Thu, Oct 29, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Letting giant technology firms rule smart cities is a bad idea

High-tech is transforming global cities, but the public needs to think hard about who controls a system where all people and things are tracked, all of the time

By Paul Mason  /  The Guardian

However, the biggest challenge is to democracy. Arup points out that running a smart city with today’s city-government structures would be like a local bookshop trying to run Amazon. As a result, the marketing push for smart cities comes with an obligatory nod to “bottom up” solutions and community involvement.

There is a more radical way to do this, and it is spelled out in a consultation document ordered by the new left-wing government of Madrid. Instead of seeing the city as a “system,” to be automated and controlled, the vision being mulled in the Spanish capital conceives of the city as an “ecosystem” of diverse, competing and uncontrolled human networks.

Instead of asking: which of the city’s grids and networks do we want to automate and connect, Podemos party-backed Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena asked advisers: What are the social problems we want technology to solve?

The result was the vision of a “non-neoliberal smart city,” incorporating three principles not welcome in the world of high-profit tech companies: openness, democratic participation and a clear policy that data generated from public services should be publicly owned.

“Rather than keep funding proprietary systems with public money, support open-source collaborative technologies,” Carmena was advised.

Instead of beginning with the transport system, the first deployment of new technology should allow citizens to “raise issues of corruption, equity in the distribution of resources and open the question of access to power.”

As a result of Madrid’s early engagement with the smart cities concept, there is in Spain — almost uniquely in the developed world — a real debate about what we want technology to do for cities, and who should control the technology.

Smart cities represent a genuine and potentially massive new market for the private sector, breathing economic life into the old structures and patterns of cities, but if faced with somnolent and uninformed local governments, the results are going to be chaotic and unwieldy systems, and an erosion of democracy.

If the movement is to generate a new vigor and vision, city governments must stop being patsies to the IT giants and start to think, from first principles, what technology would look like if it served the people.

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