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The Smart City is on the rise. Investigating some key investors, what is the potential for our cities?

Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google, known as the tech ‘Big Four’ make billions specialising in specific user-based interfaces. These companies aim to be the profiter of today’s top commodity: your data. What does this mean for our future cities?

‘Smart Cities’, explains Sebastian Weise during his lecture[2], have been a hot topic in city-planning since the term was first coined around twenty years ago – with the idea of an integrated ‘service-transport-residency’ model dating back to Peter Cook’s ‘Plug-In City’, 1960.[2]

Peter Cook’s Plug-In City, 1960 – an integrated living system [1]. Courtesy of Archdaily
Today, the ‘smart city’ idea has strengthened with advances of technological and communicational capability, allowing us to improve transport, energy and utility efficiencies to reduce consumption and wastage in the built environment.

“A city well performing in a forward-looking way in economy, people, governance, mobility, environment, and living, built on the smart combination of activities of self-decisive, independent and aware citizens”[2]. Giffinger, 2007


Satellite imagery of crop fields for precision agriculture. Courtesy of DigitalGlobe
Data here, Data there…

Weise’s presentation acknowledged sources of raw information existing in our cities as a resource for Smart City development:

  • Government Data: Census records, national demographics, open data sources
  • Remote Data : Satellite imagery & mapping
  • Itemised Data:  Objects recording identity, location, time: Mobikes, air pollution monitors etc.
  • Citizen-generated: social media platforms; anything posted, liked or shared online.

The Big Four only have unabridged access to certain platforms, inherently as the creators of such – but recent plans suggest their move to capitalise further.

Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, with Architect Frank Gehry, discussing plans for new development in Menlo Park. Courtesy of The Guardian
Big Tech gets Smart

Historically, many industry owners also designed towns for employees as early as the 1800s – think John Cadbury and Bourneville. Today, Facebook[4] and Google[5] are taking this idea into the 21st Century by proposing their own ‘Smart’ employee towns, while Amazon has invested into affordable pre-fab housing ‘powered by Alexa’[6] – with free shipping.

Plans for Willow Campus, Facebook’s employee town, and rendering of its shopping district. Courtesy of BizJournal and CBNC

In-keeping with ‘smart’ efficiency, Amazon will be installing AI software into all its prefab homes, collecting recorded data from its residents. Likewise, Facebook and Google’s tech-town residents will be consenting to their movements and actions being recorded as a data gold-mine. Although the resultant technology shall provide users with a more efficient townscape, are there negative implications?

Smart City or Surveillance State?

‘Surveillance capitalism’[7], a term coined by social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff, is a chilling insight into what the ‘Smart City’ may truly be leading us toward. According to Zuboff, the lucrative process of claiming “private experience as free raw material” and turning it into marketable goods began at Google twenty years ago, aiming ultimately to predictably control us for profitable gain. “The ability to know gives way to the power of control,” she states. Do we really need the smart city, or does it actually need us? Is the Smart City becoming a way to capitalise on our behaviour at a metropolis level?

A dystopian vision of tech-apocalypse springs to mind – but the reality is probably subtler. Quoting Hollands, 2008, “Progressive smart cities must start with people and the human capital side…rather than blindly believing that IT itself can automatically transform and improve cities.[8]” People, rather than technology, will continue to be the central focus of a successful city model. Whilst data ownership is the Big Four’s money-maker, their successes lies in their conviction to our customer satisfaction. Zuckerberg claims after the “acquire that incremental increase in the value of the data” they’ll “invest it back into civic spaces and quality of life investments” [9].

Big Investments, Bigger Impacts

What could this mean, for a resident of a Smart City? Google gives us a glimpse, in its Toronto Waterfront proposal[10].

Toronto Waterfront proposals, as visualised by Google and Sidewalk Labs. Courtesy of BBC News 

Mass timber mixed-use housing with 40% affordable units are proposed– answering to both housing and climate crisis issues. Integrated rail networks link residents into the city, heated cycle & pedestrian paths melt forecast snow and the proposal aims for a sub-zero carbon footprint: overall, it seems beneficial for residents and beyond. Data shall be collected from users to improve efficiency – however this data is required to be made public. Google’s potential to capitalise has thus been reduced – leaving prospective residents with all the benefits and little fear.

Amazon’s Alexa-Fund prefabricated homes. Courtesy of Plant Prefab and Burdge Architects

Social housing and sustainability themes are common in other proposals: Amazon’s prefab homes are Ecotimber, while Facebook’s Zee Town hopes to “contribute significantly to the housing supply”[11] building 1,500 units 15% below market rate. In a strange turn of circumstance, capitalism may have come full circle – marketing themselves to our requirements, big tech could answer some social and environmental crises. Just so long as they can sell our information to pay for it.

Could the Big Four eventually OWN our cities, then? Do Smart Cities have the potential to become the totalitarian surveillance state Zuboff fears, or will this be a good thing, for us and the planet? Could ‘even your mom and her friends’ be future residents of Mark Zuckerberg’s expanding town visions[12]? Today, much of this is purely speculative, as plans for each project are still in the pipeline – but one thing is certain. The future is Tech.


[1] “Weise, Sebastian – The Digital-Augmented City as a Design Space.Pdf.” Accessed November 23, 2019. Weise, Sebastian. “The Digital-Augmented City as a Design Space,” n.d., 35.
[2] ArchDaily. “AD Classics: The Plug-In City / Peter Cook, Archigram,” July 10, 2013.
[3] Giffinger, Rudolf, Haindlmaier Gudrun, Gudrun, and Gudrun Haindlmaier. “Smart Cities Ranking: An Effective Instrument for the Positioning of the Cities.” ACE: Architecture, City and Environment 4 (February 18, 2010).
[4] Greenfield, Adam. “Is Facebook’s ‘Zee Town’ More than Just a Mark Zuckerberg Vanity Project?” The Guardian, March 10, 2015, sec. Cities.
[5]  Elias, Jennifer. “Google Expands Plans for Its Massive Second Headquarters in San Jose.” CNBC, October 11, 2019.
[6]  Hill, Catey. “Amazon Is Selling Entire Houses for Less than $20,000 — with Free Shipping.” MarketWatch. Accessed January 10, 2020.
[7] Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books, 2019.
[8] Hollands, Robert. “Will the Real Smart City Please Stand Up?” City 12 (December 1, 2008): 303–20.
[9] Planetizen – Urban Planning News, Jobs, and Education. “Facebook Launches New ‘Smart City’ Experiment: Zuckerburgh.” Accessed January 10, 2020.
[10] Wakefield, Jane. “Google’s Smart City in Toronto Gets Green Light.” BBC News, October 31, 2019, sec. Technology.
[11] “Facebook Pledges $1 Billion to Ease Housing Crisis Inflamed by Big Tech – The New York Times.” Accessed January 14, 2020.
[12] Planetizen – Urban Planning News, Jobs, and Education. “Facebook Launches New ‘Smart City’ Experiment: Zuckerburgh.” Accessed January 10, 2020.
ArchDaily. “AD Classics: The Plug-In City / Peter Cook, Archigram,” July 10, 2013. Accessed 10th November 2019
 xyHt. “Satellite Imagery for Precision Agriculture,” September 8, 2014. Accessed 9th November 2019
Greenfield, Adam. “Is Facebook’s ‘Zee Town’ More than Just a Mark Zuckerberg Vanity Project?” The Guardian, March 10, 2015, sec. Cities. Accessed 5th November 2019
Silicon Valley Business Journal. “Menlo Park Officials Nudge Facebook to Prioritize Housing over Office at Massive Willow Village Project.” Accessed January 10, 2020. Accessed 5th November 2019
Martin, Emmie. “Facebook and Google Are Both Building More Affordable Housing in Silicon Valley.” CNBC, July 10, 2017. Accessed 5th November 2019
Wakefield, Jane. “Google’s Smart City in Toronto Gets Green Light.” BBC News, October 31, 2019, sec. Technology.
ArchDaily. “Amazon Invests in Start-Up Company to Deliver Prefabricated Homes,” September 27, 2018.
Bridle, James. “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff Review – We Are the Pawns.” The Guardian, February 2, 2019, sec. Books.
Duhigg, Charles. “Is Amazon Unstoppable?,” October 10, 2019.
“Facebook and Amazon Are Building Their Own Company Towns – Business Insider.” Accessed November 23, 2019. “Facebook and Google Are Building Their Own Cities: The Inevitable Future of Private Tech Worker Towns,” July 24, 2017.
“Facebook Is Building Its Own Town in Silicon Valley. It Won’t Be the First | CityMetric.” Accessed November 23, 2019.
Deakin, Mark & Alwaer, H.. (2011). From intelligent to smart cities. Intelligent Buildings International.
Hill, Catey. “Amazon Is Selling Entire Houses for Less than $20,000 — with Free Shipping.” MarketWatch. Accessed November 23, 2019.
Naughton, John. “‘The Goal Is to Automate Us’: Welcome to the Age of Surveillance Capitalism.” The Observer, January 20, 2019, sec. Technology.
Toronto Life. “Toronto Is Surveillance Capitalism’s New Frontier,” September 4, 2019.
Wainwright, Oliver. “Google’s New Headquarters: An Upgradable, Futuristic Greenhouse.” The Guardian, February 27, 2015, sec. Art and design.
“Weise – The Digital-Augmented City as a Design Space.Pdf.” Accessed November 23, 2019. Weise, Sebastian. “The Digital-Augmented City as a Design Space,” n.d., 35.


  1. Thank you, Niamh, for drawing up such a relevant topic. Smart cities are an important part of todays urban design and are becoming more pertinent as our technologies evolve. Facebook and other big tech companies have been a heated topic in planning cities. Smart cities are leading to advances in technology, energy & technicity. But what about human happiness?

    I agree with the point that smart cities must start with people and the human capital side. It is therefore very questionable when profit-driven tech companies can influence/determine how we live. Surveillance capitalism should be viewed as a real problem by anyone concerned with our urban environment. According to Galdon- Cavell (2013), It has a real potential to turn cities into living laboratories.

    In one of his seminal books, Lyon (1994), describes surveillance as concerning mundane everyday activities. In almost every case a computer records our known details, stores parts of our biographies and access our financial and legal standings. About 20 years in the future, we now carry mobile computer in our pockets. Actively and inactively sending our personal information to the “cloud” at a scale never imagined. However, questions raised by Lyon are even more relevant today. What do the proliferation of these technologies mean for our human rights and sense of identity? Also, what are its implications on political power and freedom?

    Rather than its current use as merely a collection of data and its potential commodification, a few alternatives have sprung up. One of them is Co-production. Co-production with Citizens is much more than merely involving the people, according to Castelnovo (2015), it is a process that must activate the peoples will to create. This is a concept that goes as far back as the 1980’s (Linders, 2012) and is to be a tool to achieve the ultimate level of citizen participation and public innovation.

    There are no reasons why smart technologies cannot be used in governance. They are a potentially powerful tool for Citizen-sourcing. Smart technologies can function as tools for open dialogue between citizens and their governments (Anthopoulos, 2017). Citizens can find in them more control to report currently pressing issues instantly. And when pushed to a more ideal position, smart technologies may provide the platform for a DIY government. Online Collaborative platforms and social media may even allow citizens to self-organize.

    Currently, these technologies are far below their potential for good. I would suggest that people in the urban environment start to find ways to challenge the status quo. Rather than the profit driven tech companies, it will be the concerned citizens that will stand the most to gain.


    Anthopoulos, L.G. (2017). Understanding Smart Cities: A Tool for Smart Government or an Industrial Trick? [online] Public Administration and Information Technology. Cham: Springer International Publishing. Available at: [Accessed 14 Jan. 2020].

    Castelnovo, W. (2015). Citizens as sensors/information providers in the coproduction of smart city services. In Proceedings of the 12th Annual Conference of the Italian Chapter of AIS (ITAIS). Rome, Italy.

    Galdon-Clavell, G. (2013). (Not so) smart cities?: The drivers, impact and risks of surveillance-enabled smart environments. Science and Public Policy, [online] 40(6), pp.717–723. Available at: [Accessed 14 Jan. 2020].

    Kitchin, R. (2020). Getting smarter about smart cities: Improving data privacy and data security. [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Jan. 2020].
    Lees, L. (2020). The Emancipatory City? [online] SAGE Publications Inc. Available at: [Accessed 13 Jan. 2020].

    Linders, D. (2012). From e-government to we-government: Defining a typology for citizen coproduction in the age of social media. Government Information Quarterly, 29, 446–454.

  2. This blog is an excellent insight into the relationship of technology and cities, thanks
    and well done for posting Niamh!

    Technology and Urban Design have had a really interesting and intertwined history. The technological advancements of the car forced many an urban designer and city planner to rethink the layout of cities entirely. A great example of this is in our very own Newcastle.

    Called the Development Plan Review 1963, to be dubbed the ‘Brasilia of the North’ [1], T. Dan Smith and Wilfred Burns imagined Newcastle on two planes. The underground & ground floor planes were to be taken over by automobile traffic, whilst the pedestrian realm would occupy an elevated set of walkways and squares. The idea was that you could walk from one end of Newcastle to the other without ever crossing a road.

    Obviously, this plan has not been carried out. Along with its flawed logic, the time and investment required were extravagant and wholly underestimated. Coupled with the changes in government and personnel, the ‘city in the sky’ project has been left in a half-delivered, incomplete state as a series of ‘white elephants’ dotted around Newcastle.

    In this context, your reference to Peter Cook’s Plug-In City is an excellent one. Cook’s depiction of a modular, ‘demountable’ mega-structure that incorporates residences, access routes and services was a counter-argument to the functionalist way of living [2] . Cook saw the separation of cities into defined and segregated areas, such as those proposed by Le Corbusier and the SIAM movement, as counter-intuitive. Instead imagined a ‘Plug-In City’ that could be constantly constructed and deconstructed (or “unplugged” and “plugged in”) as required.

    In a similar vein, maybe the Smart City is one that is constantly evolving and adaptive. The constant feedback and data gathering it will be able to achieve could mean that ‘Alexa’, ‘Siri’ or ‘Google’ will be able to “unplug” and “plug-in” services and amenities to the public’s desire.

    The render of Toronto Waterfront depicts socially heterogenous neighbourhood with unimaginably expensive apartment blocks that overlook what seems like a yachting or boating club. The images of Facebook’s employee town look similarly exclusive, so the smart city then, is one of luxury. But what happens when, as Koolhaas suggests, this Smart City does not progress, but transgress? [3]

    It may come to pass that Smart Cities will suffer a similar fate to the City in the Sky, as the ideology of a surveillance city falls flat. It is easy to get over excited about how data could affect our cities, but we should stop and think about whether it should.



    [1] Newcastle’s Skywalks. (2016, July 3). Retrieved from Metal & Dust:

    [2]MoMA. (2002). Plug-In City: Maximum Pressure Area, project (Section). Retrieved
    from MoMA:

    [3]Koolhaas, R. (2014). My Thoughts on the Smart City. Smart Cities. Brussels.

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