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

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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.

European Commission. “European Green Capital.” Accessed February 24, 2015.

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.

NEC. NEC Partners with Bristol to Create the World’s First Open Programmable City. Bristol, March 10, 2015.

Networking Intelligent Cities for Energy Efficiency. “GDC in a Nutshell | Green Digital Charter.” Accessed February 24, 2015.

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



Hacking the Smart City via Open Data

smartcity hack.fw

Several events in support of the open data movement are being organized in the month of February. On February 21st an ‘International Open Data Hackathon’ with 100 events around the world will take place under the coordinating efforts of the Open Data Day collective. That same weekend the Canadian Open Data Experience (CODE) is being scheduled. This event is officially sponsored by the Government of Canada and has over 100 teams in cities across the country registered to compete. The Data Fest group is also organizing a global hacking event focused on smart cities complete with its own hashtag: #smartcityhack. The lead organizer for the event Teresa Bouza has a solid team of graduate students from leading universities working on the project. The first #smartcityhack is scheduled for the same weekend as Open Data Day and CODE. The linking of the open data movement with smart cities could present an opportunity for civic groups to hold urban leaders accountable to frequently made claims of the democratic potential of e-governance.

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.


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

Intelligent Community Forum Announces 2015 Finalists

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The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) has announced the short list for the 2015 competition. Last year, order three Canadian cities (Kingston, medicine Toronto and Winnipeg) made it to the final seven with Toronto ultimately being announced as Intelligent Community of the Year. Toronto was applauded for the waterfront redevelopment project (the largest in North America), pharmacy the MaRS Discovery District (a research hub) and its investment in transportation. Other finalists were Arlington County, Virginia and Columbus, Ohio in the United States, and Hsinchu City and New Taipei City in Taiwan. The finalists this year again include Arlington County, Columbus and New Taipei; while adding Mitchell South Dakota (United States), Ipswich (Australia), Rio, and Surrey, British Columbia. The theme for the competition this year is The Revolutionary Community: How Intelligent Communities are Re-Inventing Urban and Rural Planning. The theme is framed as a response to the increase in and intensification of disruptions to ‘technology, the economy and the environment’. Toronto will host the annual summit in June at which point the new winner will be announced.

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.