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.