Forget the ***city

In 2009, IMB launched a global marketing campaign around the previously little-known concept of ‘smart city’ with the aim of making city governments receptive to ICT applications in the public sector. The initial emphasis was on process control. Emerging countries were interested in the first place: Many made plans to build smart cities ‘from scratch’, in the first place to attract foreign investors. The Korean city of Songdo, developed by Cisco and Gale International, is a well-known example. 

The emphasis soon shifted from process control to using data from the residents themselves. Google wanted to supplement its already rich collection of data with data that city dwellers provide with their mobile phones to create a range of new commercial applications. Its sister company Sidewalk Labs, which was set up for that purpose, started developing a pilot project in Toronto. That failed, partly due to the growing resistance to the prospective violation of privacy. This opposition has had global repercussions and resulted in many countries in legislation to protect privacy. China and cities in Southeast Asia – where Singapore is leading the way – ignored this criticism.

The rapid development of digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, gave further impetus to discussion about the ethical implications of technology. Especially in the US, applications in facial recognition and predictive police were heavily criticized.

This current situation – particularly in the Netherlands – can be characterized on the one hand by the development of regulations to safeguard ethical principles and on the other by the search for responsible applications of digital technology.

The question is therefore why we should still talk about smart cities. Touria Meliani, alderman of Amsterdam, prefers to speak of ‘wise city’ than of ‘smart city’ to emphasize that she is serious about putting people first. But instead of introducing other adjectives, skipping them all is better.

The best way to understand human life in the city is respecting the complexity of the city and life within it.

Precisely because of the complexity of the city, the use of reductionist adjectives such as ‘smart’, ‘sharing’, ‘circular’, ‘climate neutral’, ‘resilient’. ‘inclusive’ – even my own favorite ‘humane’ – is better avoided. The doughnut-principle is the best way to analyze the city from different perspectives and to define the way people can live in a social and ecological sustainable way, the use of digital technology included.

This post based on by the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free (90 pages)

Content:

Hardcore: Technology-centered approaches

1. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

2. Scare off the monster behind the curtain: Big Tech’s monopoly

Towards a humancentric approach

3. A smart city, this is how you do it

4. Digital social innovation: For the social good

Misunderstanding the use of data

5. Digital twins

6. Artificial intelligence

Embedding digitization in urban policy

7. The steps to urban governance

8. Guidelines for a responsible digitization policy

9. A closer look at the digitization agenda of Amsterdam

10. Forging beneficial cooperation with technology companies

Applications

11. Government: How digital tools help residents regaining power?

12. Mobility: Will MaaS reduce the use of cars?

13. Energy: Smart grids – where social and digital innovation meet

14. Healthcare: Opportunities and risks of digitization

Wrapping up: Better cities and technology

15. Two 100 city missions: India and Europe

Epilogue: Beyond the Smart City

Bigg Tech’s monopoly

Two recent books deal with this problem in depth and call for tailored actions. These books are Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (2019) and Cory Doctorow’s How to destroy surveillance capitalism (2021). Zuboff describes in detail how Google, Amazon and Facebook collect data with only one goal, to entice citizens to buy goods and services: 

Big Tech’s product is persuasion. The services — social media, search engines, maps, messaging, and more — are delivery systems for persuasion.

The unprecedented power of Big Tech is a result of the fact that these companies have become almost classic monopolies. Until the 1980s, the US had strict antitrust legislation: the Sherman’s act, notorious for big business. Ronald Reagan quickly wiped it out in his years as president, and Margaret Thatcher did the same in the UK, Brian Mulroney in Canada, and Helmut Kohl in Germany. While Sherman saw monopolies as a threat to the free market, Reagan believed that government interference threatens the free market. Facebook joins in if it sees itself as a ‘natural monopoly’: You want to be on a network where your friends are also. But you could also reach your friends if there were more networks that are interoperable. Facebook has used all economic, technical, and legal means to combat the latter, including takeover of potential competitors: Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

In the early 21st century, there was still a broad belief that emerging digital technology could lead to a better and more networked society.

Bas Boorsma: The development of platforms empowered start-ups, small companies, and professionals. Many network utopians believed the era of ‘creative commons’ had arrived and with it, a non-centralized and highly digital form of ‘free market egalitarianism’ (New Digital Deal, p.52). Nothing has come of this: Digitalization-powered capitalism now possesses a speed, agility and rawness that is unprecedented (New Digital Deal, p.54). Even the startup community is becoming one big R&D lab for Big Tech. Many startups hope to be acquired by one of the tech giants and then cash in on millions. As a result, Big Tech is on its way to acquire a dominant position in urban development, the health sector and education, in addition to the transport sector.

Thanks to its monopoly position, Big Tech can collect unlimited data, even if European legislation imposes restrictions and occasional fines. After all, a lot of data is collected without citizens objecting to it. Mumford had already realized this in 1967: Many consumers see these companies not only as irresistible, but also ultimately beneficial. These two conditions are the germ of what he called the megatechnics bribe.

The only legislation that can break the power of Big Tech is a strong antitrust policy, unbundling the companies, an absolute ban on acquisitions and rigorous taxation. In addition, governments should take back control of technological development, as they did until the end of the last century. Democratic control of the development of technology is an absolute precondition! 

This post based on by the new e-book Better cities, the contribution of digital technology.  Interested? Download the book here for free (90 pages)

Content:

Hardcore: Technology-centered approaches

1. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

2. Scare off the monster behind the curtain: Big Tech’s monopoly

Towards a humancentric approach

3. A smart city, this is how you do it

4. Digital social innovation: For the social good

Misunderstanding the use of data

5. Digital twins

6. Artificial intelligence

Embedding digitization in urban policy

7. The steps to urban governance

8. Guidelines for a responsible digitization policy

9. A closer look at the digitization agenda of Amsterdam

10. Forging beneficial cooperation with technology companies

Applications

11. Government: How digital tools help residents regaining power?

12. Mobility: Will MaaS reduce the use of cars?

13. Energy: Smart grids – where social and digital innovation meet

14. Healthcare: Opportunities and risks of digitization

Wrapping up: Better cities and technology

15. Two 100 city missions: India and Europe

Epilogue: Beyond the Smart City