In smart cities, advertisers will rule

A LinkNYC kiosk in New York City. Image: Getty.

“If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” The phrase was coined in the 1970s to talk about television advertising, but has since become the internet’s whole business model: we get nice services, for free or for very little, and in return, our attention is sold to advertisers.

But what if that logic dominated everyday life? With the rise of the smart city, it’s becoming a reality. And local authorities should be both upfront and cautious about the risks.

Sous les pavés, la pub

In a time of disappearing budgets, it is understandable that councils will jump at any opportunity to improve their cities without spending a penny. Companies like JCDecaux and Clear Channel provide cities with street furniture such as bus stops and bicycles, in return for advertising space.

Occasionally, though, the public service aspect is all but forgotten. In 2015, JCDecaux replaced Paris’s 2,000 bus shelters with a new model. With their sleek design, the new shelters had USB ports for charging your phone, and large, digital advertising screens. The only problem? They didn’t actually provide shelter from the rain and had to be changed.

Other times, public utility is just an excuse for brand promotion, as with the “trackable water refill stations” recently installed in London by Canary Wharf Group – narcissistic water fountains with a screen that tracks the number of plastic bottles saved.

With cities desperate for innovation yet strapped for cash, advertisers have been emboldened to set their own rules. A recent report from the Outdoor Advertising Association of America talks about how the knowledge that a bus passenger is taking a specific route towards a specific destination could be used for hyper-targeted messages: “The information might include: an upcoming destination; reminders about previous purchases; points-of-interest along the way.”

This mixing of public and private usages is one way advertisers are cementing their urban domination. As one advertising CEO puts it, “The serendipitous confluence of municipal poverty and secular change in marketing practices presents a unique opportunity for a new breed of public-private partnerships.”

In reality, “public-private partnerships” often means public data being used for private ends. The best example of this took place via Intersection’s digital kiosks in New York, the LinkNYC. These kiosks were designed to replace the city’s payphones, and they feature HD screens for accessing maps, services and video calls, a phone, and USB charging ports. The “Links” are owned and operated by the CityBridge consortium, and are funded by advertising on the large screens. Last year, “InLinks” launched in the UK.

Intersection turned public data into private ad dollars last year, when it helped the beer brewing company MillerCoors run an advertising campaign in partnership with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). MillerCoors used MTA data to detect when there were delays on certain train lines, and subsequently relayed this information alongside the slogan, “Your commute can wait” and an invitation to stop off for a beer.


Protecting data in smart cities

So where is our personal data in all of that? The future of outdoor advertising lies in the combination of two inherent features of the internet – free, advertiser-subsidised services, and targeted ads. And the latter means large-scale data collection. As Le Monde reports, the screens that companies like JCDecaux are fitting on public infrastructure “use cameras and detection systems to identify with remarkable precision the sex, age, height, weight, and geographical origins of passers-by”. In some cases, cameras even use “emotion detection”, to check if people are responding positively to the message.

The marketing possibilities are so enticing that Philippe Baudillon, president of the French branch of Clear Channel Outdoor, just published a book about smart cities, Réinventer la Street Experience. In his reimagined city, we are all connected, all the time; the street becomes a “real-life hyperlink”, sending people towards websites and social media campaigns.

The book explains that Clear Channel has also developed a tool called Consumer Audience Smart Tracking, which uses “more than 2,000 socio-behavioural criteria taken from anonymised data” to analyse consumers passing in front of a screen, “making it possible to identify not only the number of people who walk by, but also their lifestyle and consumption habits”.

Baudillon stresses that the data is used to identify and target large groups, not individuals: we don’t have to worry about the bus shelter revealing our internet history just yet. Still, with smart street furniture linked to your smartphone’s Wi-Fi, and bourgeoning facial recognition technology, hyper-targeted outdoor advertising is increasingly plausible.

Public authorities have, however, shown that they are willing to uphold privacy laws. In 2013, the company Renew London trialled recycling bins which featured LCD advertising screens, and which tracked Wi-Fi signals from pedestrians’ phones. Renew said it collected data from media access control (MAC) addresses simply to measure footfall. But after campaigners raised privacy concerns, the City of London Corporation asked Renew to halt its trial.

The French Data Protection Authority (CNIL) denied JCDecaux authorisation to collect similar data. The device would have gathered data from any smartphone users within a 25 radius of their advertising screens, meaning not everybody was likely to have seen the A4 sign notifying them of their rights, according to Osborne Clarke’s marketing law blog.

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect in May, should give citizens even more power in such cases. Businesses are now required to share what kind of information they collect, and individuals must be able to withdraw their consent.

But this is much more complicated in a physical, public space than it is online, as the CNIL’s decision recognises. That is why the public should be consulted before projects are finalised. While free technology is always enticing, cities mustn’t forget whom they are supposed to serve, before the next big data scandal hits the streets.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.