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20 November 2015

Smart City or Shared City

Smart City: In Search of the Smart Citizen | Sara Blom and Dorien Zandbergen │ The Netherlands, 2015 | 01:04:20 | Dutch > English

[Dutch &English | 01:04:20]

Through a series of interviews with public office holders, representatives of technological companies and citizens taking part in a data-collection experiment, this documentary raises the main paradoxes entailed in the project of making Amsterdam a “smart city”.

A group of residents in Amsterdam with a range of technological skills and affinities get involved in a pilot project in the form of an experiment involving citizen participation in collecting and observing data which are supposed to make them “Smart Citizens” or associates in a future “Smart City”. According to Wikipedia, this is a city which uses ICT to “enhance quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.” Each participant in the trial is given a “Smart Citizen Kit”, a device invented by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC, Barcelona) and described by its creators as “open source technology for citizens’ political participation in smarter cities”. The kit contains an electronic board equipped with an Arduino processor and a set of sensors which enable the user to obtain data about environmental quality by measuring such factors as temperature, humidity, noise and air pollution, which are then shared online.

With Amsterdam, and this project in particular, as its starting point, the documentary Smart City: In Search of the Smart Citizen reflects on the implementation of “smart cities” from a neutral perspective, without taking a stance on the matter and raising questions more implicitly than explicitly. During the one-hour film interviews are shown in which a range of agents working with this urban model discuss some of the paradoxes they face. Keen authorities, manufacturers of “smart” devices and systems, citizens taking part in the experiment, activists, hackers and people who have little contact with the new technologies or who are even made redundant by them, offer their testimonies in a multifaceted and sometimes contradictory portrait of this twenty-first-century phenomenon.

One of the paradoxes raised in the film is the role played by citizens in this “smartening” of the city. While experiences like that described in the documentary are said to promote citizen involvement and participation, there are probably good reasons, too, for scepticism regarding the supposed empowerment bestowed by the new technologies. To begin with, a digital divide, which is described in the film by some of the participants, excludes part of the population. This is summed up in the words of Saskia Müller (projects director for the Amsterdam Smart City initiative), who says that, “It is paradoxical that we are trying to understand our environment with technology we don’t understand.” Then again, the citizen doesn’t seem to be totally present in the events related with the “smart city” or in the public-private consortiums which back them. Yet these consortiums do tend to have the support of big technological multinationals, for example Cisco Systems, Phillips and the Dutch telecommunications corporation KPN. Though the presence of these companies is perfectly comprehensible from the logic of business, perhaps it contradicts the participatory fervour of the “smart citizens” discourse. What position would these companies have taken in the recent vote in the European Parliament on the elimination of roaming charges and conserving net neutrality? It probably wouldn’t coincide with the stance taken by Tim Berners Lee, one of the fathers of the World Wide Web, who has made a statement against the privatisation of the Internet.

In some sense, the participation of “smart citizens” might be compared with the involvement required of residents in urban waste separation, an a priori well-intentioned model of participation or, rather, civic commitment from which various degrees of citizen involvement emerge. On the one hand there is a model in which the citizen selectively sorts out household rubbish, thus providing raw material for the recycling industry and cutting costs for the company holding the concession. On the other hand, it is a model in which the citizen is recompensed for returning recyclable containers and packaging. In these two cases the moral reward for contributing towards improving the environment is equivalent but the latter is more redistributive and perhaps more efficient. What role are committed citizens supposed to play in the “smartening” of their cities?

Another of the paradoxes raised by the documentary is that of the eternal conflict between freedom and security. In effect, “smart” technologies dangerously pave the way for social control in both public spaces and the private sphere. Suppliers of urban technologies frequently state explicitly that their aim is surveillance of the streets, a view expressed in the documentary by Pim Stevens (director of KPN’s “Smart Citizens” programme) when he claims that, “The basic infrastructure of intelligent cities consists of lampposts – with light, of course – but it would be good if the lampposts could keep track of people […] and our aim is that the public should be monitored with cameras and sensors”. His colleague Bas Boorsma (Cisco Systems) backs up these remarks, arguing that, “this would be an added value for the police and for the security of all the people present in the square”. When asked what other practical applications surveillance might have, Stevens replies that a restaurant owner might be able to sell his leftover spareribs to a group of young people detected in the zone. Although the editing of the documentary highlights the caricature-like aspects of these statements, it is true that surveillance and control, whether in public or private space, are by no means trivial questions. Citizens are submitted to them on an everyday basis, as denounced by the Dutch collective Bits of Freedom when it appears in the film to explain how to improve the privacy of our communications. However, we should bear in mind that trying to conserve the intimacy of our activities could be viewed as suspicious behaviour.

This isn’t a matter of setting out on a regressive anti-technology crusade but it does mean questioning the ideology we think this should conform to, who it benefits and what model of city it offers – the smart city prototype planned from an ideal present, stripped of any “imperfection” in order to attain an idyllic future, or that of a shared city in which the “effectiveness” with which the citizen is engaged with it is measured by means of parameters that are much more far-reaching than those quantified with sensors.

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