Smart City, Spin City?

Étienne Roché

Étienne Roché

Digital Strategic Analyst

L'Atelier - BNP Paribas

More about the author

March 20, 2015 Drop a comment

Having looked at the topic of the Smart City from a cultural* and then a sociological** angle, it’s now time to look at it from a political perspective.

Spin City

Among the many definitions of what it means to exercise power, you always find two facets – decision-making and control. If we take the first aspect, power is more or less synonymous with decision-making as regards the organisation of, and changes to, locations and lifestyles. In fact one of the most visible manifestations of power that History has handed down to us is the successive metamorphoses of a city  such as Rome, where Nero, Vespasian, Trajan and Hadrian remodelled the Forum at their whim, adding or filling in a lake, erecting a colossal statue, building a stadium such as the Coliseum, and so on. Basically the power to act is conferred on an individual or a small ruling group through a political system that may be authoritarian or more liberal, representative – or not – of the masses who are busy keeping the life of the city going. Today, with the advent of digital tools and the fact that everyone has the ‘power’ to communicate with elected officials in real time, the community can feed back information to the policymakers on a continuous basis with no need to wait four years for the next elections. And that might spell heavy weather ahead for the local authorities!

To a lesser extent, power is synonymous with management and regulation. These two areas are becoming increasingly automated by means of algorithms which run different aspects of the city: transportation, traffic flow, security, parking, energy consumption, and so on. The organic life of the city is nowadays being increasingly delegated to such software programmes and it seems that no-one has thought of questioning the programmes or discussing the dangers this might entail. It is through this channel that the myriad sensors record traffic information, the human footprint, pollution and noise, collecting masses of data that enable people to make more informed decisions. So power increasingly resides in data management. Open data is seen as a common good along the same lines as the deeds in the land registry. With this in mind, but in a fairly ad hoc and ephemeral manner, [New York based-] Placemeter now provides a means of measuring real time activity in the physical world – at the nerve points of a city – in a non-intrusive way: i.e. assessing how dangerous a road junction is, spotting obstacles on the road or pavement, identifying overcrowding in kindergartens, etc. The possibilities are endless and New York is from this perspective today an open-air laboratory.

Big Data is watching you

Power can also be synonymous with control – i.e. the expression of society’s laws which operate across the city. In ‘Surveiller et punir’ (published in English as ‘Discipline and Punish’), French writer Michel Foucault first discusses the way in which power retreats from the public square when it needs to punish in order to control individual freedoms, maintaining a sense that the authorities are keeping an eye on citizens, who therefore go in fear of punishment. At a certain moment in time, discipline-based establishments such as prisons, barracks and even schools started to be built in such a way that the authorities could more easily keep tabs on any deviant behaviour. The panoramic surveillance potential offered by London-based philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon – a semi-cylindrical prison designed to enable a single guard to observe all the prisoners – foreshadowed the structure conceived by Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Godin for the industrial and residential community he built in Guise, in northern France, where social control was based on mutual surveillance. This is the forerunner of modern-day video surveillance. However the Guise community was only an intermediary step in the evolution of this phenomenon, as it was entirely asymmetric, for both political and technical reasons. The substantial increase in bandwidth, massive use of WiFi in urban spaces, and the extraordinary proliferation of cameras – from the millions of private smartphones to the four million CCTV cameras installed across London – seem to augur a return to mutual surveillance, where everybody keeps an eye on everybody else.  However, such surveillance – the other side of the coin of digital capabilities – is only possible thanks to the many automated systems which obey the laws of Big Data. The next step, already well on its way, seems to be ‘Big Video’.

Nevertheless, the increasing ease and frequency of public interaction with the authorities is forcing those in power to give an account of themselves, to account more frequently for what they are up to. Jostled by those they govern and goaded by experiments in governance carried out in other cities, the powers that be are being compelled to react. Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), which anyone can use, are now opening up the running of the city to the full scrutiny of its citizens. In fact what we are seeing is perhaps a spectacular reversal or re-balancing in the true sense of the word. The former asymmetrical mass media approach and mass video surveillance is being re-balanced in favour of ‘personalised media’ and public scrutiny of those in power. This retroactive, feedback-loop phenomenon is an interesting development from the viewpoint of cybernetics, throwing the governance of the city into a three-way marriage: the authorities, the people, and the algorithms – which are now increasingly taking decisions in a neutral, non-partisan way.



The Mayor: governor or Smart City cybernetician ?

If digital technology can increase the scope of democracy and boost people’s power to voice their opinions, thus essentially ‘disrupting’ politics and undermining the local authorities by taking away some of their prerogatives over databases and algorithms, what is left for them? And, we should ask, will citizens really benefit? In this brave new system, who, at the end of the day, will take the decisions?  Will citizens, expressing themselves through their data, really be empowered? Or will power lie with the algorithms that translate data into decisions? At any rate, as time passes, each person’s ability to act and check on what others are doing will be strengthened by the power of algorithms, which will incorporate increasingly sophisticated functionality rules that will enable them to manage more and more areas. Take for example the scenario of Georges Lucas’s film THX1138. The hero has the police hot on his heels and his freedom depends on a programme which decides that at a certain moment the effort and the cost of arresting the fugitive have become too great if the city is to continue functioning properly. So, the cops find themselves redirected to another incident…

Nevertheless, when it comes to Politics 2.0, there are two factors motivating action which cannot be automated in the long term. First and foremost, dreams and vision remain the privilege of humankind. Having an ambition to enhance one’s city and make it a more attractive place to live is a political goal that cannot be delegated. On this subject, US-based Professor Richard Florida argues convincingly that in order to develop all aspects of a city, you need to nurture a ‘creative class’. This, he says, is a prime factor in attracting the most innovative industries. "Keep your tax incentives and highway interconnections. We will go where the highly skilled people are,” stressed Hewlett-Packard’s former CEO Carly Fiorina. The second motivational factor is somewhat darker but more traditional: the desire for domination. But for what aim? French neurobiologist, writer and philosopher Henri Laborit, in ‘L’homme et la ville’ (Man and the City) hammers out the message that the city is no more than the theatre of Man’s unconscious drives. Reflecting the structure of our thought processes; the city only serves to maintain a dominant class in place by conditioning its residents, and technologies – through mass media, advertising, etc – simply serve to amplify and perpetuate this hold on power. Back in 1970, people were already writing about the advent of a hybrid form of city involving citizens and machines. This should perhaps encourage us to look at the Internet of Things and wearable electronics in a different way...

The intrinsic nature of power is that it is neither merited nor shared; power is taken. In this sense algorithms are for the moment still ‘subservient’ elements in the system. Until one day they take over?

*Smart Cities and Art Cities: Two pillars of the city’s sustainable development
**Maslow et Laborit, Smart City Planners?

Legal mentions © L’Atelier BNP Paribas