Computer-based technologies are increasingly being deployed in cities, and new theoretical frameworks are needed to deal with the predominant and always neoliberal ‘smart’ agenda. This two-part essay intends to describe the adoption of technologies in cities and envision alternative ways of approaching urban technology in Australia, arguing that councils, particularly in Victoria, are structured on a scale that allows more progressive technological regimes to be explored. The municipalisation of computer-based infrastructure is a way of reclaiming control of the future of the city, sovereignty over technology, and the liberty to decide the philosophical stance and guiding paradigm of a resilient community-oriented city. The second part of this essay discusses the urban technology required to pinpoint what needs to be municipalised in order to guarantee community-oriented endeavours, approaching the use of technology in a way that can enhance quality of life for its citizens.
Cities and Technological Regimes (Part I)
In the past four decades, cybernetic capitalism,driven by neoliberal policies, has benefited oligopolies that now control the economy, with damaging effects for all sectors of society. They increase poverty and inequality, and they weaken the capacity of governments to provide public services. The provision of these services has become a very attractive business opportunity for technology corporations as they emerge as the spearhead of the digital economy, benefiting from loose regulation and tax exemptions, and treated by governments as allies in the senseless path of perpetual growth. Corporations operating in the current platform economy operate under a model of data extractivism, enabling surveillance practices to control and manipulate behaviour, and promote the never-ending production/consumption of services developed from the extracted data of commodified citizens. They also aim to automate processes throughout society while promoting the rhetoric of ‘efficiency’, understood in monetary and decidedly not ecological terms. Urban environments are attractive strongholds for corporations—particularly those dedicated to urban and citizen data extraction—for their connecting functions in the cybernetic network. People’s data has become a valuable asset in this era of capitalism, a time of deep mediatisation, and cities are important nodes in this hyper-commercialised network.
Ongoingly, urban data is being conceived, extracted and managed under different agendas among them the well-received and marketable ‘smart city’ agenda, which in its original form is a vendor-driven technocratic approach to urban governance. Through flexible agreements made with governments at different scales, privately owned service-oriented technology corporations infiltrate the provision of public services by deploying computer-based urban infrastructure. They operate in a highly deregulated environment that has allowed them to manage city systems, roll out technologies, collect and analyse data, and develop pervasive surveillance services and platforms, strengthening their governance power in cities across the globe. Acquiring this power allows ‘California ideology’ technology corporations to determine city problems and propose fixes, bypassing deliberation by citizens and local governments. The promoters of the ‘smart’ narrative as a type of urban development are big technological corporations such as Google, IBM, Microsoft, CISCO and Siemens. Arguably the largest and most researched example is the Google SideLabs project in Toronto’s Waterfront area, which was dropped in May after facing staunch resistance by the citizens of Toronto. Still, it seems to be a natural progression in technological urbanism that corporations now not only extract value through the provision of platform-based services but gain proprietary rights over city space, extending their power and control over the urban environment.
The ‘smart city’ agenda platformises cities and their infrastructure, making urban technologies, and their operations and politics, invisible. For city governments, the ‘smart’ tag is being used to denote the desired attributes of a corporatised and technocratic city-governance style, such as efficiency and sustainability. The reality is that these aspirations are often unmet; worse, when they are used as the solution to all problems, computer-based technologies have an enormous impact on the environment, from the rare metals and conflict minerals used in their development to the large amounts of energy expended in their extraction and functioning. For ‘smart’ provisioners, the vendors of technology, it is about monetising urban and citizen data flows—behavioural data that will inform the development of services that will then be sold to optimise the operations of a socially constructed environment for profit and growth. Cities have become sensed and s-censored environments that are being datafied through the procurement processes of private-vendor technology provision; this is a public issue that requires digital policy in order to regulate it for the public good.
Currently, data is being used as a fundamental resource to inform policy and urban interventions, and it has been commonly assumed that this data is ‘objective’ and provides a neutral insight into cities and their processes, untainted by politics or partisan interests. This assumption is damaging for the development of citizen-oriented urban futures and resilient cities. Data always carries a particular vision; when generated by corporations it tends to commodify and colonise life and space in cities for profit. The ‘smart city’ agenda follows a logic of neoliberal platformisation of the city and its urban infrastructures, where wealth is transferred to private corporations that structurally cannot prioritise public benefit or citizens’ well-being above their own profit-maximising drive, or work to strengthen democratic governments and their institutions. This appropriation of urban and public life has great social, political and ethical implications. It might be time for local governments to become more proactive in their role of managing their technology and data assets.
The Australian approach to digital infrastructure has been oriented to efficiency, treating technology as unbiased and capable of being adjusted for different purposes and outcomes. Numerous cities and city councils are transitioning towards smart-city agendas with this mentality, and many of them have already partnered with corporations such as IBM, Cisco and Microsoft. A government body, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, finances a program to convert one hundred councils into ‘smart councils’ via an initiative called Thinxtra. An Internet of Things (IoT) platform aims to deploy ‘smartness’ across the councils using technology provided by SigFox, a French corporation that offers a computer-based ‘network to listen to billions of objects broadcasting data, without the need to establish and maintain network connection’. The initiative will first be used for rubbish collection, but it is expected to eventually include sensors in public spaces that will extract and control a wide range of urban data. For that purpose, a network of computer-based infrastructure is already being built in different places to, in the words of client Yarra City Council, provide a robust platform to move information quickly and efficiently’. This initiative is a clear example of the top-down ‘smart city’ approach, a technological fix to tackle councils’ perceived challenges. In all cases the strategy is usually the same: corporations offer money to governments using a ‘philanthropic’ approach, taking advantage of budget cuts, locking cities and rapidly becoming governance actors. The technologies they bring are then publicised as a panacea for urban management. In reality, the partnerships are very rigid and limiting to cities, which are bound to highly confidential procurement contracts, not to mention the abyss of ‘terms and conditions’ that citizens are compelled to agree to.
Under the privatised ‘smart city’ ideology, the city is being programmed: the software and code give instructions and predetermine the information that will be harvested and the intended outputs. What is blurred by the ‘smart’ rhetoric and practice is who decides what data is being collected, the purposes to which it will be put, who will contribute, who will benefit and who will be left out. Key computer-based infrastructure should be secured and treated as a public good, and municipalised, allowing the creation of public-commons agreements for the infrastructure that will empower local governments and their citizens, and enable the promotion of a healthier digital urban environment and a response to complex city challenges. When treated as such, the platformisation of infrastructure for corporate benefit is harder to achieve, or at least it must be negotiated under different terms. Because cities represent a powerful scale at which to enforce or break ideologies, they are places where counter-movements arise. In Australia, bringing urban computer-based infrastructure to the front of the digital-policy debate could help to recover public control over it, and to discuss its ownership, governance arrangements and regulation and the social agreement around it.
Part II of this article can be found here.