Smart Cities: better for whom?

Smart Cities: better for whom?

October 31st 2017 will mark the 3rd World Cities Day (we will forgive if you did not know that), with the general theme “Better City, Better Life.” On this date, PI will be launching its latest report “Smart Cities: Utopian Vision, Dystopian Reality”. This is an opportunity for us to ask: who exactly are our cities going to become better for? 

Technology is often given as an answer when we are not sure what the question is. Cities are no exception to that. The current narrative advocated by governments and companies is that more data and the increasing use of technology will make our cities “better.”

While it is not clear what “better” looks like, the term “smart city” is often given as an answer. It is in fact so unclear that no one seems to agree on its definition or what it should achieve. India is a good example of that. The government is spending the equivalent of US $15 billion on the Smart Cities Mission, yet it admits that “smart cities mean different things to different people” and has refused to endorse a Liveability Index attempting to assess how “smart” a city is.

Beyond the lack of clear vision and issues with the one-size-fits-all approach to so-called “smart cities,” we have observed the emergence of a narrative that says systematic data generation, collection and centralisation are the answers to all problems. This narrative – promoted by companies that sell data processing and artificial intelligence to local governments – has led to the very real and concrete transformation of our cities into increasingly surveilled spaces, as well as places of exclusion and discrimination. 

The cities we are building are turning into threats to our right to privacy: in an environment where our every step is monitored, where facial recognition and artificial intelligence can be used to identify what those in power deem as “suspicious individuals” as they walk in the streets – we are forced to give up our right to privacy in the public space, a right that is guaranteed by law in some countries, including the United States (Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347). But smart cities do not end in the streets: in a city where our government knows when we wake up, shower, leave the house and go to bed – thanks to so-called smart meters – even the sanctity of our homes is being violated. 

We are building cities where information about our location and movements within public transport networks are collected by governments and sold to private companies. We are building cities where sensors are everywhere – on the roads, in lampposts and even in our flats – like nerves relaying information to a centralised brain. In fact, citizens themselves have become sensors. In the words of IBM – a company that has been a key player in the smart city market and instrumental in shaping the narrative around smart cities – “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.”

Cases that have emerged reveal that the populations who will first pay the toll of smart cities are the most vulnerable ones. People with limited access to technology may not benefit from the same services as others. Disenfranchised populations have seen their land forcibly acquired by the state to build cities essentially designed by and for the rich. And – as study after study shows – cities are largely built for men and by men. Smart cities are no exception - examples from India suggest the “beautifying” that has come along with smart city initiatives has been detrimental for women, as streets have been emptied of vendors who made them safer for women. These scenarios are further heightened by the lack of open, inclusive and systematic gender-sensitive consultations.

At Privacy International, we take the opportunity of World Cities Day to reflect on and challenge who controls the narrative behind urbanisation and who gets to decide what our cities look like, who they serve, and who is part of making it all happen. 

After all, it is our data that companies and government are after. Let’s take back control and demand that our cities serve us by respecting our privacy and enabling us to enjoy our fundamental rights.

Read our report Smart Cities: Utopian Vision, Dystopian Reality”