Smart cities, smart societies, and surveillance

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Smart cities, smart societies, and surveillance
Bryony Kelly

Smart cities, smart societies, and surveillance

The future smart city is run off reams of your data. Is this the beginning of the Utopian dream or the Orwellian dystopia? Read on to find out our take.

Close your eyes and imagine a smart city. It’s a picture of utopia: lightning-speed connectivity, green landscaping, safe, clean streets, abundant housing, immaculate healthcare and the peaceful hum of driverless smart cars whizzing along congestion-free roads. It’s frictionless and efficient, almost Stepford in its design. And yet, simmering beneath it all is the knowledge that this smart city is run off reams of data.

This utopian dream comes at the cost of an Orwellian dystopia, one in which the world around us is formed in some cases without our knowledge or consent. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and a staggering 1.5 million are added every week. Overcrowding is putting a strain on cities to innovate, transform, and forge gaps between citizens quicker than ever before, but how much are we willing to pay for the urban fantasy?

As populations soar and cluster in city centres, technology (and in particular the Internet of Things) has taken on a new importance in urban development. According to research, using IoT-enabled infrastructure and digital solutions could give as much as:

  • 60 hours back to citizens through improved mobility (including intelligent traffic systems and open data platforms to reduce commute times);
  • 35 hours through public safety measures (such as machine learning-enabled software to predict crime hotspots and improve response times for emergencies and natural disasters);
  • Nine hours through better healthcare (telemedicine, preventative apps, and chat-bots to reduce waiting times); and
  • 21 hours through greater productivity (including faster digital payments and apps to enable greater interactivity between citizens and city agencies).

Data-driven solutions are also enabling better planning on a wider level, including identifying ways to build ecologically savvy, green cities. Meanwhile, developments in technology such as 3D printing are revolutionising the way that we conceptualise city living (from sprawling city to dense, interconnected and even modular ‘add as you grow’ homes), as well as bridging the wealth gap through affordable living. 

But these breakthroughs don’t come out of thin air. Many of them are loaded with millions of data points, harvested from the public’s day-to-day interactions with the city. Privately-held, non-personal data is being gathered in manifest ways, often without the explicit knowledge or consent of many of its participants. Would you sign away information about your movements if it meant a faster commute? You currently don’t have a choice, as ticketing information is the technology behind TfL’s real-time travel data. With no equivalent to GDPR for non-personal data, there is a question of ethics that lingers when it comes to smart cities.

This is especially true when it comes to how this data is used. In 2010, London became one of the first cities to recognise the potential of open data, and everything – from the number of fires started by washing machines to projected demand for school places to economic activity by gender – is available on London Data Store. The Data Store is an open data platform that encourages citizens, agencies, and third parties to use the available information to come up with ways to innovate the city. It has created a transparent two-way door to aggregated data that feels much less oppressive than a system recording your every movement ought to.

London’s approach to collaborative, open data has contributed start-ups such as CityMapper, attracted talent to the city, and even seen London ranked in second place overall in the Top 20 Global City Performance by Index charts. If London is a surveillance city (and it certainly is – the average Londoner is caught on camera up to 300 times a day), then at least it’s a conscious one.

The real problem is actually those cities that aren’t responsive to their smart society. In recent years, many government-led smart city initiatives have faced criticism as they seek to charge their society with state-of-the-art tech, while forgetting that many of their citizens are deprived of the basics. One of the biggest challenges for smart cities is accelerating without widening the economic gap.

This is particularly true in the developing world, where an estimated 90% of the urban population growth is anticipated to take place, despite having less than 20% of the necessary infrastructure to accommodate this growth. With 60% of urban dwellers in Africa living in unplanned settlements, and 41% of Sub-Saharan Africans without access to electricity, how can smart city pioneers realistically expect to create a competitive digital city that caters to the many?

Then consider that many developing countries (in particular, the Far East and China) operate ‘opaque’ data policies, where public data is collected but not shared or consulted with its residents, and the potential for smart cities to become marginalising surveillance cities becomes a real possibility. A smart city that is constructed without the consideration, consent, or collaboration of its society will always be unstable at best, and dictatorial at worst.

It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that many smart cities have drawn their fair share of critics, including activists who provide humble, non-tech hacks to the community; in part to highlight how out of touch some members of state can be with life on the ground. After all, who needs 5G when you’re living in a make-shift shelter? In order to create sustainability, emerging smart cities will need to first focus on cultivating smart societies. That means enabling citizens to be vocal about their needs and informed in their approach.

An element of trust and understanding needs to be built at a human level, otherwise the data is nothing but self-serving figures. And if you think these facts – the need to modernise, the impending overpopulation, the growing wealth gap, and the need for greater clarity and education – are only relevant to the developing world, you would be wrong.

Smart cities in every corner of the globe need to ensure that the tech revolution does not come at the cost of basic human rights and needs. After all, an efficient society is not necessarily a happy one; just look at The Handmaid’s Tale.

So, what is the cost of a smart city? Does it have to be a government-constructed panopticon, built from shards of unprotected data? Does utopia come at the price of blissful ignorance, placing trust in powers above? Is a smart city only feasible by focusing on the ‘haves’ – is it a case of better for all doesn't always mean better for some? And lastly, should technology really be our focus? Is reverting to this Matrix-style universe really our destiny, or should we be looking to our humanity to transcend the gaps we’ve built?

The reality is that a smart city is only as smart as its community. At its core, these cities are designed to spread wealth, produce efficiencies, and create a happier and more cohesive society. By default, they cannot be sheltered or introspective; otherwise they risk missing the bigger picture.

In order for smart cities to be truly democratic therefore, we must become digitally liberal and conceptually inclusive. That means providing a platform for citizens to share ideas, develop micro industries and trends, and innovate using the data available. At its basic level, that also means educating users about how and why their data is obtained; why there isn’t an ‘opt in’ and why – for the most part – that’s a good thing.

We already live in a surveillance state, and as we become smarter, that’s only likely to increase; data really does rule the world. But crucially, living in a surveillance state (or a smart city) does not have to mean exclusion, exploitation, or hidden agendas. At the end of the day, we must all live in a shared vision of utopia.

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