops, where you can get your goods without interacting with another human being.
- Decentralised and participatory smart economic networks as detailed in the Write.as blog Economic Networks and its sister site http://mikorizal.org/. I haven't explored them in detail yet but I am intrigued!
I find all of this a mixture of exciting, fascinating and scary. I instinctively trust the grass-roots people-led decentralised visions more than those presented by the world's tech giants with whom we have already signed Faustian bargains swapping convenience for all the details of our digital selves... but this may say as much about me as the actual visions they present!
I guess the questions that emerge for me are:
- How do we make sure that people rather than tech remain central to the smart city of the future?
- How do we respect an individual's privacy in a smart city?
- Can a smart city truly deliver a modern utopia, or will it increase inequalities, whether for those who cannot afford the tech or choose to opt-out of some (or all) of the smart services? Or, as I would prefer the choice to be offered, not to opt-in?
 The BBC article notes that the Nevada Governor enthusiastically supporting this has previously received campaign funding from Blockchain's founder. I find the topic of pay-for-play/electoral-capture (call it what you will) to be demoralising but don't want to be too swayed by this and will watch for what happens next here!
Entry 69 of my participation in the “100 Days to Offload” challenge – find out more and join in!