Smart City: Heaven or Hell?

Imagine a world without crime or traffic jams. A world where all the trains run on time, and where poverty only exists in the history books. No noise, no litter on the streets, and you’ll never step in dog poo again.

Welcome to the Smart City, the city where all our problems have been solved with smart trash bins, smart pavement, smart lampposts, smart traffic lights, smart algorithms and big data. It’s the growing marketing promise of technology companies like IBM, Microsoft, SAP, Cisco and Google. Everyone is so enthusiastic about apps, chips, screens, algorithms, big data and other technologies that any mayor would need to be very strong-willed indeed to resist their offer to solve all our problems.

The city used to be in the hands of of urban designers, architects, citizens and the democratically elected government, but more and more often now it will be ‘optimised’ by privately owned technology companies. Their greatest goals are maximum efficiency, economic growth and innovation. A smart city, as opposed to the dumb ones. Who could be against that?

In Amsterdam, the outline of the Smart City is slowly starting to take shape. Driving is no longer a relaxing activity. As soon as you’ve found a parking spot, you’d better run to a parking meter as fast as you can, and quickly fill in your licence plate number and pay your parking fee. If you’re too slow, and your parked car happens to be passed by the ‘smart scan car’, which does nothing but scan licence plates and check automatically whether they’ve been paid for yet, then you’ll get a fine in the mail one week later. Privacy is also a thing of the past in a Smart City: the government will know where your car is parked at all times. Meanwhile, the human parking attendants – who fulfilled a social function too – are no longer anywhere to be found, and if you’ve put more money into the parking meter than you needed to, you can no longer give your ticket to a fellow citizen. Making an emergency stop to give someone first aid? Better go pay the parking meter first, because unlike a human attendant, the scan car doesn’t understand the difference between an emergency and a parked car.

The bicycle tunnel underneath the Rijksmuseum has been made ‘smart’ too. A €379,000 ‘smart camera’ now automatically fines anyone passing under the monument on a moped. One has to wonder whether the council realises they could also use that money to hire ten bright, sociable, effective police officers. As their latest feat, the Council of Amsterdam announced in the newspaper NRC Handelsblad that they’re currently looking into ‘smart’ lampposts with built-in microphones. 

Smart Cities are cities where the council outsources social problems to technology companies, who then use sensors, big data and algorithms to set tasks for individual citizens. Jack needs to eat less, because the smart fridge notices his weight is going to ramp up his healthcare expenses. The smart highway calculates that Bob needs to leave for work later, because he and 1000 other commuters cause traffic jams every day. The smart lamppost sees Carla’s dog out on the streets, let’s send out a drone to tell her off and fine her. Thus, the smart city is at risk of becoming a metaphor for a totalitarian technology state where not a democratically elected council but a supercomputer is in charge of everybody’s lives, and where any deviant ideas and behaviours are a liability to maximum efficiency and economic growth. In this smart city, if you want to stage a protest – once an act that could cause political change – then the police will already be there before it starts.

And yet, there is cause for optimism too. Technology can help a more and more innovative government to take on societal issues. But if we really want to be smart, we should first think about possible consequences and have a debate about this. 

I wrote this introduction for the Dutch Financial Times that today published a Smart City special.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *