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, 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.
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”. Giffinger, 2007
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.
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 and Google 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’ – with free shipping.
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’, 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.” 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” .
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.
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.
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” 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? 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.