Welcome to the city of the future, designed by Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary.
It’s a city where data and algorithms will merge imperceptibly with the physical world. In various plans—though some have later been rescinded—Sidewalk has described its vision for the project: Cameras lining the streets could track and collate objects and people. Heated sidewalks could recognize foot traffic and feed those insights back into retail projections. And an identity management system could meter usage of basic services such as housing and transportation (while discovering financing and investment opportunities along the way). These exciting new developments supposedly deliver more comfortable, efficient lives for residents, who would probably consider Sidewalk’s harvesting their data a fair trade, as long as they didn’t think too hard about it.
Alphabet is hardly alone in its desire to design, build, and operate cities and neighborhoods from the ground-up. A decade ago, it was technology giants like IBM and Cisco pushing smart cities; today there are entities as varied as Bill Gates, Y Combinator, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, along with a host of more modestly ambitious startups such as Culdesac, Venn, and Cityblock.
Governments are partnering with companies like these to build roughly 1,000 smart cities over the next decade at a cost of trillions of dollars. With fewer and fewer opportunities to monopolize our eyeballs, investors are eyeing cities as the next frontier. Perhaps owning how the world’s urbanites “sleep, eat, shop, ride, work, and live” might yet achieve the lofty valuations they’re come to expect.
Who controls the smart city?
But convenience and efficiency come at a price, one that may be higher than anyone expected. To see a glimpse of this future, it’s instructive to look halfway around the world to China, where 50% of these smart cities will be built. In Kashgar, once a stop on the Silk Road and today the capital of the autonomous region of Xinjiang, home to China’s muslim minority Uyghurs, digital surveillance is total. A single street may have 20 cameras tracking each pedestrian’s movements.
These cameras track, classify, and cross-check objects and faces as well, attaching them to a national social credit system, akin to a credit score for one’s entire life. Used to discipline and punish, transgressions that can negatively impact one’s score include support for Tibet, excessive video gaming, and even jaywalking. Nonconformists may be arrested and sent to reeducation camps such as the ones in Xinjiang, or be denied access to public services—like the tens of millions of Chinese banned from flying, or the hundreds of millions currently locked down due to coronavirus.
Technologies of social control and “digital authoritarianism” are proliferating more rapidly than even the for-profit smart city model. Boise State University professor Steven Feldstein has found that 54 countries—representing 60% of the world’s population—have embraced pervasive surveillance, sourced from a coalition of willing vendors ranging from China’s controversial networking giant Huawei to U.K. arms maker BAE to familiar names like Amazon, Microsoft, and, yes, Google. (Sidewalk has proposed a social credit system of its own.) Customers closer to home in the United States include the NYPD and public housing in the Bronx. Silicon Valley has wasted no time hopping on the trend.
While the authoritarian Chinese context is irrefutably different than Google’s, it nevertheless demonstrates how the smart city centralizes power and control.
In Toronto, where Sidewalk intends to put its ideas into practice, the company has repeatedly asked the government for exemptions on behalf of its technology, despite technically being a mere vendor to a public agency. In reality, major governance decisions–including the collection and ownership of data—were made by Sidewalk, and initially rubber-stamped by Waterfront Toronto (the government entity overseeing the project), which was excited to be in such close proximity to “innovation.” (In an agreement reached in October 2019, the latter has since tried to regain control.) But Sidewalk won’t stop in Toronto; leaked documents reveal plans for Denver, Detroit, and the Bay Area as well.
In Sidewalk’s smart cities, what happens to housing, transit, and healthcare when public goods are no longer profitable? If history is any guide, companies may try to build monopolies and starve consumers of alternatives. The European Commission, for example, has repeatedly fined Google for billions of euros for anticompetitive practices; what happens when it’s a matter of switching your home rather than phone?
The city is not a lab
Companies may try to manipulate our behavior as well. Remember Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to influence voting patterns? Now imagine what its successors could do with the hopes and fears of Amazon Ring owners, who unwittingly share their digital lives with Facebook and Google.
Or these firms may simply decide to pull the plug. Google infuriated owners of Nest’s Revolv home automation hub when it discontinued the product with little warning in 2016, rendering it useless. More recently, Sonos instituted a “recycling” policy that bricks perfectly functioning devices in exchange for a discount. In the not-so-smart cities of the future, you’d better upgrade, or else. Prudent city leaders have a duty to take a step back before unleashing unproven, and perhaps actively harmful, technologies on their stakeholders.
The city is not a lab; it is not the public’s interest to subsidize private companies’ experiments with little to no oversight. (To say nothing of constructing a surveillance state.) Even major consultancies such as Deloitte have found that most smart cities have failed to improve people’s lives, despite costing governments tens of billions of dollars.
For the reasons above, Georgetown University law professor Julie Cohen argues that the struggle for data rights and privacy is not just about the prevention of harm. It’s the foundation for empowerment—the right to experiment and innovate even when more powerful actors disagree with your ideas and actions.
What might a smart city that starts with empowerment look like?
The World Health Organization found that empowerment is enhanced through a few key levers: 1) supportive groups, 2) meaningful community participation, and 3) resource mobilization.
It starts with people and their ability to participate and mobilize—not new technologies offering dubious benefits and incremental convenience, simply handed down to residents. Empowerment-based approaches have helped marginalized individuals—ranging from slum dwellers to low-income workers—build social capital, receive more responsible public services, and improve their health.
Germany’s baugruppen (“building group”) model is one place to understand empowerment-by-design.
On its face, Berlin’s R50 looks no different than a typical apartment building. But its origins diverge radically from a traditional development project.
First, a few neighbors built a supportive “building group.” Their goal: gather enough friends and fellow travelers to pool their savings and commission their own apartments. In the core of this group were architects and artists, who possessed plenty of social capital they could draw upon but lacked the funds to build or buy homes in central Berlin.
Germany’s baugruppen (“building group”) model is one place to understand empowerment-by-design.
Next, this fledgling baugruppen meaningfully participated in the purpose and design of the building. Assisted by their architect, the group met every two weeks for a year and a half, crowding into a cramped office to collectively agree upon a design.
Through this work, the group uncovered their desire to bolster social support as a key goal of the project. To do so, they prioritized shared community spaces and walkways for their families, despite the extra cost.
Finally, the group mobilized a set of internal and external resources to build their development. They purchased shares of the building before construction had started, which convinced Nürnberg’s UmweltBank, Europe’s self-styled “greenest” bank, to provide financing. Their innovative model also allowed them to take advantage of Berlin’s policy pilot to encourage non-speculative development, helping them win a highly competitive lot at a discount.
Within a few years of building R50 and living together, residents noticed stronger community bonds. As one resident exclaimed, “now that people live here and we see the children grow up . . . [the baugruppen] really works in a nice way.” Due to their community-oriented architecture, it’s easy to “pop over to a neighbor’s for coffee . . . [it] becomes more intimate than crossing a hallway.”
Furthermore, the baugruppen model has enabled them to acquire housing—a basic need—more affordably. Without a developer middleman requiring a 10% to 20% return or marketing and sales costs that reach up to 10% of total development budgets, R50’s units are around 20% less expensive than the neighborhood average, even after including the cost of expensive community spaces and walkways.
Cities need technology—as a means, not an end
What makes baugruppen so smart isn’t technology. It’s the combination of support, participation, and mobilization toward a shared goal, in this case housing. Technology can play a part—an important one!—but it should never determine those goals.
In the case of R50, baugruppen, and other so-called “cohousing” schemes, new building techniques such as modular prefabrication or Mosaic’s machine-learning-driven DIY instructions could simplify housing construction to the point where members could build their homes themselves—or at least radically reduce the cost of using an architect.
As groups get bigger, it becomes harder to make decisions. Consensus-building tools such as Loomio and Decidim have been used to speed up and improve the quality of large group decision-making. There remains a huge opportunity to build social networks designed for real-world communities rather than kludging together group chats and Facebook groups.
Once built, maintenance and administrative costs can also be lessened, too. These are a huge source of headache for condos and coops. To help, residents can use property management solutions to streamline cognitive overhead. Active Building’s or Bixby’s self-service platform, for instance, help renters to pay their bills and request maintenance services from property managers. Boodskapper uses artificial intelligence to make the public housing operations, such as maintenance and inspection, more efficient.
To deal with the exponential complexity of records from cooperative pooling, blockchain-powered smart contracts might help. Pilots exist to use this technology to track equity shares, manage titles, and create larger pools of capital through the use of micro-shares, which are otherwise administratively infeasible to manage.
Finally—to bring this discussion of smart cities full circle–baugruppen could form “datagruppen,” or data trusts, like those used in Barcelona. Residents pool data safely using advanced privacy-protecting methods and allow members to collectively benefit from their data. Trusts are widely seen as a vehicle to promote “data democracies” and bring more along for the technological ride—even Sidewalk Labs is a fan (although trusts are no substitute for legal rights).
The limits of empowerment
For one, cooperatives like baugruppen do not require long-term and holistic affordability. Given rising property values around the world, owners may face temptations to sell their units at speculative prices and capture that value privately. To address this issue, community land trusts (CLT) could own the underlying land and restrict resale prices through lease agreements, so hard-won baugruppen units are taken off the market and instead enable greater socioeconomic, racial, and gender diversity. CLT boards also recruit members of the local community to participate, further increasing community power and decision-making.
If we want civic or urban tech to truly be “people-centric” and to solve real problems, they must do the hard work of building civic capacity.
More broadly, tools like CLTs fit into what Georgetown Law professor Sheila Foster calls the Co-City Framework, which describes the creation and governance of shared and common resources arising out of collective action. Beyond rent, baugruppen could also participate in consumer utility, food, and transit cooperatives to further drive down the costs of basic needs, as proposed in models like Community Cooperative.
Unfortunately, low-income or historically marginalized groups likely have fewer resources to begin with, even with pooling. In order for empowerment methods to not exclude, inclusive leaders must consider bolder strategies.
First, regulatory incentives could increase building group sizes to increase the financial feasibility of these projects. Policies could include density bonuses, reduced minimum lot size requirements, parking waivers, and other zoning exceptions to permanently affordable and empowering housing models, for instance. Like baugruppen, such scoped deregulation could allow developers to use space more efficiently, perhaps inspired by design innovations like coliving and micro-units—involving the sharing of common spaces and amenities or the use of multi-use furniture.
Ultimately, more units can be built and more resources can be pooled, reducing per-unit costs. As a result, lenders will look more favorably upon these projects. Munich, for instance, offers special regulatory incentives to cooperative housing, regularly favoring these cooperative developers in the sale of public land and offering 20% to 40% discounts on those transactions.
Second, tools like crowdfunding allow projects to pool donations or loans from individuals outside of the project to finance it. It’s proven to be a valuable tool for Oakland’s Permanent Real Estate Cooperative, which covers roughly a quarter of its $200,000 annual maintenance budget through sales of cooperative shares to nonresidents, returning a dividend of 1.5% to investors. Furthermore, financing platforms can help social impact investors—including foundations, Community Revitalization Act-motivated banks, pension funds, and philanthropists—quickly search for and fund projects that align with their values. Platforms like Faithify, Small Change, and BlocPower help raise money for nonprofit housing cooperatives and other mission-oriented housing initiatives for vulnerable communities.
Finally, cooperatives can partner with entities with a portfolio of well-performing assets, creating collateral for leverage. Potential allies include community development corporations or real estate investment cooperatives (REICs). One REIC, the Northeast Investment Cooperative (NEIC) in Minneapolis, not only pools money from local residents, but also collectively buys, rehabs, and manages commercial and residential property in the community. Due to its ownership of thriving, income-generating assets, NEIC has successfully obtained financing for more buildings from local banks to scale its mission of developing even more cooperatives.
Ultimately, even with new tools, the empowerment model we’ve offered here is far less convenient and comfortable than the smart city models of today.
And yet, if we want civic or urban tech to truly be “people-centric” and to solve real problems, they must do the hard work of building civic capacity. That doesn’t mean tasks like parking management or trash collection should never be automated—far from it. New technologies have a crucial role to play in automating drudgery and allow residents to spend more time on things that matter.
But that is the “why” and “how.” Diverse groups must have the opportunity to deliberate and act on these questions. This is a task that should never be automated—certainly not by shareholder-dominated companies.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Sidewalk has released a series of iterative plans for the development and some examples may not be in the current plan, but were proposed at one time. As well, we’ve removed a reference to the data management system as “centralized,” as the data will not be controlled by Sidewalk.
Dan Wu is a privacy counsel & legal engineer at Immuta, an automated data governance platform for analytics. He’s advocated for data ethics, inclusive urban innovation, and diversity in TechCrunch, Harvard Business Review, and Bloomberg. He’s helped Fortune 500 companies, governments, and startups with data strategy. He holds a Harvard JD and PhD. Find more resources on cities, ethics, and tech here.
Greg Lindsay is the director of applied research at NewCities, and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion. He is also a nonresident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative; a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab; and a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management. His exhibition Open Collectives—in conjunction with MIT’s Rafi Segal, Sarah Williams, and Marisa Moran Jahn—will premiere at the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale in May.