Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google, known collectively as the tech ‘Big Four’, are in the top 10 world’s richest companies, each making their billions from specialising in a very specific user based interface, consumer attraction, and prediction mapping, which sets each company aside as a profiter of today’s top commodity: your data.
‘Our data’ in mentioned anyone’s hands begins to spring up all kinds of negative horrors, from the science-fictitious ‘robots using our data will rise up against us!’ to the very real implications of the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal¹. Providing those in ownership with a exact mapping of our lives, can data be used for good?
Everything we do – from purchasing, moving, visiting, existing – in the modern city, creates swathes and swathes of mapped behavioural information, human movement, usage mapping; a resource when compiled creates a valuable understanding about how we use the space around us. Modern city planners are realising the data we create can be formed into a marketable response and used to improve our life through efficiency within cities. As the world’s biggest commodity, data continues to run the scene for modern lifestyle innovations – and as the world’s richest companies, the Big Four have their noses toward the investment.
Smart Cities, explains Sebastian Weise, has 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
Today, the ‘smart city’ tag has strengthened with the advances of technological and communicational capability, allowing us more than ever 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”³. Giffinger, 2007; in Sebastian Weise’s ‘Smart Cities’ lecture.
The modern smart city uses various ways to collect data, creating a huge resource from cities, providing systems and technology that continually improves through use – more efficient, more economic, more user-friendly. But with such a rich commodity at stake, should we be worried?
Weise’s presentation acknowledged the variations of raw information currently existing in our cities as a resource for Smart City development. The Government itself holds a wealth of records such as sites and permits, Census records, national demographics, some as open data sources. There’s data collected remotely: satellite imagery of physical activity, such as crop fields or city expansion. There’s “Information from ‘Things’”, Weisse categorises – identity, location, time: think Ubers, Mobikes, air pollution monitors, heat mapping, anything which collects information from its use or surroundings. And there’s citizen-generated insights, user-generated archives, comments, and social media platforms – this is anything you’ve ever posted, liked or shared online. Historically, the Big Four only had unabridged access to the former, inherently as the creators of such – but plans suggest their move to capitalise further.
Companies creating housing is no new concept. As early as the 1800s, mill owners were designing whole towns specifically for employees, providing a collective homogenous environment for the factory to house its employees. Today, Facebook⁵ and Google⁶ have taken the idea into the 21st Century by proposing their own ‘Smart’ Tech Worker towns, homogenous spaces in which their vastly increasing number of employees can amalgamate with technology designed by them to acquire data, while Amazon has taken the dive into affordable pre-fab housing ‘powered by Alexa’⁷.
If the immediate connotations of this seemed pretty Big-Brother to you, you’d be right: Amazon will be installing AI software into all its homes, and it will be collecting data from its residents for whichever purpose it sees fit. Likewise, in Facebook and Google’s model townscapes, its residents will essentially be consenting experimental data gold-mines, using the state-of-the-art purpose designed environments fitted with data-monitoring systems consciously and indirectly as they move through their daily lives, creating a wealth of predictable patterns for the company’s archives alone.
‘Surveillance capitalism’⁸, a term and text created 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, with the final aim 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 creation of a Smart City just a way to capitalise on our behaviour, at a metropolis level?
A dystopian vision of a post-apocalyptic police state may be on the mind – but the reality is most definitely subtler. In a quote from Hollands, 2008: “Progressive smart cities must seriously start with people and the human capital side of the equation, rather than blindly believing that IT itself can automatically transform and improve cities.⁹” People, rather than technology, will continue to be the central focus of a successful city model, and whilst it is true data collection is Google and Amazon’s biggest cash cow, it is also true their company’s successes lie in their complete conviction to adhere to our customer satisfaction. “We’ll acquire that incremental increase in the value of the data and invest it back into civic spaces and quality of life investments in the social network,” states Zuckerberg, on ‘Zee Town’¹⁰. Even if it is for capitalist gain, these companies hold our humanly needs with utmost importance.
So what does this all mean, for a resident of a Smart City? Google gives us a glimpse, in its public Toronto Waterfront proposal, still in public consultations¹¹.
The ‘most innovative district in the entire world’, as well as an experimental precedent for a high-tech data-collecting city, may also be an unlikely hero for some modern-day city crises – with the development centred around the human experience. Mixed use housing blocks, 40% of this as affordable, are proposed in mass timber – answering to both social housing issues in Toronto and the wider climate crisis of building materials. Mobility-wise, the area is extremely connected – light rail network links residents into the larger Toronto transit, heated cycle & pedestrian paths melt forecast snow, and the whole development is expected to be a sub-zero carbon footprint. Overall, the project seems hugely beneficial to its residents and beyond.
In providing all this, the area will be heavily monitored and self-regulating; Google initially aimed for the data to be held privately in an obscurely named ‘Third Party Data Trust’ – but concerns raised on the implications of ownership discussed privacy and control, with the Canadian Government eventually ruling that any data collected on-site to be made public. As an open resource, Google’s ability to capitalise on this has been greatly reduced – meaning at least in this development, residents aren’t complete guinea pigs for a tech corporation.
The social housing and climate change themes are common amongst other proposals, with Amazon’s DIY flatpack homes made from Ecotimber at an affordable £19,000 (with free shipping), and Facebook’s Zee Town hopes to ‘contribute significantly to the housing supply’ by building 1,500 units 15% below the market rate. In a strange turn of circumstance, it looks as if capitalism has gone full circle – in marketing themselves specific to our profitable requirements, big corp may actually be the one answering social and environmental crises, proposing greener city models and more affordable housing. 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 is this a good thing, for us and the planet, with the greenest, most user-friendly and efficiently designed spaces in history? Could ‘even your mom and her friends’ be the future residents of Mark Zuckerberg’s expanding town visions¹²? Today, much of this is purely speculative, as plans for each project are very much still in the pipeline – but one thing is certain. The future is Tech.