Most cities are already ‘smart’ – just, not for the people who live in them

Hyde Park, London, where even your walks are now monitored. Image: Getty.

Ask people around you if they live in a smart city, and more likely than not they will answer that they don’t. I can tell you that because I have tried.

When giving talks about this very topic in cities like Berlin, The Hague and Stockholm, I always ask this question at the start. The rough ratio I tend to get is that: 15 per cent hesitantly raise their hand to say they do, 60 per cent don’t, 20 per cent just look confused and 5 per cent are not listening.

And yet most people who live in cities do live in smart cities – In so far as our governments are investing in these projects, and relying on technologies and data collection in an attempt to improve the quality of live in our cities.

We can’t blame people for their ignorance when even governments don’t seem too confident about what a smart city is. The Smart Cities Mission – an Indian government body in charge of developing smart cities across India – has admitted that “smart cities mean different things to different people”. And despite spending the equivalent of $15bn on smart city projects, the Indian government has refused to set standards for what constitutes ‘smart’, arguing against setting “a-priori standards for Smart Cities to achieve”.

In fact, governments and corporations have all come up with their own ‘vision’ of what a smart city is. Even the World Bank admits the ambiguity of the term and offers two very different possible definitions.

Yet, behind the marketing term – however meaningless – there is a worrying trend that Privacy International has documented in our latest report “Smart cities: utopian vision, dystopian reality”. The smart city projects we see being developed promote a vision of cities as a nervous system where information coming from sensors are relayed to a brain, which often takes the shape of an operations centre – a centralised control room where CCTV footage and data from the sensors are processed and visualised. These operation centres are used in cities as varied as New York, Rio de Janeiro, Singapore and Jakarta, among many others.


IBM – the company that reportedly came up with the term smart city back in 2008 – has been central in the development of this narrative across the world. Other companies, like Google, Siemens and Microsoft – whose business involve the development of artificial intelligence to process large amount of data – have also contributed to the current trend of smart cities revolving around the mass generation and collection of data.

On paper, it all sounds great: the more information we have, the better the city. But what’s the trade off? If we track people’s steps on the tube, Transport for London will provide better services. But why didn’t TfL tell us it intended to make a profit from the collection of our data before it started tracking us?

If we install smart meters, people will get better at saving energy. But do we realise smart meters mean our government and corporations will know when we’re home and when we’re out? How about our bedtimes, when we shower or bathe, or when we use the kettle or espresso machine? Are we aware that the time we wake up or our electricity consumption on certain days can reveal sensitive information like our religious practices? And do we realise this is precisely the sort of data companies are after to define our credit scores or how much we should be paying for health insurance?

The reason people don’t realise they live in a smart city is because the city has not become smart for them. The use of technology by local governments is still yet to radically improve our experiences in public spaces.

But that does not mean our cities have not changed. Creepily, our cities have become places of constant surveillance where even your walks in Hyde Park are monitored. Our bins know more about us than we probably want them to.

With the development of the so-called Internet of Things, where the objects we use are connected to the internet, the opportunities for data collection are only increasing. In fact, for IBM citizens have become nothing short of walking sensors: “Even without any investment in sensor networks, today’s cities already contain millions of the most intelligent and versatile ‘sensors’ that have ever existed: human beings. A public-spirited citizen with a smartphone is an incredibly valuable source of data for government agencies, because they will provide accurate feedback on the status of the city’s systems in real time.”

Being in the public space does not extinguish our right to privacy. In fact, it may well be where it is needed most. Cities are historically where public dissent and civil disobedience happen. Repressive regimes know this, which explains why there is such an appetite for smart city technology in some countries.

It is time we start rethinking what a genuinely ‘smart’ city would look like. We need to put human rights at the centre of how we think about urbanisation. We need to think about the less-abled and those who do not have access to technology. We need to ensure our cities will be smart for women and transgender people.

This is our responsibility. Companies that think of human beings as sensors will not be having this debate for us.

Eva Blum-Dumontet is a research officer at Privacy International.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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