Smart Cities, technology and democracy

I wouldn’t normally just post an article without commenting on it, but I’m nearly out of time for everything on my course, so I will have to. This article on smart cities and democracy is brilliantly written, it is a stream of crystallised gems.  By Stephen Poole for the Guardian.  It encapsulates everything that fascinates and worries me about smart cities and democracy.  What if the thing that really got disrupted by technology turned out not to be cab rides and hotel rooms but democracy and our very nature as individuals with free will? My favourite paragraphs are these ones: ‘And what role will the citizen play? That of unpaid data-clerk, voluntarily contributing information to an urban database that is monetised by private companies? Is the city-dweller best visualised as a smoothly moving pixel, travelling to work, shops and home again, on a colourful 3D graphic display? Or is the citizen rightfully an unpredictable source of obstreperous demands and assertions of rights?’ Some really thought provoking stuff on how we can be predicted as crowds (something I suppose market researchers have known for a long time); and on the double-edged sword that is big data in both empowering citizens, but putting them under mass surveillance at the same time.    I need to come back to this when I’ve finished my study obligations, there is so much to think about and unpack here.

Another great article to think more about here on the FT – 17/01/15:

It discusses the potential for Britain’s smaller towns to flourish more by becoming bigger.  It quotes interesting numbers of inhabitants required to make various facilities viable:  a nursery, a pub, a cinema.

Here’s another article that provokes some thought, although quite differently.  Google are investing in an urban technology division (apparently to the dismay of their investors, who grow ‘restless’ about the tendency of Google to make long-term investments). What is almost most interesting about the article is how uncritical it is of some of the aims.  It describes Uber and Lyft in Messianic sustainabilty terms as reducing demand for car ownership by making car service more cheap and accessible.  Nevermind that they are not actually reducing demand for car usage (possibly just displacing that demand to hire cars) and certainly never mind the precarious employment situation and low pay of the people driving Uber’s cars.  Similarly, the software predicting where crime will happen – tell me, journalist, exactly what sort of profiling does that software use?  Would that profiling be legal in America if a human being rather than a machine was carrying it out?  I’m a huge fan of technology and its capacity to make the world a better place.  But uncritically failing to place technology in a social context runs risks of those technology gains being made at the expense of other important needs, like the needs for living wages and equal treatment under the law.


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