Architecture + Arts

Smart Cities are Better…for Whom?

From security and streamlined services to racial bias and mass surveillance, what does it mean for smart cities to be better? Whose...

Written by Bianca Carague · 2 min read >
Smart Cities Bianca Carague Architect Your Life Blog

From security and streamlined services to racial bias and mass surveillance, what does it mean for smart cities to be better? Whose better?

The other day, I learned that the US and Singapore would be helping turn Manila into a smart city, thanks to Mayor Isko Moreno.

For a city like Manila, going “smart” would be game-changing. For a city all too familiar with long lines, heavy traffic, floods, and petty crime, some added security and convenience would go a long way; in the most simplified sense, streets fitted with sensors could make all the difference.

Living Lab

In cities like Eindhoven in the Netherlands, Stratumseind, the street known to be lined with clubs and bars, is linked to a “Living Lab”, a research and measuring system intended to make the area safer in the evening and attractive during the day. Fitted with a constellation of diverse sensors and cameras able to collect all kinds of data, the Living Lab helps keeps the streets safe because heat and sound sensors allow the police to see through a screen if there are unusual spikes in volume and if those sound patterns coincide with human activity.  This makes the police more efficient at identifying areas of violence and intervening before situations escalate.

Although officials claim that only collective, not individual or personal data is collected, how can we know for sure? The issue remains: what are we willing to give up in exchange for security and convenience? What transparency and protection policies need to be put in place so our privacy is respected and our data remains ours?

What are we willing to give up in exchange for security and convenience?

Apart from enabling the police to take curative action based on the data they collect, Philips in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology are developing ways to proactively affect people’s mood, behavior and self-awareness through the strategic shaping of the street, variations of lighting color and intensity and soon, smell. Shaped like a double-ended funnel, where Stratumseind is narrowest in the center, passers-by are essentially herded like cows; their data is collected more efficiently. Street lamps illuminate the street in a gradient of red to blue to red, controlling people’s temperaments to minimize aggression at night. This capacity for strategic behavioral affect is the second reason the “smarting” of cities should not be taken lightly. However positive the Dutch city’s use of data is, it won’t be the same for all.

Big Brother Surveillance

In Chinese cities, sensorship has turned into censorship. Citizens are surveilled 24/7; George Orwell’s Big Brother surveillance is turning from science fiction into social reality.

The recent Hong Kong protesters used lasers to block facial recognition as Hong Kong officials attempt to set up surveillance systems similar to those in mainland China.

If smart city technology is supposed to make a city better, who does it make it better for?

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that so-called state-of-the-art sensors and cameras used in self-driving cars, are better at detecting people with lighter skin. In other words, racial bias in technology puts darker skinned people at greater risk of getting hit by a self-driving car.

If Manila is to receive foreign help in transforming the city into a smart one, what measures will be taken so that the sensors are programmed to cater to the average Filipino? What assures us that the technology implemented won’t discriminate against Filipinos’ naturally brown skin?

Racial bias in technology puts darker skinned people at greater risk.

The technology embedded within smart cities truly has the potential to transform the lives of many for the better, from streamlining payment processes to strategizing around the effects of climate change. However, it’s because the technology is so powerful that it’s imperative that the right policies are in place so its beneficiaries do not instead become victims reduced to commodities. It’s imperative that these technologies are developed not just for globalism, but true universalism.

Written by Bianca Carague
Bianca Carague is a designer with an interest in cognitive science, politics and well-being. Currently pursuing a Master’s in Social Design in Design Academy Eindhoven, her work focuses on understanding the environmental, cultural and socio-political implications of design and technology through a speculative lens. When she first started breeding insects for human consumption in 2016, she realized she had a knack for making space for conversations about topics and practices that are typically considered taboo. She is also a scuba diver, piano player, Skillshare teacher and ENFP-A. Profile