1 Year Postdoc for study of Smart City initiatives in New York

I am making initial inquries looking for a post-doc to join the Ubicity project anytime from July 1st 2017 onwards, for 1 year, specifically to carry out a case-study of smart city developments in New York City.
  • Salary will be pretty standard for Queen’s University postdocs, so it won’t be enormous! However you will get the opportunity to work with the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s, and be funded to conduct intensive, directed research and produce publishable work solely and jointly with me, attend international conferences, and more.
  • I am looking for someone who will spend large portions of their time in New York working on that case-study (one of three cities being studied by the project). You should ideally therefore already have both Canadian and US citizenship or necessary work or residency permits for the country in which they do not have citizenship.
  • There’s really little time for training or induction involved and you will need to be fully prepared to hit the ground running, i.e. you will already have conducted significant doctoral or post-doctoral work on Smart Cities AND/OR The Internet of Things AND/OR contemporary urban surveillance & security.
  • You need to be a social scientist comfortable with interviewing and observational / ethnographic work AND understand the technologies involved in Smart Cities enough to conduct interviews with developers, policy-makers and users in government, police and so on.
At this stage, I’d just like to establish interest so please send me a CV, a writing sample (preferably a submitted or published article) and a brief letter outlining how you fit the criteria, what you can bring to the project and when you are available.
David Murakami Wood
Canada Research Chair in Surveillance Studies
Surveillance Studies Centre
Queen’s University


Seattle appoints Amazon VP to the police department

The city of Seattle’s Police Department has appointed 4 new senior managers including the surprise choice of Greg Russel, a VP of online retail giant, Amazon.

What does this have to do with smart cities? There are two main implications. The first is simply to do with the signalling of the clear importance of big(ger) data in policing. Russell’s job as Chief Information Officer will deal with everything from digital records to  “the rapidly expanding use of patrol-car video and body cameras”, which as the article notes has caused problems for police departments in developing “a way to balance the public’s right to know with the privacy rights of individuals.” Policing is increasingly dominated by surveillance-generated data, and analytics that are used to direct limited police resources to where crime is more likely to occur, but there is also the concern generated by the potential for lawsuits around privacy and the growing ‘right to be forgotten’ as well as the use of police-generated video as evidence against the police themselves.

However, the second, and in the long-term perhaps the most significant, implication is that this appointment is just one of the many signs of the increasing importance of relationships between urban governance and tech companies, and the rise of the ‘Chief Information Officer’, which is at the heart of the smart city agenda. It is not, in this case, that this is any kind of ‘privatization’ or ‘outsourcing’ of police operations, rather that a new kind of career trajectory seems to be opening up that sends tech company executives into urban management. The intangible benefits of such links and the contacts and connections thus created are unlikely to be entirely insignificant, especially given Amazon’s growing move away from its beginnings as an e-retailer and towards being a cloud computing services provider.



Urban Acceleration

While not specifically about ‘smart cities’, a very interesting ‘guide to urban innovation’ was published today by Living Cities, which seems to share many of core concepts in terms of acceleration, innovation, entrepeneurialism, intelligence and good government. I think that there’s an interesting ideological difference emerging between softer versions of ‘smart city’ (and smart-city-like) thinking that de-emphasize the technological and harder versions for which technological systems and technocentric practices are central. I’ve thought of this before as being related to ‘European’ and ‘American’ versions respectively, but it’s not quite as simple as that. Some of the division also relates to the different sectoral starting points of the journeys towards ‘smart city’ thinking: on the one end from a broadly urban government and planning perspective and on the other from a technological / computer systems perspective. In the former, technology, if it is a priority at all, is seen as a range of tools to deal with particular problems of government, but in the latter, the city is seen, broadly speaking, as another field for the application of ‘operating systems’, ‘software’ and ‘hardware’ solutions across the board. These different starting positions (and the others un between and from elsewhere entirely) have differnet implications for the place of security and surveillance with their models, again broadly speaking, a protection / policing model in the first case, and a systems security / critical infrastructure model in the latter, although these already have a history of hybridizing into ideas of ‘resilience’.

What are standards good for?

There is a really stark contrast visible at the Smart City Expo between those who seem to be actively engaged with people and those for whom people are, to quote one corporate systems developer, “sensors on two legs” or as presentation put it, “a key layer of urban infrastructure”.

The contast was especially visible in two different sessions on technological standards yesterday. In one, exciting insights were shared from community-developed smart applications, youth hackerspaces and systems that appeared to be both useful and popular. In other words, the concept of standards was more about sharing successes and failures with technologies, and making the best of what could be done on the basis of some shared (and usually open) starting points. In the other, everything was about embedding people into systems that had been developed without, it seemed, much regard for what people might actually want, more what developers felt was good for them, or appeared to be smooth, efficient and functional in models.

Now, I’m not arguing against functionality. Things should work. But, as architecture critic, Deyan Sudjic, argued in a typically ironic and amusing intervention in a later plenary session with the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the great thing about great cities is the unpredictable encounter, the messiness, the unexpected, the things that happen that you never intended. Efficiency is boring. In fact, as Kuma said, “standards are boring”. Developments, if they are to serve people, should be based in local place and cultures. Technical standards that allow systems to work in flexible and adaptable ways within different contexts are fine. Protocols that start to treat social relations and human beings as if they were mere parts of technical systems are not. The International Standards Organisation (ISO) has already overstepped this mark by moving from the merely technical into the social with things like the ‘Societal Security’ standard. The first route leads to smart cities that can be empowering and enabling. The second leads to technocracy, or worse what I have called ‘ambient government’, when the smart environment of the cities we live in predetermine our choices and the possibilities of our lives to a suffocating extent.

What we talk about when we talk about ‘smart cities’

One of the things that has struck me after the first day of the Smart Cities Expo here in Barcelona, is that surveillance is everywhere, but it is mentioned nowhere. Presenters talk about ‘monitoring’, ‘gathering’, and ‘analyzing’ data. Exhibitors say that their companies offer ‘big data integration’ ‘crowd flow management’, ‘security and safety’ and even ‘precrime analytics’. But not ‘surveillance’. Is this just a case of academics using terms differently from those in ‘the real world’ or is it something else?

A bit of both. Certainly, for surveillance studies scholars, surveillance is, if not everything, certainly involved in almost everything in the contemporary world, and it is also an article of faith that surveillance is neither good nor bad in itself. For many government organisations and companies, surveillance has a far more limited definition, bound by specific laws that govern unlawful search and seizure and also by the popular perception of surveillance as ‘Big Brother’ or something that only fascists and authoritarians do (a tendency from which academics aren’t immune either). And of course no-one wants to be considered as an authoritarian.

However, part of this is also a denial of the reality of life in a society where the mantra is ‘collect everything’ whether the devotee of big data is the National Security Agency, the local municipality or even an app on your smart phone. And it’s possible to argue that all of these things are kinds of authoritarianism, whether harder or softer, but it’s probably better to realise that surveillance isn’t just something that bad people do, it’s something we all do, and in which we are all invoved, although of course not to the same extent or with the same intentions and outcomes. But when we talk about ‘smart cities’, we are also talking about ‘surveillance cities’, whether we want to or not…

Barcelona Smart City Expo 2014


Visitors at the ‘Futurama’ exhibition at the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40

The Ubicity project is kicking off by spending 4 days at the world Smart City Expo and Congress in Barcelona. It’s an enormous event, and even on the way in we were pitched a crowd modelling and anticipatory security control system (by AGT / Cisco)… and there are hundreds of exhibitors, talks from promoters, developers, government ministers, academics and more. We’ll largely be here to listen, collect marketing materials and make contacts for future interviews, and scope out possibilities for the case studies that we will be conducting over the next three years.

There’s clearly an attempt to portray this as building the future of cities. But while there is indeed a sense of the future, it is also a not entirely unfamiliar future. The future is in many ways the same future as it has been in many previous portrayals – and the ghost of the New York Worlds Fair of 1939-40 hovers over this event as it hovers over almost all such events, and a lot of the rhetoric is essentially the same as previous waves of urban utopianism. ‘Smart’ seems to mean, or incorporate, almost all of those previous ‘urban solutions’ from efficiency, through sustainability and resilience. And democracy and human rights of course. Smart cities are in many ways the ultimate kind of urban ‘solutionism’, a magic wand to be waved at all problems, magically transforming problems into solutions.