The Captured City

The “smart city” makes infrastructure and surveillance indistinguishable

You can’t go about your day anymore without tripping over smart stuff — smart refrigerators, smart toothbrushes, smart locks, smart whatever. All this smartness usually amounts to equipping the previously dumb thing with sensors that collect data, software for algorithmic operation, and internet capabilities so it can constantly communicate with other things and be remotely controlled by its owners, makers, and hackers.

But what does it mean to apply “smart” to an entire city? From the beginning, the “smart” model of urbanism has been an ambiguously defined project. It promises to empower urban planning by turning the city into a nexus of real-time data on every aspect of how the city (and its inhabitants) function and optimize urban infrastructure by slapping sensors everywhere and connecting it all together into a centralized network. It promises to thrive under conditions of fiscal austerity and fierce competition by importing entrepreneurialism into city hall. Ultimately, it promises, as IBM’s CEO Ginny Rometty declared, to “force economic growth” and “force societal progress.”

The corporate interests behind “smart cities” — including first movers like IBM and Cisco, joined by latecomers like Sidewalk Labs — are not only trying to sell a variety of technological solutions and management services like the control rooms that have been installed in Rio de Janeiro to Jakarta. They are also selling the ideological backdrop that justifies them. This entails constructing a narrative — simultaneously aimed at convincing planners, politicians, and the public — about the crises that cities face, the changes that are necessary, and the benefits that will come by letting corporations take the reins.

The “smart city” is not an actually existing entity. It’s a misleading euphemism for a corporately controlled urban future

As I have argued previously, the “smart city” should be understood as a socio-technical imaginary: that is, as a vision and performance of a desirable future based on marshalling technology to change society that insists on a particular model of municipal development and governance. In this vision, cities are steered by data-driven decision protocols, monitored in real-time by centralized control rooms (the “urban dashboard” whose history Shannon Mattern details here), and transformed into lean, mean, urban growth machines (a.k.a. the “smart city as a service” described in this Frost & Sullivan white paper). You can’t blame their intended targets for going along with this narrative whether it’s the planners who need help managing complex systems more effectively, the politicians who are under pressure to keep performance high, or the public who want to live in a city that serves their needs. The smart city is, after all, designed to sound awesome.

But many of the promises and prototypes that support the smart-city imaginary are in fact imaginary. Often they exist only as marketing pitches. And if they do materialize they fail to live up to their hype. Actually existing smart cities are plagued by delays and dead ends, glitches and ghost towns. For example, Songdo in South Korea was built from the ground up as a smart city, with ubiquitous sensing, automated services, and more screens than you could ever want built into every surface — every building, bus stop, and light post — from the beginning. It was meant to be a shining beacon for all other cities to follow. But as this CityLab article points out, not only did it continually blow its budget and timelines, the city is now sparsely populated. It is like a showroom for an urban future that never arrived, like a life sized architectural model. The smart city is not a field of dreams. If you build it, they might never come.

The “smart city” is not a coherent concept, let alone an actually existing entity. It’s better understood as a misleading euphemism for a corporately controlled urban future. The phrase itself is part of the ideological infrastructure it requires. As the cliché goes: Who wants to live in a dumb city? But if we focus on the version of smart urbanism on display in corporate brochures and concept designs, even if critically, we may miss the real impact of the underlying transformations in urban governance they foretell.

A closer look at the bundle of technologies and policies associated with “smart cities” suggest a different aim. These technologies treated the city like a battlespace, redeploying information systems originally created for military purposes for urban policing. Sensors, cameras, and other networked surveillance systems gather intelligence through quasi-militaristic methods to feed another set of systems capable of deploying resources in response. In reality, the urban command centers — or, the sophisticated analytics software that create relational networks of data, like that produced by the CIA-funded Palantir — are built primarily for police, not planners, let alone the public.

Contrary to the suggestions of “smartness” shills, these systems are not used by the general public but on it. This urban war machine (as I call it in my forthcoming book Too Smart) is the true essence of “smart” urbanism. It is the next step in the high-tech militarization of society. Rather than produce the smart city, it yields the captured city.

When you hear the words smart city, you should not think of the glossy marketing spreads and concept designs. You should immediately think of something like the Domain Awareness System. A joint venture between the New York Police Department and Microsoft, the system, according to the NYPD, “utilizes the largest networks of cameras, license plate readers, and radiological sensors in the world.” By applying immense processing power to all these sources of data, this distributed network of surveillance infrastructure is now integrated into a unified system. Officers equipped with phones and tablets have mobile, real-time access to its information, giving them the ability to do things like pull up feeds from CCTV cameras around the city, search a range of otherwise disparate databases, and turn on automatic alerts for what the software judges to be “suspicious activity.”

According to Josh Scannell, a sociologist who researches the techno-politics of urban policing, this system is another product of the Global War on Terror. “Built with Homeland Security funds under an antiterrorism mandate,” Scannell writes, the Domain Awareness System’s “surveillance extends far beyond the obviously ‘criminal’ to include data as exotic as feeds from radiation detectors — sensitive enough to pick up recent chemotherapy treatment in passing bodies — and sophisticated enough to rapidly recall up to five years’ worth of stored ‘metadata’ and temporally unbounded (and undefined) ‘environmental data’ in its continuously mined databases.”

Urban command centers are built primarily for police, not planners, let alone the public

The captured city, as this suite of surveillance and analytics suggests, is captured in two interrelated senses: as data and territory. The web of surveillance systems built and operated by the military-industrial complex accomplish the data capture, which enables the police to better capture the city’s territory, maintaining a data dragnet across the city and keeping tabs on targeted groups. The goal is to enmesh the city so tightly in these systems, to make them such a critical part of the urban infrastructure, that the two can never be disentangled.

The city is also captured ideologically. The idea of the captured city requires an adversarial view of a city’s inhabitants: When the enemy can be anywhere, the battlespace is everywhere; all places and people must be accounted for at all times. With enough ubiquitous surveillance and processing power, the goal is to render the whole city — every place, every moment — knowable and controllable: They will be able to press rewind on the city, pause it at any point, and watch it unfold over time, or hit fast-forward and devise predictive models that inform anticipatory policing and planning. Through high-resolution cameras and sensors, “these systems could produce explorable, three-dimensional maps, where analysts could follow persons of interest as if a drone were hovering over them at all times,” writes Christopher Mims in the Wall Street Journal. Everything is made legible via real-time tracking; all profiles and patterns are revealed via data-driven analysis. Instead of police (and their private partners) needing to navigate a chaotic and multifarious city, “smart” systems promise to impose machine-like order, as though the city could be made to function as predictably and programmatically as the computers that analyze it.

Other cities around the world have looked at the Domain Awareness System and similar types of control centers and analytics platforms as models for how to govern urban society. As the tech advances, more powerful hardware and software can be added on and integrated into these systems. The captured city provides infinite possibilities for upgrades.

For instance, the ominously named Persistent Surveillance Systems already markets aerial surveillance technology originally created for U.S. military use in Iraq. By flying in orbit over the city, “the plane’s wide-angle cameras captured an area of roughly 30 square miles and continuously transmitted real-time images to analysts on the ground,” according to an investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek. This hardware could, for example, easily plug into the Domain Awareness System, thus providing full coverage from the street to the sky.

Such attempts to seize cities exemplify what Donna Haraway, back in 1989, foresaw as the emerging “informatics of domination” wherein existing power hierarchies like racism, sexism, and colonialism are reformulated and reproduced materially and ideologically. However, the Domain Awareness System’s centralized methods of command and authority are still stuck in old centralized ideas of how to control a city. It is premised on installing a cybernetic brain and a God’s eye — a City Processing Unit that does not take full advantage of the “scary new networks” that Haraway evoked.

For that next step in dominion — one that is more diffusely deployed and less obviously oppressive — we must look at what’s being constructed by the most dedicated architect of the captured city: Amazon. The most powerful upgrades to urban surveillance used to come primarily from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, but today, corporations like Amazon roll out systems that the FBI and CIA would have literally killed to install. (Now they can just pay a monthly fee for access.) Amazon’s networked doorbell camera Ring and its associated Neighbors app are an example. Ring appeals to consumers conceived as a privileged group who see the police as intrinsically on their side and “have nothing to hide” itself, promising them safety and security in a convenient package. But what it really delivers is expanded powers to police forces. Ring has partnered with hundreds of police departments across the U.S. to supply discounted or free devices to citizens. While Amazon profits from data storage fees and monopolization in yet another market, police have a distributed network of cameras that they can tap into through a “law enforcement dashboard” provided by Ring and connected to its app Neighbors. By selling (or giving away) these devices as consumer goods, Amazon and police can avoid the public oversight that would normally come with a mass proliferation of cameras, especially throughout residential neighborhoods, because each Ring is willingly installed by an individual household.

The most insidious aspect of the captured city is how much of its militaristic power is hidden from public view. It won’t be a matter of police squads patrolling highly populated areas with assault rifles and tactical gear, or protesters being “pacified” in the streets by specialized riot squads. Its everyday practices of surveillance and control — such as the data harvesting of StingRay mock cell towers or the scoring algorithms that influence police practice — will be largely invisible. Even politicians and planners may not know of their existence, let alone be granted access. The militarization of police (detailed in this ACLU report) is another name for the tactics and weapons of war coming home, channeled into our cities and their use expanded with no apparent limit. “Eventually, as military ways of thinking run rampant,” Stephen Graham warns in Cities Under Siege, “there is nothing left in the world that is not a target for the full spectrum of symbolic or actual violence mobilized through the latest ideologies of permanent, boundless war.”

If the proponents of the captured city have their way, there will be no escape from it. But people will slip through the cracks of an imperfect cage. Glitches and errors will make space for exploits. Those who are ingenious and industrious enough will find ways to avoid, deceive, or subvert even the most totalitarian system. We should support these instances of resistance while also recognizing they are necessary but insufficient. As Os Keyes deftly argues with regards to the infrastructure of facial recognition, even a success like banning the software is the first step not the last: “We should celebrate when we succeed — but we should also understand that ‘success’ doesn’t just look like putting the technology in the grave. It looks like grinding down the bones so it could never be resurrected.”

Escaping the captured city will require a similar siege of resistance to dismantle the many layers of technological and ideological infrastructure. It will require us to target with ruthless criticism the producers and users of surveillance systems, the supply and demand for urban control. It will require us to know our enemies and name them as such.

If smart urbanism as a socio-technical imaginary teaches us anything, it’s that these models of how to run a city do not just emerge organically. The market for these ideas is manufactured by their purveyors and proponents. Their appeal is artificially induced and repeatedly reinforced. They are propped up by a false air of inevitably. It’s time to declare that, as a corporate fantasy, the smart city is dead — if it was even alive in the first place. We should ensure the captured city meets the same fate.

Jathan Sadowski is a research fellow in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab in the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University.