For whom is the city being developed?

“Smart city” is the new buzzword in urban development, and people are expecting great things. Nevertheless, researchers remind us that development must benefit those living in urban environments, not just the cities and technology companies.

 

Tampere, like many other Finnish and international cities, has declared itself a “smart city”. This means that the city is being developed using the opportunities afforded by digital technology in all fields of urban development, including everything from transportation infrastructure to environmental planning and health services.

Information technology is expected to serve and unite city dwellers in an entirely new way. There will be tailored, location-based services, round-the-clock health counselling and enhanced participation for those who may have previously been excluded.

While this may sound good, development also has unpredictable consequences.

“There are always consequences. When the car was invented, the idea was that it takes you from one place to another. Now we know that cars play a part in many other things in addition to that. It has also been noticed that when technology designed to serve distinct purposes is given to people, they will always interpret and use it in surprising ways. Only the users will give technology its ultimate makeup and purpose, which is often not quite what was intended,” says Tuomo Särkikoski, a researcher working on the ROSE service robot research project at the University of Tampere.

 

Smart technology is also slightly more unpredictable due to several different interests competing in the same field. Commercial operators want to sell their products and the city wants to improve the availability of services and guide people to serve themselves. However, there are the individuals who want to participate in society and buy services, but also wish to retain their privacy.

Jukka Viljanen, university lecturer in public law and adjunct professor of human rights law, predicts that the dividing line between service provision and privacy will still be sought several times before different courts and tribunals.

“Legislation is always at least one step behind technology, and this also applies to human rights and the protection of privacy. It is impossible to foresee all possible scenarios caused by using smart technology,” Viljanen says.

He calls for authorities, companies and individuals to take responsibility for their actions amidst all of these possibilities.

“People trust commercial operators not to misuse personal client information. They accept various terms of use without reading them because it is easier than going through long lists of conditions. People hardly think of the consequences. This is why companies must stand by their data protection promises,” Viljanen argues.

 

Viljanen also reminds us that knowledge is power.

“Collected and combined information can be used for profiling, which can be used for anything. The French presidential election is a recent example; Emmanuel Macron’s campaign was targeted at an audience that was known to consist of potential voters,” he continues.

This is done increasingly often with commercial intentions. People living with smart technology are continuously targeted by a specifically focused bombardment of advertising, especially in the urban environment.

“My own ideal urban environment is a marketplace where I can wander around from one booth to another. Nowadays, the marketplaces of cities are more and more frequently set up for particular events, and commercial interests are always clearly visible. It is a constant competition for souls. The same occurs in the virtual world,” Särkikoski points out.

Senior research fellow Jaana Parviainen, a specialist on the relationship between technology and embodiment, sees the situation in a slightly more pessimistic light. According to Parviainen, the competition for souls has already been lost.

“It seems that we as consumers are no longer sovereign users; instead, we are increasingly often being used. We are directed with data collection and algorithms. In terms of the possibility for individuals to affect this situation, that ship has already sailed.”

 

Parviainen regards the development of smart cities to be heading in two contradictory directions.

“On the one hand, there is the utopian idea about an automated system in which the actions of city dwellers are completely programmed. On the other hand, there is a vision of a living space in which community spirit and small-scale activities prosper, and inhabitants take care of common spaces. In my opinion, these two objectives do not meet, but both are still being developed.”

Parviainen argues that the strategies for developing smart cities are essentially always commercial.

“The objective is to organise chaos as efficiently as possible and in a way that would further economic growth and attract sponsors.”

One dream is also to create opportunities for local companies to succeed. There is talk about uberisation and new startup opportunities. Parviainen sees issues with this:

“Successful startups are often quickly bought up by large, global companies. They do not develop local entrepreneurship.”

Such ambitions might not create work or livelihoods, either. The flipside of uberisation is “workership”, entrepreneurship‑like employment without growth opportunities.

 

There are positive sides to this smart development, however. When done properly, it can truly increase urban people’s equality and opportunities to participate.

“Technology can level the playing field when it comes to mobility and disability, for example. It enables people to do things and participate in society without having to be in a certain place at a certain time,” Viljanen points out.

Researchers say that in order to fulfill these good objectives, it is important to pay attention to how technological tools are handed over to city dwellers. Citizens must truly benefit from them and have access to services; large companies should not be the only ones to benefit.

Eventually, some kind of internet activism may arise to ensure this. Issues around data protection, equality and revenue logic are already being discussed to such a great extent that somewhere someone is presumably devising answers to these questions and taking the next steps.

If there is no other force, at least some other trend will define – or even change – the direction of development.

“New themes and names are regularly made up for urban development so that it remains interesting and attractive. In the 2000s, the themes were ‘creative cities’ and ‘the creative economy’. Now we talk about ‘smart cities’. In ten years, the next theme will be something completely different,” Parviainen says.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Illustration: Emmi Suominen
Translation: Sanni Irjala