Hope for Open Data and Transparency in Canada

The idea for my first Ubicity blog post was initially inspired by a piece I stumbled upon written by Brian Jackson, doctor titled ‘What does a Liberal government mean for Canada’s Technology Policy?’  Given Canada’s new leadership under Liberal party leader, Justin Trudeau, along with my current research interests, broadly being open data and open data initiatives, the timing was no more fitting for me to explore the Liberal party’s plan for openness, open data and government transparency.  My curiosity was piqued to examine the Liberal party’s action plan for a ‘fair and open government’, along with its aims and ramifications for openness and transparency.

My investigation of the Liberal party platform began with a trip to the Liberal party of Canada’s website.  Neatly laid out and easily accessible were three main categories which explain the party’s aims in different aspects of citizen life and political stances.  Among these was the category title, ‘Open, Honest Government’.  This section provides a brief summary of what openness and transparency entails according to the Liberal party.  Naturally, criticism of former Prime Minister, Stephen Harper’s approach to openness populates this section, but for good reason.  As witnessed over the past decade, expectations of Canadian citizens went unattended under Conservative leadership, and is an obvious place for adjustment under new leadership.

The Liberal party seems to place transparency at the forefront of their action plan.  They seemingly offer mutual trust and cooperation between government and citizen, and use inviting and inclusive words such as ‘us’ and ‘together’ in order to demonstrate the communal progress that will be made between both.  They their action plan to be, “…a sweeping agenda for change”, and provide an in depth outline of a diversity of adjustments to be made under new leadership.  These changes touch on many ways the Liberals intend on implementing “a fair and open government”.  Specific to my research interests were the sections discussing the Liberal government’s encouragement of government openness and transparency.  This agenda asserts that transparency will stand as a fundamental principle for the Liberal Party platform.

Policies regarding open data seem promising.  For instance, Access to Information will see rejuvenation, as data will be made available to Canadians by default.  Even more, this agenda seeks to “accelerate and expand open data initiatives”.  This is certainly exciting since the value of open data initiatives will possibly see its full potential.  Open data holds the potential to integrate citizen and government together in order to assist in the shaping and constructing of a smarter city, converting previously unconnected data into actionable information for usage in the urban landscape (Dodgson and Gann 20117:4), and enhancing city services including electrical and water consumption, waste management, or public transportation (Santoso and Kuehn 2013:2).  Within smart city promotional discourse, the city is seen as a system of systems which could benefit from extensive information management tools (ibid: 5), the promotion of innovation in the planning and management of cities (Naphade et alt 2011:1), encouragement of environmental stability (Harter 2010), as well as convivial living conditions.  With these accelerated initiatives, these potentialities may actually come to fruition.

In addition to these objectives, the Liberals plan for a revamping of Canada’s Access to Information Act and increased transparency of parliamentary plans and expenses.  Not only does this action plan stipulate that government data will be available to all Canadians, but it will also make also readily available citizen’s own personal information.  Upon reading these reforms, it becomes clear that this political party seeks to engage with Canadian citizens and ensure that government data and services will become more accessible.  It is a step in the right direction for Canadian governance as the Liberals seem to have interest in increasing openness and transparency in an effort to improve trust and accountability of government.

Note my wariness of the current government’s promises.  Although promises for openness and transparency have been made, one must keep in mind that this government is newly elected.  This is to say, it is too early to understand how effective the current government is at following its platform, tending to citizen’s concerns and whether or not the current government truly takes matters regarding openness, open data and transparency seriously.  On paper, the Liberal party appears to be optimistic about the possibilities of openness and transparency, and I too share the same sentiment, as the possibilities to be had with open data currently have yet to see their full potential.  With time it will be witnessed if and how the current government will instill this action plan.  In all, the liberal policy for a fair and open government seems quite promising, if all goes as stated.  With promises of encouraged collaboration between citizens and government, an acceleration of open data initiatives and a focus on openness and transparency, this platform is surely a refreshing breath for Canadians.


Work Cited

Dodgson, M. and Gann, D. 2011 “Technological Innovation and Complex Systems in Cities,” Journal of Urban Technology, 18(3): 101-113.

Harter, G. Sinha, J., Sharma A. and Dave, S. 2010. Sustainable Urbanization: The Role of ICT in City Development. New York: Booz & Co.


Jackson, Brian. 2015. “What does a Liberal government mean for Canada’s technology policy?” IT World Canada Retrieved October 22, 2015 (http://www.itworldcanada.com/article/what-does-a-liberal-government-mean-for-canadas-technology-policy/377808)


Liberal Party of Canada. 2015. “Openness and Transparency” Retrieved October 22, 2015 (http://www.liberal.ca/openness-and-transparency/)


Naphade, M., Banavar, G. Harrison, C. Paraszczak, J. and Morris, R. 2011. “Smarter Cities and Their Innovation Challenges,” IEEE Computer, June 2011: 32-39.


Santoso, S. and Kuehn, A. 2013. “Intelligent urbanism: Convivial living in smart cities.” iConference 2013 Proceedings: 566-570.


Could partnership between IBM and Twitter create new crime prediction potential for smart cities?

Could IBM and Twitter improve crime prediction?












The winners of the 2015-16 IBM Smarter Cities Challenge were announced by Jen Crozier at the IBM Edge event in Las Vegas, Nevada last month. The Smarter Cities Challenge is the largest philanthropic program IBM currently runs, through which the firm claims to have donated services worth US$50 million to over 100 cities in the past five years. In addition to announcing the winners, Crozier also announced that each of the sixteen municipalities will receive expert advice on using Watson analytics as part of the prize package. A special bonus offering for three of the winners was also announced: Detroit, Memphis and Melbourne will be gifted with current and historical data sets from Twitter. These data sets will be analyzed with the help of Watson analytics and a Twitter analyst that will be on loan to one of the cities for three weeks. The ‘landmark partnership’ between IBM and Twitter was announced at the end of 2014 aims to ‘transform how businesses and institutions understand their customers, markets and trends’.

According to IBM marketing materials, Watson offers predictive analytics for a range of contexts including helping help retailers predict the behaviour of customers; predicting insurance claims in relation to sever weather; and predicting maintenance requirements for urban infrastructure. The spatiotemporal metadata associated with tweets has shown predictive value for a range of situations including elections, disease outbreaks, political revolutions and urban security threats (Gerber 2014).

Twitter data was famously used for urban security purposes during the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010, which involved surveillance of users and their social networks (Bennett, Haggerty, Lyon and Steeves 2014). Data posted on Twitter was used by security forces to prevent select protestors from even approaching security zones and used as evidence in the prosecution of suspicious and risky individuals (Werbin 2011). Twitter data was front and centre of the high profile case of Byron Sonne, who claimed to be ‘testing’ the security apparatus with his online Twitter activity; it took two years for him to be cleared of criminal charges linked to the incident (CBC 2012).

Beyond national security threats and mega event attacks, researchers are demonstrating the potential for Twitter data to predict criminal activity on a much smaller scale. Traditionally, predicting urban crime levels has involved analyzing historical crime data for a particular geography in combination with demographic information for that geography and extrapolating the results into the future. The Kernel Density Estimation model is the preferred approach for many researchers constructing crime hot spots (Andresen 2015). According to Hart and Zandbergen (2014) this may be attributed to the availability of this function in GIS applications, perceptions of accuracy and ease of use. Kernel Density Estimation (KDE) uses the historic crime data tied to a particular geography to predict the future probability of criminal activity in that space. Researchers have problematized this approach by arguing hot spots do not accurately portray the geography of criminality, which can be improved by using spatiotemporal data (Wang, Gerber and Brown 2012; Bogomolov et al. 2014; Malleson and Andresen 2015).

With the adoption of smart phones and social media applications, oceans of spatiotemporal data have become available to researchers. One of the earlier and more often cited articles on using data from Twitter for the purpose of predicting crime is the work of Wang, Gerber and Brown (2012). Their experiment involved semantic analysis of tweets collected from news agencies in combination with data from the local law enforcement agency in Charlottesville, Virginia. Although the researchers were only able to demonstrate predictive values for a limited range of crimes (‘hit and runs’ and ‘break and enters’), the research was promising (Wang, Gerber and Brown 2012). Since the tweets they used were posted by journalists, the analysis did not benefit from spatiotemporal meta data.

However, two years later, Matthew Gerber (2014) published his own research (funded by the United States Army) that combined historical crime data in the City of Chicago with semantic analysis of tweets and their spatiotemporal meta data. He was able to improve predictions for 19 out of 25 categories of crime (Gerber 2014). In the same year a team of researchers demonstrated mobile data could be used for crime prediction and could increase the granularity of hot spots using London as a case study (Bogomolov et al. 2014). They produced hot spot maps that looked less like the smooth contours of a weather forecast and more like a Rubik’s cube. According to Malleson and Andresen (2015), using spatiotemporal data leverages the characteristics of ambient populations to improve the predictive values for mobile crimes. They claim that by combining historical crime data with spatiotemporal data from Twitter predictions of criminal activity in the City of Leeds were improved (Malleson and Andresen 2015).

The use of data from social networking sites like Twitter to predict criminal hot spots is clearly not a magic bullet for local law enforcement agencies. As Malleson and Andresen (2015) note this data is not reflective of the entire ambient population in a given spatiotemporal cluster. However, traditional hot spot analysis relies on historical data that is not reflective of an actual spatiotemporal cluster either. There are other limitations, which include the challenge of decoding the meaning of each tweet (Gerber 2014). Despite these limitations, as local law enforcement agencies struggle to allocate limited resources the potential for creating more precise hot spots through data analytics will likely be of interest. The city chosen for the bonus consultation from Twitter may have the opportunity to explore the possibilities that the research examined above points to.


Andresen, Martin A. 2015. “Identifying Changes in Spatial Patterns from Police Interventions: The Importance of Multiple Methods of Analysis.” 16(2):148–60.

Bennett, Colin J., Kevin Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves. 2014. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Edmonton, Canada: Athabasca University.

Bogomolov, Andrey et al. 2014. “Once Upon a Crime: Towards Crime Prediction from Demographics and Mobile Data.” arXiv:1409.2983 [physics]. Retrieved June 17, 2015 (http://arxiv.org/abs/1409.2983).

CBC. 2012. “G20 Protestor Byron Sonne Cleared of All Charges.” CBC News. Retrieved June 18, 2015 (http://live.cbc.ca/Event/G20_hearing).

Gerber, Matthew S. 2014. “Predicting Crime Using Twitter and Kernel Density Estimation.” Decision Support Systems 61:115–25.

Hart, Timothy and Paul Zandbergen. 2014. “Kernel Density Estimation and Hotspot Mapping.” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management 37(2):305–23.

Malleson, Nick and Martin A. Andresen. 2015. “Spatio-Temporal Crime Hotspots and the Ambient Population.” Crime Science 4(10):1–8.

Wang, Xiaofeng, Matthew S. Gerber, and Donald E. Brown. 2012. “Automatic Crime Prediction Using Events Extracted from Twitter Posts.” Pp. 231–38 in Social Computing, Behavioral – Cultural Modeling and Prediction, Lecture Notes in Computer Science, edited by S. J. Yang, A. M. Greenberg, and M. Endsley. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. Retrieved June 17, 2015 (http://link.springer.com.proxy.queensu.ca/chapter/10.1007/978-3-642-29047-3_28).

Werbin, Kenneth C. 2011. “Spookipedia: Intelligence, Social Media and Biopolitics.” Media, Culture & Society 33(8):1254–65.



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.



Bristol to be World’s First Open Programmable City

ubicity slider Bristol.fw

A partnership between the Bristol City Council, order the University of Bristol, and NEC is aiming to make Bristol the world’s first open programmable city. In a press release from NEC, Paul Wilson, Managing Director of Bristol is Open, is quoted saying the partnership will “…create a collaborative ecosystem of global tech firms, start-ups and local community organisations to use Bristol’s network as a city-scale lab.”[1] In the same release, Dejan Bojic from NEC describes the initiative as ‘a truly ground breaking smart city project’. Bristol has been pursuing smart city objectives through initiatives that support locally based research, innovation and entrepreneurship for several years. [2]

A press release from the Bristol City Council states that government funding has supported the construction of a ‘sophisticated, city scale digital research infrastructure’ that will allow partners to ‘experiment, learn and develop innovative solutions’ to urban issues.[3] Creating solutions for environmental sustainability is a significant theme in smart city discourse and viewed as a growth industry by investors and government agencies. A report produced in the UK by the Department for Business and Innovation suggests cities in the UK are well positioned to develop smart solutions that enhance sustainability for cities all over the world.[4] George Ferguson, Mayor of the City of Bristol, sees the city as a showcase that allows cities around the world to see the potential for technology to solve challenges such as ‘increased population, scarcer resources and a changing climate’.[5]

The City of Bristol is the EU Green Capital 2015, an award that recognizes “…local level efforts to improve the environment, the economy and the quality of life in cities”.[6] Bristol was an early adopter of the Green Digital Charter, established in 2009, which signifies a commitment to sustainable urban development.[7] Bristol also signed the ‘Covenant of Mayors’, which is a pledge to exceed the European Union’s objective of reducing C02 levels by 20% by the year 2020. More recently, Bristol became the first city in the world to launch the ‘One Tree Per Child’ initiative, which will arrange for all school children in the city to plant a tree.[8] Behind Bristol’s commitment to environmental reform is an enthusiasm for using technology to further sustainability objectives.

In The Programmable City, Rob Kitchin (2011) calls for inquiry into the potential impact that coded cities will have on the nature of urban life.[9] The ‘open programmable city’ vision of Bristol and NEC features innovation, entrepreneurship and public-private partnerships. It also points to replication. In the Bristol City Council press release, a partnership with the Chinese City of Guangzhou is mentioned. A representative from Guangzhou suggests the city plans to use Bristol as a model for its own smart city development. This points to the efforts of global tech firms to align their brands with successful smart cities. When a city is viewed as ‘smarter’ than others, there is an opportunity to sell the technology that makes it ‘smarter’ to other cities.

The traction afforded to sustainability initiatives through the smart city movement presents an opportunity for contemporary urban managers to protect and preserve natural resources through advanced digital infrastructure. What might this mean for the future of urban infrastructure management? In particular, how might smart solutions initially aimed at improving sustainability on a local scale set the stage for managing energy and water resources at larger scales? By installing systems in numerous cities, corporations such as NEC, IBM and Siemens will have access to vast quantities of data about energy and water usage. Global tech firms could potentially emerge as ‘experts’ on urban resource management and consumption by virtue of the data they collect. This could create a space for global technology firms to consult municipalities on energy and water policy. Indeed, this is already occurring. By creating expansive networks of smart city systems, tech firms could potentially monitor or even manage energy and water usage for a multiplicity of cities. Through replication, a global network of systems of local control could emerge. This would have significant implications for urban governance and should be given considerable thought. How will local autonomy be impacted by the rise of these networks?

[1] NEC, NEC Partners with Bristol to Create the World’s First Open Programmable City.

[2] Kitchin, “The Real-Time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism.”

[3] Bristol City Council, Bristol Is Open Announces Its First Partnerships.

[4] UK, The Smart City Market: Opportunities for the UK.

[5] Bristol City Council, Bristol Is Open Announces Its First Partnerships.

[6] European Commission, “European Green Capital.”

[7] Networking Intelligent Cities for Energy Efficiency, “GDC in a Nutshell | Green Digital Charter.”

[8] Morris, “Olivia Newton-John Launches Bristol Tree-Planting Project.”

[9] Kitchin, “The Programmable City.”



Bristol City Council. Bristol Is Open Announces Its First Partnerships. Bristol, March 11, 2015. http://www.bristol.gov.uk/press/bristol-open-announces-its-first-partnerships?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=Bristol+City+Council+News.

European Commission. “European Green Capital.” Accessed February 24, 2015. http://ec.europa.eu/environment/europeangreencapital/about-the-award/policy-guidance/index.html.

Kitchin, Rob. “The Programmable City.” Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design 38, no. 6 (2011): 945–51. doi:10.1068/b3806com.

———. “The Real-Time City? Big Data and Smart Urbanism.” GeoJournal 79, no. 1 (November 2013): 1–14. doi:10.1007/s10708-013-9516-8.

Morris, Steven. “Olivia Newton-John Launches Bristol Tree-Planting Project.” The Guardian. Accessed February 24, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/feb/23/olivia-newton-john-launches-bristol-tree-planting-project.

NEC. NEC Partners with Bristol to Create the World’s First Open Programmable City. Bristol, March 10, 2015. http://uk.nec.com/en_GB/press/201503/20150310_03.html.

Networking Intelligent Cities for Energy Efficiency. “GDC in a Nutshell | Green Digital Charter.” Accessed February 24, 2015. http://www.greendigitalcharter.eu/greendigitalcharter/infographicstest.

UK. The Smart City Market: Opportunities for the UK. UK: Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2013.



Smart Cities, Open Data and the Promise of Transparency

Urban leaders around the world have pledged their support for smart city initiatives. Much of the smart city discourse is produced through claims being made by corporate executives and city officials. Some tech firms and municipal managers believe that investments in advanced information communication technology will improve citizen participation and result in a more democratic city. This top-down perspective suggests increased civic involvement requires urban leaders to open the lines of communication to enable citizens to participate.

While the open data movement has visible support from all levels of government, open data policies and practices are a work in progress. Even early adopters like the City of Philadelphia, which released a comprehensive review of their progress late last year, are still finding their footing. The new strategic plan for the city acknowledges the need for additional policies and systems that guide decision makers on the suitability of a given data set for ‘open’ status. The political nature of open data was made clear when the city’s Chief Technology Officer resigned, claiming there was a culture of resistance in the administration, which would prevent payroll and procurement data from being released. [1]

The open data movement is also gaining traction through the efforts of grassroots organizing. In many of the cities listed by the Government of Canada and the United States Government as having open data programs, there are locally organized collectives pushing for improved access to information. Civic-minded individuals and groups often organize intensive ‘hackathons’ where ideas for using open data sets are converted into programs and applications. These events are at times coordinated at national and even global scales. One such event, taking place in late February, aims to bring the smart city and open data movements together in a ‘Smart Cities Hackathon’. In Canada and the U.S., Boston, Oklahoma City, and Vancouver will participate. If the Philadelphia lesson is any indication of what is ahead for the open data movement, more events like these will be required for the transparency promise to be realized.



Zaleski, Andrew. “Welcome to the Open Data Movement’s Turbulent Teenage Years,” January 12, 2015. http://nextcity.org/features/view/open-data-cities-mark-headd-philadelphia-michael-nutter.


[1] Zaleski, “Welcome to the Open Data Movement’s Turbulent Teenage Years.”

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’.

The Smart City Bubble?

The Guardian recently published an article that offers critiques on a range of smart city visions. The article opens with a claim that the smart city concept is already passé and a question as to what the next big thing will be. Smart city rhetoric is framed in the article as an attempt by global tech firms to provide city managers with digital keys that unlock the potential of urban society. The article goes on to raise questions about ubiquitous surveillance, discount privacy concerns and democracy. While most of the quotes are taken from professional planners and consultants, stuff the issues raised are also being debated in the academic community.

Although the article opens with a question as to what the next big trend will be in urban planning, salve no clear answer is provided. There are, however, ‘promotional links’ to the Resilient Cities project, which, like the Cities section of the Guardian, is sponsored by the Rockefeller Institute. The article concludes with a quote from Shakespeare: “What is the city but the people?” This is all very fitting given the Resilient Cities Framework (published in April) emphasizes vulnerable populations in urban planning and makes scarce reference to ‘data’ or ‘information’ as is common in smart city materials.

The Guardian article provides readers with a tour of several possible critiques of smart city rhetoric. It accurately points to the hubris with which global tech executives and city managers claim to solve all urban plight with digital upgrades. Does this mean the smart city movement is headed for collapse? It seems unlikely that cities will become less entrepreneurial, less interested in developing research and innovation centers, less eager to use information communication technology or less concerned about environmental sustainability. Perhaps it is more likely that the smart city label could be replaced with a new, more fashionable term. However, that would not signal a change in direction for urban governance. It would simply be the next big label to describe recurrent tropes of urban development.

Can Cities be Smart and Resilient?

In my previous post I problematized a common smart city approach to social justice, cialis which sounds something like ‘offering empowerment and opportunity through technology’. This framing of inequality implies that vulnerable populations can pull themselves up by their digital bootstraps to get their needs met. One of the assumptions underpinning this claim is that vulnerable individuals can simply reposition themselves as smart citizens, order reaping the benefits of the entrepreneurial and inclusive civil society that smart cities allegedly foster.

Smart city discourses often speak first and foremost about opportunities for businesses and citizens that occupy ‘smart’ social locations, capsule and somewhere down the list eventually make a gesture towards vulnerable populations. This suggests that vulnerability is a result of personal choices rather than a product of complex and interrelated social systems. A recent partnership between the Rockefeller Institute and consulting firm Arup takes a different tack.

The ‘City Resilience Framework’ was designed as an analytical tool for assessing the capacity of cities to maintain functionality when encountering ‘stresses or shocks’. This is similar to the theme of managing disruptions that appears in the materials produced by the smart city industry. What makes the City Resilience Framework different is its emphasis on giving consideration to vulnerable populations. This is made particularly clear in the description of the City Resilience Index, which assesses the resiliency of a particular city: “The purpose of the City Resilience Index is to provide cities with a robust, holistic and accessible basis for assessment so that they are better placed to make investment decisions and engage in urban planning practices that ensure people living in cities – particularly the poor and vulnerable – survive and thrive no matter what shocks and stresses they encounter” (Rockefeller and Arup 2014:21).

In 2013 the Rockefeller Foundation started the 100 cities initiative, which provides funding to cities that demonstrate a commitment to resilience. Last month, 35 cities were added to the growing project. Interestingly, many of the cities that received recognition for their commitment to resilience also have well established smart city initiatives. This includes Barcelona, which has a global reputation for being a smart city. If the smart city movement continues to focus on ‘opportunity and empowerment through technology’, social justice advocates might find greater traction for their causes by pushing politicians to pursue resilience frameworks as well.

The Smart City Promise

At the Smart City Expo 2014 in Barcelona a lot of promises were made by politicians and corporate executives. These promises included financial savings, improved service delivery, a more transparent municipal government, increased participation of citizens, reduced environmental damage and fostering social justice. The list goes on. Essentially, any and all aspects of urban life are improved in the ‘smart city’. Moreover, urban life is allegedly improved for all citizens and residents in the smart city, which suggests that the smart city is somehow also the fair city.

A closer reading of the promises being made reveals themes such as empowerment and opportunity, which are familiar terms to the neoliberal urban climate. This suggests that all urban leaders must do to create a smart city is take neoliberal urbanism, add technology and stir. For one global technology firm, the answer to youth unemployment is to open labs where youth can learn the company’s source code and then build applications for it. The point here is not to be critical of these kinds of initiatives. Providing support to non-profit and educational institutions that help youth develop skills is a good thing even if it leashes the youth’s creative projects to that particular company’s operating system.

What is concerning is that ‘opportunity and empowerment through technology’ seems to be the only way inequality is approached by the smart city movement. One city official proudly presented their smart city solution for residents who cannot afford to pay their monthly utilities charges: give them a free consultation on smart energy consumption. Rather than addressing the political and economic conditions that result in citizens not being able to pay for water and electricity, the solution is simply a dash of ‘smart technology’ with a splash of ‘education’.

The Business Improvement District (BID) model of urban management is arguably the predecessor to the smart city movement. BIDs facilitate the privatization of public space, and the use of public funds to support infrastructural upgrades to attract investment. They also facilitate uneven development in cities by concentrating capital investment in select spaces. BIDs are also known for their enhanced surveillance and security practices, which are focused on ensuring a ‘business as usual’ environment. This often means criminalizing and marginalizing undesirable individuals.

The smart city model is more than a technological upgrade to the BID model. It also represents a change in scale. Promoting a business friendly environment is nothing new for cities. However, technological infrastructure is a massive capital investment that requires financing from the city. This reduces the funding available for programs and services that support individuals and families in need. Hopefully, the smart city promise will pay off, and inequality within cities will decline as smart citizens are empowered by technology to take advantage of new economic opportunities. If that does not happen, then it is almost certain that a new wave of smart urban security and surveillance will be called upon to protect the smart city from failed smart citizens.


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.