The pandemic smart city
Updated: Apr 30
Ola Söderström, 28.4.2020
Note: An expanded version of this post with other texts from our team on the situation in South Africa, Singapore and India will form a forthcoming special issue in a journal that we are presently preparing.
Household census and service delivery control by the NGO Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading in the township of Khayelitsha, Cape Town (photo by the author)
Our project team is scattered across different countries (South Africa, Singapore, India, UK and Switzerland). The pandemic and the different forms of lockdown we are witnessing arrived where we work and live like a wave at different moments in time. Lockdown happened first in Singapore and Switzerland because of their proximity respectively to China and Italy. The UK, due to the erratic crisis management by its government, came last. But now we, all nine of us, have been working from home for weeks, observing day by day how the response to the pandemic is closely intertwined with different layers of the smart city. Institutions, organisations and people we are working with have in recent weeks stopped, reshaped or reoriented their activities. The technologies, infrastructures, data and initiatives in which they are involved have been re-engineered in the context of the pandemic and its governance. A pandemic smart city has emerged under our eyes.
Quite spectacularly, in many Indian cities the Integrated Command and Control Centers have for instance been turned into COVID 19 war rooms. However, this is just one part of a ‘smart’ management of the sanitary crisis, which also involves private companies, civil society organisations and ordinary citizens. My argument in this posts is that, in order to grasp the issues related to the mobilisation of data and technology in cities and to be able to critically intervene on the inequalities produced and reinforced by the pandemic, we need to pay attention to how different modes of existence of the smart city coexist and are articulated. In particular, we need to highlight the vital work of the smart city from below in cities of the Global South.
Three smart cities
The Integrated Command and Control Centres (ICCCs) which resemble (and often build upon) police surveillance centres have become the very icon of the smart city. Put in place by municipalities, often with private partnerships and governmental funding, ICCCs constitute the visible, material node of a network of sensors, underground cables, wireless communications, softwares, algorithms and processes of data production, analysis and storing. But if we define smart cities as a data- and technology-intensive form of urban governance, this is only one of its different articulated modes of existence.
States have lost their sovereignty over data and their management. Digital platforms such as airbnb, uber, deliveroo produce and process big urban data to manage their services, related to food, tourism, mobility and so on. Their control over data and code – which makes them very difficult to regulate –, their attractiveness and our banal use of them in our everyday lives are constitutive of what is now called platform urbanism, a second form of smart city, arguably more impactful than the first. Finally, there is a third more subterranean form to the smart city, created by the myriads of data- and technology-based activities developed by citizens and civil society organisations, which have an impact on how we self-govern ourselves in cities. For instance, residents in a London neighbourhood exposed to pollutants have put in place a network of sensors to measure air quality while NGOs organise the mapping of households and their access to services (electricity, toilets, water) in informal neighbourhoods in Cape Town or Delhi. In these examples, but not in all cases obviously, the third smart city is driven by data activism which produces and uses data – not produced or undisclosed by the State – to enable right claims in the context of social or environmental injustice and public inaction. The present pandemic reveals the sometimes very problematic uses, the risks but also opportunities related to these three interrelated modes of existence of the smart city.
The actually existing pandemic smart city
Asian countries were the first to use contact tracing to follow persons infected (or not) by the virus to manage the sanitary crisis and map the routes of transmission of Sars-Cov 2. Early on, Singapore designed and promoted the use of TraceTogether an app to track by automatic smartphone exchanges via bluetooth past contacts with persons tested positive. South Korea also put in place at an early stage a tracking system combining images from their vast network of CCTVs, GPS coordinates from smartphones and traces left by credit card uses. In India ICCCs and drones are used to identify, chase and punish persons not complying to the rule of the lockdown. And there are many more examples of State action on all continents mobilising smart technologies.
The second smart city is also heavily involved in the management of the pandemic as IT corporations collaborate with States in contact-tracing or launch their own initiative, like Facebook with its survey sent to the members of the community to identify those displaying symptoms of Covid-19. Apple and Google have developed their own contact tracing system supposedly more protective of privacy and civil rights and also supposedly more compatible with less authoritarian political regimes. This articulation of the first and second smart city raises a large number of questions around privacy, civil rights, surveillance, social sorting and restrictions to mobility. The app of the Indian government called Aarogya Setu (health bridge) – has for instance been developed together with pharmaceutical companies in rather opaque circumstances. Central to the current debate are questions regarding the usefulness of these technology-enabled pandemic management strategies and to what extent the regimes of exception that are currently introduced can and will be discontinued after the end of the pandemic.
Here as well, the activities of the third smart city is less visible than the other two but it accomplishes crucial missions : by organising networks of solidarity, producing data on phenomena disregarded by States and corporations and by resisting State violence exerted on the most vulnerable population groups.
Ordinary urban smartness in the midst of the pandemic
During the past weeks we have developed a new normality in our lives which includes uncountable videocalls for work, to get news from our families, friends and lovers, to stay connected and to simply get distraction. An on-line solidarity has also massively developed to help elderly people unknown to us in our buildings, neighbourhoods or cities; this, in particular, to organise for them to get food and other first necessity goods. These initiatives are of crucial importance in cities of the Global North. They are vital in the Global South. Today in South African and Indian cities, but also in many other contexts, actors of the third smart city use their data and knowledge on vulnerable groups and poor urban areas, which largely correspond to blank spots in statal maps and statistics, in order to provide support. In informal neighbourhoods, civil society organisations are those who know where people live, how many persons there are in a household, if they have access to toilets and water to wash their hands. While the State intervenes in South Africa to ‘dedensify’ slums and in India to chase internal migrants trying to reach their home region to survive after having lost their jobs and income, actors of the smart city from below often organise the conditions of survival for the poor. The association Cape Town Together has for instance put in place 40 Community Action Networks covering large parts of the city to mobilise through simple technological means (smartphones, social media) competencies of people in each neighbourhood for those most in need of support.
Data activists also pursue their control of State action. They criticise the failure of a crisis management using selective and incomplete data. Thus, many Indian citizens have no identity card and are not counted as victims of the pandemic. NGOs also criticise police surveillance and intervention against persons who cannot comply to the rules of the lockdown because they are homeless and have no resources. In mid-April the police of Cape Town used rubber bullets against homeless people who had been put in a containment tent and were trying to escape because they had not received enough food.
Sometimes the three smart cities collaborate. The consultancy firm SoulAce in India has developed an app helping NGOs to locate persons in need and organise their interventions. Most often though the third smart city, essential to the mitigation of the effects of the pandemic in cities of the Global South operates with very limited means. While the pandemic is only starting in many regions and might come in several waves, it is crucial that the third smart city gets visibility and support.