Some of the most symbolic images of the past year have been of empty city centers. Deserted images Times Square, Covent Garden, Champs-Élysées, and Shibuya commercial district would have been impossible to capture before the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders that COVID-19 brought about. Our cities have felt the greatest impact of the pandemic and this has forced city managers to reflect on how it could have been different in order to consider what should change in the future. Now a new post-COVID urban agenda is emerging to safeguard and futureproof our cities against all kinds of threats, and at the center of this debate is our maturing smart technology landscape.
Smart cities were a growing trend for the last decade or more, long before the pandemic emptied our busiest streets and squares. Sensor and surveillance infrastructure was already emerging in our most progressive cities where radiply evolving digital twins represented the push towards urban digitization. When the COVID-19 epidemic became a global pandemic almost a year ago, data from the advanced digital infrastructure of our smartest cities provided little more than a novel representation of how severe the situation was. At least for most countries around the world.
In China, mass surveillance using AI-enabled video surveillance technology was already common place before COVID-19 and the pandemic saw a sharp expansion of such infrastructure and other tracking technology. Data from over 200 million video surveillance cameras around the country feed into a central database alongside payment and social media information to allow the government to track the movement of people in urban areas. Despite years of criticism over mass surveillance, China’s digital infrastrucutre formed the basis of the most advanced and effective epidemic control system anywhere in the world.
“Monitoring is already everywhere [in Chinese cities]. The epidemic has just made that monitoring, which we don’t normally see during ordinary times, more obvious,” Chen Weiyu, Shanghai resident, told The Guardian. “I don’t know what will happen when the epidemic is over. I don’t dare imagine it.”
For political reasons, what is possible in Chinese cities is not necessarily possible in the rest of the world. Public resistance in Toronto, for example, clearly played a big part in the cancelation of Google’s infamous quayside smart city project as the city’s residents rejected the perceived intentions of the ‘big tech’ company. In San Diego, CA, the city’s mayor, Kevin Faulconer, ordered sensors and cameras on the city’s 3,200 smart streetlights to be deactivated until an ordinance is put in place to govern the programme more inclusively. Oakland, CA, was the first US city to create a privacy advisory commission to oversee such technology and Portland, OR, went a step further by banning the use of facial recognition by city departments and private companies altogether.
The benefits of smart city technologies go far beyond controlling the pandemic. While there is momentum for people tracking and monitoring that will help control the ongoing crisis, the other benefits of the technology will persist long after the pandemic is over, as will the debate over their privacy implications.
Here, efficiency, safety, security, and environmental responsibility will be in direct conflict with privacy, which ultimately means that cities will demand smart technology and insist that it is governed properly, with the rights of the citizens taking center-stage. The desire and capabilities of ‘big tech’ must be harnessed with a layer of inclusive government oversight in order for smart cities to reach their potential.
“[In light of the pandemic] there is a momentum for the digital agenda in cities – not any digital agenda, but one that is inclusive, addressing the digital divide; ethical, placing digital rights at the forefront; and green, making the linkages between the digital and the ecological transition,” says Milou Jansen, Coordinator of the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights core team. “The downside of this is that, if there is not active leadership by public institutions to bring the public debate in this direction, the discussion around digitalization can easily fall into technocratic considerations that lead to business-as-usual in the tech field in cities.”