Smart cities to benefit cunning oligarchs?

When browsing for today’s hot topics one can easily find talk of smart cities tossed about with other buzz words like “urbanization” or “climate,” and most of the reading public are surely able to grasp the concept enough to know that digital technology and enhanced communications play a major role in the functioning of such cities. But is there more to the story? Are we talking about merely improving overall quality of life, as the elite of the tech community claim, or have the well-heeled geeks at MIT failed to mention something equally important? Why are goonda governments with history sheets full of discrimination and human rights atrocities so keen to hop on the smart city bandwagon? And who exactly stands to benefit the most from smart cities?

Was Minority Report a glimpse of the future?

Was Minority Report a glimpse of the future?

There seems to be no proper definition of a smart city, but a general consensus of sorts. To sum it up, every aspect of municipal management becomes computerized and everything in town from utilities to traffic is monitored and/or controlled electronically. Personal data and other information will be constantly collected and analyzed, and many private aspects of human life are monitored, such as a person’s movements and consumption habits. The ubiquitous presence of CCTV is just one aspect of a smart city. The Smart Cities Council, which appears to be little more than an international corporate cartel with vested interests, defines a smart city as, “…one that has digital technology embedded across all city functions.” Just to be clear, the Smart Cities Council is a for-profit entity, as is stated on their website’s “Our Partners” page: “The Smart Cities Council is a for-profit, Partner-led association for the advancement of the smart city business sector. It promotes smart cities in general and our Partners in particular.” (emphasis added) Mastercard, Microsoft, Cisco and GE are only a few of the Smart Cities Council’s many “partners.”

Smart city enthusiasts have explained the concept in such a way that it sounds like a futuristic utopian dream. Take the Venus Project for instance, where Roxanne Meadows and Jacque Fresco have envisioned not only smart cities, but a smart planet and a resource based economy where people are no longer enslaved by capitalism and its trappings. On a more grounded note, renowned urban and climate strategist, Boyd Cohen, drew up a diagram called the “Smart Cities Wheel” which he describes on his website, “It was designed to resemble a bicycle wheel and contains six key components and three drivers for each component. The components include: Smart Economy, Smart Environment, Smart Governance, Smart Living, Smart Mobility, and Smart People.” On Cohen’s wheel diagram are nice words like “inclusive,” “culturally vibrant,” and “happy.”

These ideas sound good, but how realistic are they? Could it be that some of these ideas are rooted in the assumption that the world’s governments are run by sane and fair individuals? What happens when this technology falls into the hands of tyrannical oligarchs?

Far from the afore mentioned utopian dream, some well informed individuals, like the authors at Truthstream Media, perceive it to be an Orwellian nightmare, as do other people who pay attention to the actions of their elected officials. While those immersed in the mainstream dismiss such ideas as conspiracy theories, similar concerns are being voiced by credible individuals.

In 2009 the Dutch Senate rejected a Smart Metering Bill requiring all Dutch citizens to have smart meters installed in their homes. Refusing to comply would result in a huge fine or six months imprisonment. The First Chamber found mandatory smart meters to be an unacceptable violation of personal privacy and security, based on a report by the Dutch Consumer Organization and from Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society scholars Bert-Jaap Koops and Colette Cuijpers, who argued that mandatory smart meters violate the right to privacy, which is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.

Nick Sinai, director of energy and environment at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission was quoted saying, “Privacy and cybersecurity are among the greatest challenges in implementing the smart grid.”

Sharon Peker, a concerned U.S. citizen affiliated with the Chattanooga Tea Party, has written a critical opinion piece in The Chattanoogan about smart meters, “Smart meters may be “smart” but they are not private.” Peker also mentioned that smart meters are, “…A tool of Agenda 21 and not to be tolerated.”

For a sober and balanced contribution to the smart city debate, perhaps we should examine the book, Smart Cities, by Anthony Townsend. The author, a civic hacker turned advisor, takes an honest look at both sides of the smart city coin, highlighting both the obviously good and potentially bad aspects of smart cities. Townsend states, “The promise is that we’ll build the hardware of smart cities just like we built the web, by empowered users one little piece at a time.” However, he also points to the very real possibility of human rights violations, particularly that a technocrat elite might use smart city technology to further subjugate the poor. In addition to the potential for social injustice, Townsend expresses concerns that the increased demand for electricity could cripple older power grids.

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Tracy Venkatesh

Tracy Venkatesh

Tracy Venkatesh has spent twenty years working and interacting with a socioeconomically diverse population in both the private and public sectors, and has held positions in multiple verticals including content development, healthcare, customer relations management, defense and law enforcement.

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