From Pixabay.

Who Owns the Smart City: Corporations or Governments?

I’ve sensed a lot of anxiety about smart cities as of late.

It’s quite palpable in my graduate seminars when students and professors discuss big data—seen as the not-so-distant baby cousin of big brother. Data, after all, is the lynchpin of the smart city since the smart city is built upon information and communication technology (ICT). Whether we are talking about the smart grid and renewable energy, real-time ride-sharing and ride-hailing apps, or street lamps that can detect gun shots and alert the appropriate authorities, we are talking about data.

Data should not scare us, though. Nor should we reject it because of some romantic dreams of living harmoniously with nature in a more “natural” way (whatever that means). If anything, it is this treasure trove of data—the ability to collect potentially meaningful information in real time, present it in (visually) compelling ways, and operationalize it for some public good—that will get us closer to nature. Or rather, it is the smart city that might actually keep the globe from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius. Per Capita CO2 emissions in the USA average 17 tons . . . and the IPCC and UNEP recommends per capita emissions of 2 tons for the world by 2050. So what might get us to that [unrealistic] goal? The data-driven evolution of the city? Or a hipster-driven fad around permaculture? I’ll place my money on data (while also encouraging permaculture, of course!).

Despite the work and good intentions of the robust environmental movement in the United States for the past 45 years or so, the United States remains at the top of per capita CO2 emissions.

But as I said, people are worried about data, and for somewhat good reasons. The worry is that this data will simply become the new domain of capital. Karl Marx and Marxist economists have stated quite clearly that Capitalism demands new frontiers, new spaces, new territories in which to drop its super-efficient machine of exploitation. When capital in 19th-century England bumped up against finite walls of its territory, where did it go? Abroad. And when capital had seemingly traversed the entire globe, where did it expand next? Into the immaterial world of the internet.

Internet of Things conceptual map (

Data, and its ability to manipulate the built environment, seems to be the new frontier. Just look at the all attention that the Internet of Things (IoT) has been getting. It is no accident that McKinsey & Company, the premier consulting and business trends projections firm, has been writing about it as of late, predicting that it will be a $11.1 TRILLION industry (globally) EACH YEAR by 2025. That’s BIG. Just to provide some perspective, know that the US economy totaled about $17.5 trillion in 2014.

We can see the capital-markets drooling, then, at the amount of money to be made off this inundation of data-driven innovation—innovation built upon data produced by you. But again, I see this data—democratically produced by millions and millions of people—as an opportunity to manage our way into a sustainable future. Consider this: the Environmentalists (a label I proudly wear) have been with us en masse since the 1970s. For 45 years at least they have been actively trying to steer the world’s largest economy with one of the largest ecological footprints towards true sustainability. And they have largely failed. The environmental movement put most of its eggs in the basket of asking people to change their behavior. And again, in terms of aggregate numbers (total carbon emissions, average footprint per capita, soil erosion, lbs of synthetic chemicals dumped in our waterways, lbs of meat eaten per capita) they have failed.

Data, as I see it, could be our saving grace. It could provide the means by which the environmental movement finally begins to make progress against the headwinds of apathy, ignorance, and the utter complexity modern human life—a complexity that data makes simpler, meaningful, manipulatable, and powerful.

So, who owns this data? Who owns the smart city built upon this data? It’s an important question, one that we need to answer now, lest the power I sense in the smart city and big data movement become just another diffused fad of gadgets that we show off to friends and that make a few entrepreneurs a whole lot of money. I think I have an idea, and it is very simple. It is not fleshed out entirely yet, but no matter. Let’s start the conversation. That’s more important. Here it is:

  1. Corporations and individuals innovate.
  2. Governments shepherd.
David Harvey is great! But let’s not casually use him to quickly dismiss the smart city movement (“A View from Federal Hill with David Harvey” by Daniel Lobo — Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

That’s it. These two points warrant guidelines and detailed explications, but I will briefly explain what I mean. First, we need to stop broadly vilifying corporations and individuals who see big data as an economic opportunity to innovate. I see this again and again in academic essays on the smart city movement, and it makes me nauseous. I can smell it a mile away because it is such an overdone, simplified argument built upon the same theorists (David Harvey, Neil Brenner, et. al) and the same trite, academic requiems (“privatization,” “panopticon,” “discipline,” etc.). The sustainability movement desperately needs innovation, and it is data that can really fuel this transformative shift towards a radically sustainable society. Sure, some corporations seem to be pursuing somewhat worrisome markets with this big data (such as crime “detection”), but let’s not categorically reject the idea of corporations using this data to their benefit, which might very well benefit us—consumers, individuals, citizens and planetizens. And note why I include individuals: many case studies from the smart city movement suggest that it need not be always corporations who lead this innovation, but creative individuals who simply come up with some awesome ideas and make it happen.

Second (and this is key), governments shepherd the development of the smart city. Governments of the people, mind you. This will namely be local governments—city councils, economic development departments, transportation departments, planning and community outreach departments, and public utilities. They own the data (i.e., we own the data). And in good faith, they willingly share this anonymous data with local innovators. Made public, crafty individuals or for-profit corporations are free to leverage this data in ways that improves efficiency, augments quality of life services, and deeply connects people. If corporations can glean profits from these improved efficiencies, then great! Let em’ do it.

Governments also make clear where we need innovation. This is important. If we do not carefully define the actual smart city needs of the public and the environment, then I fear that the smart city will simply become a smart phone folder of cool apps similar to Foursquare. Foursquare is cool in that it does connect people and places in ways that could previously only happen through occasional hearsay, but it’s hardly going to get industrial societies in line with our needed carbon reductions and decreased footprints. Governments need to say—loudly and clearly—we need the smart grid. Someone innovate. We need on-demand ride-share. Someone innovate. We need a logistics network that quickly and cheaply moves fresh, organic food from the hinterlands into the city center. Someone please innovate.

So, again. Governments shepherd. They set the parameters, and they protect the data by owning the data (i.e., we own the data). And crafty individuals and for-profit corporations are free to respond to our societal needs. After all, they are the ones who innovate.