Who’s winning the race to shape our urban future?

In the past month I’ve visited two cities — Barcelona and Beijing — pursuing drastically different directions to the smart, technology-enabled city of the future. I know which of the urban visions I prefer; and I know which one I think will prevail.

There is no doubt that digital tech, in the form of big data, internet of things, transport algorithms and wearables — will increasingly shape our cities and how we live in them. But who will control the development and deployment of these technologies in the metropolitan arena? And what will that mean for us as citizens?

For Barcelona, the smart city focus is on the ‘right to the smart city’, empowering the citizen and restraining the big IT companies. Led by Francesca Bria, the city’s Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Office, their approach draws on participatory politics and is also informed by a plethora of European Commission-funded pilot projects, which have favoured citizen-centric approaches.

For Beijing, the smart city drive is much more about enhancing efficiency and increasing consumption. It leans more heavily on e-commerce foundations, and is characterised by a close relationship with the Chinese tech giants, Baidu, Alibaba and Huawei

So, we have these competing smart city framings: the European liberal, social democratic tradition versus the Asian collectivist and top-down approach. This is not quite ‘the clash of civilisations’, but it certainly highlights a divergence in approaches and attitudes to the technology that will shape our future cities.

Take facial recognition. At the beginning of December, China’s new facial recognition law came into force. This means if you want a SIM-card and mobile phone, you have to have a facial recognition scan. And on my recent visit to China, facial recognition was everywhere. Chongqing, where I was lecturing, has the most CCTV cameras per head in the world (168 cameras per 1,000 people according to a recent study by Comparitech). In Beijing, entry and exit to most buildings was by facial recognition, and in other parts of the country facial scanning has replaced ticketing on public transit.

I was scanned everywhere I went, and it was clear that this tracking was not just from cameras, but included sensors, wifi, and the pre-eminence of payment by mobile phone. In Beijing it was sometimes difficult to pay with cash and everyone constantly tapped to pay with their phones through Apps like AliPay and WeChat, making their lives easier, also but leaving a very detailed digital record.

Despite this huge apparatus for surveillance and control, most people I spoke to in China (students, academics and officials) weren’t overly concerned. They shrugged and accepted it as part of the deal: life is getting better; cities are easier to live in; this is the new China.

In the West, we are also making increasing use of these tracking and surveillance technologies, whether for targeting advertising or for fighting crime. But there is vigorous debate about privacy rights and the limits of intrusion. San Francisco has already banned use of facial recognition, with other US cities following suit. The Barcelona city administration argues that data produced by the citizen belongs to the citizen.

Whilst in Europe and the US we are having this very necessary, but episodic and patchwork, debate about technology in cities, China charges on. Unencumbered by the messy social conversations and piecemeal investment characterising smart city development in the West, China is deploying at scale, and rapidly. Baidu and Ali-Baba’s ‘city brains’ are combining real-time data with AI to manage city infrastructure. There will be a full-scale national rollout of 5G by the end of 2020. And, according to Deloitte, half of all the smart cities being built worldwide are in China.

China is accelerating past us in the development and deployment of urban technology. While we are still doing pilot projects in Europe, they will implement, refine and scale their offering, and then their businesses will bring it here. Already, in just a few short years, Chinese companies have grown to be the dominant presence at the Smart City Expo World Congress, the big international trade show.

I think it is impossible to hold back this tide of technology. We should certainly try to shape it through the kind of citizen participation and ‘digital sovereignty’ espoused by Barcelona. But digital technology is often invisible and insidious, arriving stealthily, with companies asking permission after the fact. And history suggests that the more advanced technology will win, whether it’s guns against spears, light bulbs against candlewicks, or cars against carriages.

So, if you want to understand how we will live in our cities in the future, look at who is winning the urban technology race today.

Chongqing has the most CCTV cameras per capita of any city in the world. Photo: Peter Madden

Futures for cities, places, & real estate. Professor of Practice in City Futures, Cardiff University; Chair, Building with Nature www.ecovivid.com @thepmadden

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