In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.

 
 
 
 

These maps of petition signatories show which bits of the country are most enthusiastic about scrapping Brexit

The Scottish bit. Image: UK Parliament.

As anyone in the UK who has been near an internet connection today will no doubt know, there’s a petition on Parliament’s website doing the rounds. It rejects Theresa May’s claim – inevitably, and tediously, repeated again last night – that Brexit is the will of the people, and calls on the government to end the current crisis by revoking Article 50. At time of writing it’s had 1,068,554 signatures, but by the time you read this it will definitely have had quite a lot more.

It is depressingly unlikely to do what it sets out to do, of course: the Prime Minister is not in listening mode, and Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom has already been seen snarking that as soon as it gets 17.4m votes, the same number that voted Leave in 2016, the government will be sure to give it due care and attention.

So let’s not worry about whether or not the petition will be successful and instead look at some maps.

This one shows the proportion of voters in each constituency who have so far signed the petition: darker colours means higher percentages. The darkest constituencies tend to be smaller, because they’re urban areas with a higher population density.

And it’s clear the petition is most popular in, well, exactly the sort of constituencies that voted for Remain three years ago: Cambridge (5.1 per cent), Bristol West (5.6 per cent), Brighton Pavilion (5.7 per cent) and so on. Hilariously, Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North is also at 5.1 per cent, the highest in London, despite its MP clearly having remarkably little interest in revoking article 50.

By the same token, the sort of constituencies that aren’t signing this thing are – sit down, this may come as a shock – the sort of places that tended to vote Leave in 2016. Staying with the London area, the constituencies of the Essex fringe (Ilford South, Hornchurch & Upminster, Romford) are struggling to break 1 per cent, and some (Dagenham & Rainham) have yet to manage half that. You can see similar figures out west by Heathrow.

And you can see the same pattern in the rest of the country too: urban and university constituencies signing in droves, suburban and town ones not bothering. The only surprise here is that rural ones generally seem to be somewhere in between.

The blue bit means my mouse was hovering over that constituency when I did the screenshot, but I can’t be arsed to redo.

One odd exception to this pattern is the West Midlands, where even in the urban core nobody seems that bothered. No idea, frankly, but interesting, in its way:

Late last year another Brexit-based petition took off, this one in favour of No Deal. It’s still going, at time of writing, albeit only a third the size of the Revoke Article 50 one and growing much more slowly.

So how does that look on the map? Like this:

Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of an inversion of the new one: No Deal is most popular in suburban and rural constituencies, while urban and university seats don’t much fancy it. You can see that most clearly by zooming in on London again:

Those outer east London constituencies in which people don’t want to revoke Article 50? They are, comparatively speaking, mad for No Deal Brexit.

The word “comparatively” is important here: far fewer people have signed the No Deal one, so even in those Brexit-y Essex fringe constituencies, the actual number of people signing it is pretty similar the number saying Revoke. But nonetheless, what these two maps suggest to me is that the new political geography revealed by the referendum is still largely with us.


In the 20 minutes it’s taken me to write this, the number of signatures on the Revoke Article 50 has risen to 1,088,822, by the way. Will of the people my arse.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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