Smart cities - built by whom for whom?

Everywhere you look now there seem to be hints of a sci-fi future emerging in our cities. Will this future be built by the people for the wellbeing of the people, or by corporations for the wellbeing of their bottom-line and shareholders? Or a little of column A, a little of column B?

From smart meters and smart assistants in our homes, to loyalty cards and payments by mobile phone in stores, to testing driverless cars (way behind London's Dockland Light Railway, driverless since the '80s!), to state and security cameras everywhere, to the all-pervasive information super-highway in our pockets offering a layer of interaction with the world around us not possible before. The future is arriving now (odd statement that!).

Sci-fi novels, TV and films have long been a way to explore the ramifications of these possible futures. William Gibson's classic Neuromancer. Richard K. Morgan's Altered Carbon. Westworld. Person of Interest. Bladerunner. Fifth Element! A vision that stays with me from one (or multiple?) of these sources is that of a plucky protagonist being bombarded with ads for services as they make their way through a shopping centre, holo and physical screens adjusting to fit to the data held for our hero. Not that far fetched from how the web seems to function these days if you don't take precautions!

So, what kind of smart infrastructure do we want for ourselves and how can we achieve it? Is it already too late to prevent the vision I just described? We already see signs that different societies may choose different routes, for example with European legislative framework tilting more to the rights of individuals over corporations than American, while more authoratarian-leaning states develop parallel infrastructure of their own.

A few different moves into this space have caught my attention, the first example below spurring this blog post:

I find all of this a mixture of exciting, fascinating and scary. I instinctively trust the grass-roots people-led decentralised visions more than those presented by the world's tech giants with whom we have already signed Faustian bargains swapping convenience for all the details of our digital selves... but this may say as much about me as the actual visions they present!

I guess the questions that emerge for me are:

[1] Blockchain's proposed smart city in Nevada
[2] BBC article about [1]
[3] Sidewalk Labs
[4] The Guardian article about Sidewalk Labs' ill-fated development in Toronto
[5] BBC article about Amazon Fresh
[6] "Economic Networks" Write.as blog
[7] http://mikorizal.org/

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Originally published on my Write.as blog
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