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17 April 2018

There are growing concerns that technology is leaving democracy behind, and smart cities might be a casualty in the backlash, argue Kris Hartley and Glen Kuecker.

By the mid-20th century, governments had monopolised the delivery of large urban projects, from infrastructure to master-planned ‘new towns’. The second half of the century saw the gradual corporatisation of city planning – from the tract housing of the 1950s to mixed-use urban megaprojects in the 1990s and beyond.

Another private sector moment is now unfolding under the banner of ‘smart cities’. Projects such as South Korea’s Songdo are attracting attention – both positive and negative. Beyond efficiency promises, the relevance of smart city initiatives to social equity and political representation will determine the movement’s survivability.

The rise of the smart cities movement is replicating corporate-dominated power structures in urban planning. The private sector produces the technologies that now define citizen life and has the increasingly sophisticated technical expertise that government sometimes lacks. These advantages solidify the private sector’s position not only as a public service provider but also as a policy driver of the smart cities agenda.

However, populist pushback against smart city technology may be inevitable – a source of hope for some and potential worry for others.

The distinction between public and private is often blurred in the delivery of public services – particularly with the adoption of participatory development, collaborative governance, public-private partnerships, and other cross-sector governance models. This blurring makes accountability for public welfare uncertain: to what extent should it rest with the state or the market?

More on this: Why smart city initiatives must go beyond just technology

In this neoliberal era, the free market is trusted to improve social outcomes only as a by-product of competition – ostensibly broadening consumer options, lowering prices, and improving service quality. Likewise, the concept of corporate social responsibility is seen as a win-win for company branding and the public good. While this story is an old one, the smart cities movement is a unique opportunity to revisit these assumptions.

The modern city itself is a physical embodiment of political and economic priorities: marketisation of urban space is ubiquitous in redevelopment projects branded as smart, sustainable, or equitable. However, such developments cater primarily to the investment and consumer interests of the economic elite. Will smart cities technology simply perpetuate this trend?

There is increasing interest in the governance dimensions of urban technology, and related issues were explored at the UN’s Ninth World Urban Forum in Kuala Lumpur in February 2018. At a break-out dialogue, Alessandro Rainoldi of the European Union’s Directorate-General Joint Research Centre argued that data must be open and free, and developed as part of a conversation between users and providers.

This strikingly democratic vision is not currently realised. Speaking at the same event, Karibaiti Taoaba, Regional Director at the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF) Pacific, argued that there is little coordination among organisations or firms in the collection of data.

Such problems are examples of the practical challenges facing governments and corporations in managing data and urban technology more broadly. Advancements in smart technologies are frequently outpacing the ability of governments to redesign management and governance systems, as evident in two recent events: Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica controversy, and the United States’ first pedestrian casualty caused by an autonomous vehicle.

One would expect democracies to forestall or remediate such failings, but accountability for broader social outcomes is shifting. Despite the proliferation of small-scale start-ups in the technology industry, the smart cities movement is largely in corporate hands – particularly in a climate favourable to corporate acquisitions.

More on this: Is India's Smart Cities Mission an urban game changer?

As such, a new rationalist technocracy is emerging, shaped not by elected policymakers but by the visions and priorities of powerful market actors. This merging of public and private is not new. Infrastructure planning has always been a public concern, but the private sector now monopolises the expertise and capacity to build it. Governments regulate financial markets, but so-called “fin-tech” is developed and implemented by private companies. Corporate influence over the public sphere is now at high tide.

While this process gathers momentum, a seemingly unrelated wave of anti-government scepticism is driving populist movements around the world. It may be only a matter of time before this agitation targets the smart cities phenomenon.

Unlike infrastructure, the machinations of smart cities technologies are not intuitive; they are a mystery to average citizens, even while relying on their private information. Given recent newsworthy breaches of data security – including corporate hacking and foreign interference in the 2016 American presidential election – concerns about surveillance and information collection are mounting. The #deletefacebook Twitter hashtag already suggests the potential for populist backlash. Resistance to smart cities could draw as much from an anti-technocratic ideology as from a practical concern about information security.

Despite its seemingly democratising effects, technology can have a social sorting effect that widens society’s divides – between the skilled and unskilled, the connected and unconnected, and the privileged and otherwise. An example is automation, which threatens many blue collar jobs and could intensify populist backlash in the same way globalization already has.

While 21st-century right-wing populism is now destabilising politics in many countries, connecting it with dissatisfaction about emerging technocracy is still a tenuous exercise. To date, right-wing populism has vilified primarily immigration and social liberalism, while left-wing populism has focused on socio-economic inequality through identity politics.

On the right, grievances of economically disadvantaged blue-collar workers are manifesting themselves in an agrarian anti-intellectualism that romanticises ethnic and place-based identity (“blood and soil”). The proudly nativist tenor of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and administration rejects many of the values associated with cities and urban life: cosmopolitanism, high culture, and tolerance of difference. It seems only a small step to extend this pushback to vague concepts of modernisation, including technology and technocratic governance. The monitoring and measuring that attend smart cities initiatives would fit neatly within such narratives.

What will define 21st-century governance: a reformed, people-centred technocracy, or more drain-the-swamp anti-modern nihilism?

Aside from Twitter revolutions and social movement organising, personal-use technology has offered no meaningful disruption to the power structures that perpetuate underlying causes of inequality and other societal pathologies. Popular resistance has the power to stall the smart cities agenda, so it is crucial – at this turning point – that the public feel confident about the benefits and security of urban technology.

Governments and corporations must apply as much effort to democratising information and technology as they do to hatching innovations. However, given the private sector’s grip on both technology and policy, such a transformation is difficult to envision.

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