The Smart City inspires the imagination of tech companies, industry is growing. But the idea of a fully automated city is not that smart.
It was supposed to be the city of the future: In 2017, the Google sister company Sidewalk Labs wanted to build an ecological model settlement in Toronto. Robot taxis, heated cycle paths, self-propelled garbage cans – this is how the architects imagined the urbanity of tomorrow. But there was resistance to the $50 million urban development project.
A citizens’ initiative mobilized against the smart city: The activists feared the privatization of public space and “land grabbing” by a tech company that is also putting out feelers into urban space and collect data from residents. Living in a surveillance lab? That seemed like a dystopian idea to the citizens.
In 2020, Sidewalk Labs officially shut down the project. The reason given was that the “unprecedented economic uncertainty” due to the corona pandemic would not allow it to continue. But the smart city continues to fire the imagination of tech companies. There isn’t a tech conference where the Smart City topic isn’t discussed. A huge industry has sprung up in recent years. Smart lighting, parking systems, disposal management – the range of “solutions” is huge.
And there is a lot of interest in it too. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to create 100 smart cities in the next few years, and the German government has launched a smart city program worth millions. Cities all over the world call themselves smart cities – from Boston to Buxtehude.
The term “smart” is primarily a sales label
Now, the term “smart” as well as “artificial intelligence” is above all a sales label that is stuck to any hardware or software, no matter how stupid it may be. If cities develop a parking app, that is already considered “smart”, even if authorities continue to fax back and forth.
But tech companies are very successful in marketing their products as visions and establishing them as narratives in public discourse. The concept sells a vision of cities that can be controlled like a smartphone. Thanks to the data collected by the sensors in the urban space, the city planner can see on his screen where things are currently stuck and where adjustments need to be made.
The idea of controlling urban processes with sensor networks combines architectural functionalism with the teachings of cybernetics. The city is imagined as a kind of machine consisting of steering systems and adapting to changing environmental conditions (market, traffic, temperature) through feedback loops. Cybernetics is all about establishing balance by predicting motion and eliminating “disturbances”.
This is not just theory: as part of the Cybersyn project in Chile in 1971 under socialist President Salvador Allende, nationalized factories were connected to a network of teletypewriters that sent production data such as energy consumption and inventories to central mainframe computers.
What is the problem that smart cities could be a solution for?
The planners should be able to see how the economy is currently developing in the individual sectors in a “Star Trek”-like control center. The Cybersyn project failed due to the lack of data processing capacity of the computers at the time, but the idea of a “decision machine” lives on. The question is: What is the problem that smart cities could be a solution to?
When tech companies offer “solutions”, completely rooted in the solutionist thinking of Silicon Valley, it also implies that they have a problem definition. Only: The problems defined by a private company are very different from those identified by a youth club or the volunteer fire brigade. Cisco, for example, offers “solutions” for parking systems and defines the search for a parking space as a problem. However, the fact that cars may not be the problem in cities, is ignored in the ready-made solutions.
The delegation of urban policy decisions to corporations not only harbors the danger of privatizing political processes, but also of depoliticization. Because the values that are defined in the code are based on purely technical criteria. If all robot vehicles find a parking space within a given time limit, the urban system is in balance, then there are no problems.
The ideal state of the smart city is reached when all processes run automatically: the smart garbage can reports when it is full, the parking sensor when the parking space is free, and the smartphone in the car notifies the repair drone when the driver drives over a pothole . There is no longer any need for complaint management because the system regulates itself. The citizen is just one sensor among many in this circuit. This no longer has much to do with the idea of the polis.
A modular model for authoritarian regimes
The smart city agenda not only pursues the utopia of an ideal city, but also the idea of perfect control. Everything runs in “orderly” tracks, like a model railway. The question is, therefore, what counts as “disorder” in cybernetic logic. Traffic jams? train delays? Or also protests?
The Chinese search engine company Baidu has developed an algorithm that can use search entries to predict where a crowd (“critical mass”) will form up to two hours in advance – a kind of algorithmic crowd control. Where is it fermenting and where is it rumbling? Where is a protest rally brewing?
Smart city “solutions” are a building block model for authoritarian regimes, and it cannot be ruled out that surveillance technology will be used to create movement profiles of citizens. It is an illusion to believe that cities can be controlled like a smartphone. “Disorders” of all kinds are the norm, and anyone who thinks they can just program it away, didn’t understand much about urbanity.
Harvard economist Ed Glaeser writes in his book “Triumph of the City” that cities are something like social search engines that bring like-minded people together. In a way, even ancient cities were smart, in the sense that these social systems could react very quickly to changes in their systemic environment – new trade routes, wars, catastrophes.
No problems, no politics
The digital technologies, which now present themselves as solutions for mostly analogue problems, create new problems of their own: E-scooters that are carelessly thrown around and are a tripping hazard for blind, disabled or elderly people. Congested streets that are caused by algorithms sending taxis and delivery vans on absurd empty runs. And: new vulnerabilities.
Security researchers have repeatedly discovered vulnerabilities in Internet-enabled devices that are also used in cities. In 2017, the tornado warning system in the city of Dallas, which has a population of 1.2 million, was hacked – just before midnight the sirens wailed, rousing residents from their sleep. It was also a wake-up call on what can happen when hackers attack “smart” networks. A nightmare, especially nowadays. Of course, the smart city lobby doesn’t talk about that.
Instead, one success story after another is told. Just: what use are smart meters when electricity is scarce? What good is smart lighting when cities have to switch off the lights due to energy shortages? What is smart about a city that is only thought of in terms of optimization?
A city isn’t a computer, but it’s still the best system for bringing people together. When there are no more problems, there are no more politics.