Smart City

Smart City

Column Eike Becker, "Immobilienwirtschaft" 01/18

Innovations are only good if they support the vividness and creativity, the diversity and richness of different ways of life.

Who doesn’t remember the famous scene in the movie “The Shining” by Stanley Kubrick, in which Jack Nicholson knocks down the door with an axe and panicked Shelley Duvall, screams for her life? But author, Stephen King was not satisfied with the film adaptation of his novel. Nicholson's acting actually overshadowed the real protagonist: the house itself. “I was deeply disappointed by the end result. […] Kubrick was simply not able to grasp the pure, inhumane evil of the Overlook Hotel.” Instead, he shot a domestic tragedy with only vague hints at the supernatural.

The horror film of horror films is a tired copy of the true horror: the huge, confusing architecture of the house as a maze of emotions, a nightmare without escape, almighty, omniscient, a remotely controlled machine that manipulates its occupants, who are first lulled into sleep and then driven into madness. Today, the Overlook Hotel has become a symbol for the fears of many in the discussion about the city of the future. The blanket term under which this complex discussion has been conducted since the beginning of the millennium has been burnt out, before anything even got started: Smart City.

Everything becomes smart

In the rapture of digitisation, everything  becomes smart somehow: Smart Economy (when everyone knows what the individual knows, and works together digitally), Smart People (when digitally networked people put an oar in and take care of things), Smart Government (when in a digital democracy everyone understands everything and is able to participate in everything), Smart Mobility (when means of transport, tickets, times and routes are available via apps), Smart Environment (when everyone gets what they need but not from their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren) and Smart Living (when electricity, heat and food can be produced locally).

 Many see this as an opportunity and expect the solution to all problems of the post-industrial societies to come from digital networking: be this environmental pollution, demographic change, population growth, financial crisis or scarcity of resources,

everything can be turned for the better with cameras, sensors and digital networking. Also, the share economy (cars, bicycles, tools, shared apartments) and citizens' participation belong in the discussion about the city of the future. I too have hopes in this respect.

 The Smart City becomes the Internet of Things and Services: the entire infrastructure is equipped with sensors that capture endless amounts of data and, in the best-case scenario, make it available to everyone in the cloud. Through the permanent interaction between residents and technology, citizens will more or less become part of their technical infrastructure. Meanwhile, sensors have become so cheap that they can be poured out over the entire city and can actually be installed everywhere ("Have you chipped your dog already?"). The emerging euphoria reminds us strongly of the enthusiasm for technology of the 1960s (“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” JFK, 25.05.61). In case of such revolutionary changes, however, it is necessary to keep asking the questions of how and where the ubiquitous technologisation of the urban space makes sense. Who benefits and who’s impaired? Who initiates it, controls it and what dangers are connected with it? What about data security? Who has data sovereignty? And what are they doing with it?

Surveillance state

A look at China helps to clarify the situation. In

Shanghai, the meters for water, gas and electricity consumption are already read out

smartly from passing cars. This saves a lot of unnecessary effort. Garbage cans fitted out with sensors are only picked up and emptied once they are really full. Great. But within the surveillance by means of cameras and sensors, there lies the danger of abuse.

In Suzhou, the consumption is additionally analysed by artificial intelligence. In case of deviations, there is a signal. Well, there could be people staying illegally at the apartment. Traffic offenses are to be centrally recorded and analysed in China. Those who do not stop at the red light will not get a job, or a loan. Exaggeration? –No. A “social credit point system” is currently being tested and is to be implemented nationwide by 2020. A nightmare. The Smart City as a search engine in the hands of the surveillance state. The omniscient dictator city becomes the greatest monster of mankind, turning into a gigantic Overlook Hotel.

Richard Sennett writes on the topic: “Informal social processes are the heart of the city. […] Technology must be part of the process that provides the city with this informal energy." Saskia Sassen also emphasises that technology has to serve the inhabitants of the city and not the other way around. Let me put it this way: innovations are only good if they support the vividness and creativity, the diversity and richness of different ways of life.

 On the Smart-City advisory bodies of the EU and of individual states, prospering multinational corporations are represented in great numbers. Civil society initiatives, on the other hand, are rare. Adam Greenfield sees the Smart City as a market in which technology companies can sell their products and services. “There’s not much to be read about the city’s residents at the tech corporations. They are present only marginally. As consumers, whose habits are observed by technical systems and who are put under tutelage.”

Google city

And now the following happens: right in the middle of Toronto, right next to the port, Google is currently building an entire city, the Alphabet City.

The Group will not only implement the infrastructure but also centrally manage and operate the new city for thousands of inhabitants according to its own rules. Delivery and refuse collection robots, self-driving taxis and ubiquitous networking are supposed to make life "greener, more efficient and more comfortable". The project is financed through the trade of the inhabitant’s data.

 The state and elected representatives of the people remain outside. A private company with commercial objectives takes over. The experiment may represent the beginning of the end of a pluralistic, mixed and contradictory urban society, which builds its own environment in a moderated coexistence. This does not need to be the case. At least not if the public, democratic institutions took over the leadership in such a revolution. Unfortunately, in this country, politics, administration and the real estate industry have not yet achieved much, neither in thought nor in action on this account. It is clear that digitisation in administration has not even begun in most municipalities. Rather they are thinking about hiring more people first.

Please do not go to sleep

The fear of data misuse is great in Germany. That is why Google has not sent any of its camera vans through the streets for seven years and has not updated Street View. Will Germany's roads become outdated in the digital world? Soon, the situation will be that whatever is not digital will not exist for very many people anymore. The Smart City of the corporations or the autocracies will not stop at German borders.

The states of Europe embracing the rule of law, with their public institutions, the real estate industry and their civil societies still have all the possibilities of developing open, fair, democratic, pluralistic and symmetrical visions for the city of the future. However, if they don't address this momentous issue actively, their rules and conditions will be made by others. Not a nice thought for me.