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”.

 
 
 
 

City of Ruin: On Resident Evil’s Raccoon City

Photo: Wikipedia via Creative Commons

With the release of Capcom’s remake of Resident Evil 2 on Friday 25 January, gamers will return to the terrifying streets of one of the most iconic cities in video games: the zombie-infested Raccoon City.

Despite first being mentioned in 1997’s original Resident Evil, that game took place entirely in a mansion outside the city and it wasn’t until the 1998 sequel that we actually got to explore Raccoon City itself.

Since then, it’s become a recurring location in the games series and various spin-off media, even though – and this is an unavoidable spoiler, so abandon this article now if you’re planning to go into the remake completely cold – Resident Evil 2 ends with the city being comprehensively nuked by the US government.

In fact, the series returned to Raccoon City a year later in 1999’s Resident Evil 3, an asset-reusing fill-in instalment that cleverly loops around the events and locations of Resident Evil 2 and gives the player another, more detailed look at the city’s final destruction.

Raccoon City RIP, from Resident Evil 3. The author of this piece was not allowed to have the piano theme from the credits as music at his wedding.

Since then, the 1998 fall of Raccoon City has been revisited in the two Resident Evil Outbreak titles, in the Umbrella Chronicles and Darkside Chronicles light gun Wii games, and in the shockingly mediocre online shooter Operation Raccoon City, as well as the Milla Jovovich-starring live action film series.

Although the plot line of the main game series has moved on to new locales and time periods from 2005’s Resident Evil 4 onwards, the franchise clearly left a part of itself on the streets of Raccoon City in 1998, and can’t help but repeatedly return. But why?

To answer that we need to look at what kind of games the Resident Evil series are, their genre roots and the continuity that’s built up within the games themselves – and how these elements have created an eccentric idea of an average American city.

The original Resident Evil had horror game precedents in titles like Alone in the Dark and the film adaptation, Sweet Home – even sharing a developer, Capcom, and a director, Shinji Mikami, with the latter – but it twisted these influences and precedents to create a new sub-genre: survival horror.

The survival horror genre is distinguished by the cautious, steady exploration of a contained environment, facing off against horrific creatures that constantly threaten to overpower the player, who must conserve scarce resources like ammo and health top-ups. As opposed to game genres where environments are dashed through while shooting wildly, survival horror games, and their steady pace, demand locations that reward attention.

The live action introduction to the characters in the original Resident Evil. Mysteriously this technique hasn’t been used in the series since.

The first game, called Biohazard in its native Japanese but renamed Resident Evil in English, opened with a ridiculous live-action video in which an elite team of cops – as seen in the video above – wind up in the creepy Spencer Mansion located in the Arklay Mountains near Raccoon City. There, our heroes, part of the elite and very coolly acronymic STARS team, face off against zombies and other genetically engineered monsters created as weapons by the evil Umbrella Corporation.

Player characters, Chris or Jill, move from room to room in the mansion, fighting off monsters and making progress by solving baroque puzzles where rooms are locked by mysterious keys and booby trap devices. As the plot unfolds Chris and Jill realise that they’ve been set up, acting as experimental subjects to provide data about the combat efficiency of Umbrella’s Bio-Organic Weapons, or BOWs for short.

Gameplay from the original Resident Evil. NSFW due to gore and terrible voice acting.

Although we don’t go near Raccoon City in the first game, it sets several precedents that shape the urban space encountered in the sequel. The game relies on confined spaces and environments in which the player struggles to escape a looming zombie, with doorways to pass through to move from one small area to another. As well as building tension this is a technical issue – the dramatic fixed camera angles allow the backdrops to each screen to essentially be pre-rendered still images on which animated characters and interactive items move, allowing in turn for a much higher resolution in the backgrounds than was possible for moving 3D environments at the time – which lends the world of the game a distinct, atmospheric feel, the sense of a real, detailed place.


The fiction of the game justifies the Spencer Mansion’s weird layout and complex locks partially through its use by the Umbrella Corporation as a secret laboratory and testing facility, and partially through the story of the Mansion’s eccentric architect, George Trevor, who installed all these traps and puzzles on the orders of Umbrella’s founder, Ozwell Spencer. These narratives are told through documents found around the Mansion and its grounds.

The final element here is one of genre. If you’re a Resident Evil newcomer, you may well have read the past few paragraphs and thought “this makes absolutely no sodding sense whatsoever”, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The most obvious genre precedents for the series are the zombie films of filmmaker George A Romero, but the series also takes influence from the considerably less coherent European knock offs Romero inspired, all through a lens of Japanese horror, which is far more prone to abstraction and nightmare logic as well as post-Hiroshima concerns about mutation.

These overlapping influences shaped Raccoon City itself – a city in the mid-western United States, created by Japanese game developers in the mid to late 1990s taking influence from zombie films of the 1970s and 1980s, some of which were shot in Europe. Factor in the technical and gameplay requirements, and you end up with a uniquely skewed vision of an American cityscape.

The original Resident Evil 2 opens with the zombie outbreak well underway, and protagonists Leon and Claire stranded in a Downtown area overrrun with the undead. The narrow streets are rendered narrower by crashed cars and barricades, evidence of the carnage that has occurred and failed defensive efforts. The opening scenes of the game are a hectic dash through cluttered streets and a crashed bus to get to a gun shop and the game’s first major environment, the Raccoon Police Department. Resident Evil 3 revisits Downtown and the RPD, filling in restaraunts, shopping streets, an area under construction, an electricty substation, the City Hall, a gas station and a tram station.

The unusually narrow streets of Raccoon City as seen in Resident Evil 3.

Resident Evil 3 also adds the adjacent Uptown area with warehouses, sales offices, bars and residential streets that border on tenements in their density and narrow alleys. Between the two games the ruined city is a beautiful example of stage-managed desolation, with distant screams and evidence of horrors past strewn across the cluttered chaos. It’s also ridiculous, a toytown version of a city where industrial, residential and commercial activities are piled upon each other. The George Trevor school of architectural madness is also in full effect, with the RPD building being a converted art gallery complete with doors that are opened by manipulating statues, and gates to City Hall that unlock when a clock outside is completed.

An eccentric approach to architecture and city planning is one hand wave explanation for why Raccoon City doesn’t make much sense, another within the fiction is that it’s an Umbrella Corporation company town, with their labs and facilities scattered across the city. Every business and facility can hide a lab or storage area for Umbrella. In Resident Evil 2, the sewers and a cable car trip lead to a dead factory hiding a lab facility in the Raccoon City outskirts, an underground lab revisited (or pre-visited?) in Resident Evil Zero and the Outbreak games.

In Resident Evil 3 a disastrous jaunt in a tram leads to the city hospital which hides a lab full of reptilian monstrosities, then on through the park, across a dam and into another dead factory hiding another laboratory. 

As much as anything makes sense in Raccoon City, there’s a sort of logic to seeing the city as a giant laboratory in which the local population are bred as guinea pigs, who can be snatched up and experimented upon in the individual facilities across the city. It’s a groteseque but not entirely inaccurate caricature of urban space where the masses live and die at the whim of the corporate forces who shape the city for their own purposes. The cramped urban spaces of Raccoon City, where industrial, residential, and commercial areas pile up on each other in a mass of twisty, narrow streets that are barely more than corridors, add a level of dream logic to this scenario, making for an evocative urban nightmare.

The boring, sensibly proportioned streets of Operation: Raccoon City

While the Outbreak games added new areas to Raccoon City – a zoo, a university by the sea – their adherence to the oppressively warped architecture and geography of the series made these additions of a piece with their predecessors. Other adaptations have been less successful: the Chronicles and Operation Raccoon City games turned the streets into open boxes for less contained, run-and-gun-type play, completely losing the rich detail and claustrophobia that made Raccoon City such a unique place and turning it into... well, something resembling a real city, with streets wide enough for cars and buildings with sensibly broad corridors. That nightmarish quality was entirely lost.

Hopefully the Resident Evil 2 remake released this week will, amongst all its high definition upgraded gore, retain Raccoon City’s convoluted, unrealistic geography. The story of an apocalyptic event reducing an American city, the supposed apex of Western civilisation, to carnage and despair will always have a certain perverse appeal, and the fall of Raccoon City, in all its nightmarish eccentricity, is one of the greatest iterations of that story. Long may we keep being allowed to revisit it.

Resident Evil 2 is released for PS4, XBox One and Microsoft Windows on 25 January 2019.