Cory Doctorow, courtesy of the New Statesman. Add this to the list of potential applications of smart city technology, under “Public Safety:”
Last month the security firm ESD America found dozens of “fake” mobile-phone towers across the US which were extracting data from users who unknowingly connected to them. Similar towers have been used at protests by police forces around the world to monitor activists. Doctorow argues that a government (he cites Ukraine as an example) could react to a protest by cross-referencing that data with information gleaned from domestic internet connections, because anti-digital piracy legislation often mandates “taps” on home web connections. Then it’s a simple job to establish protesters’ names and addresses. If they have a new smart thermostat, which is connected to the web, the state could even extract individual protesters’ thermostat ID. “Then they just cut off everybody’s heat that night,” he says. “Problem solved, done in one.”
My article, “Smart City Development in China” is in the China Business Review this week. It is in some sense a condensed and updated version of what I learned about China researching the “Smart Cities: Asia Pacific” report late last year. There is also more discussion of the challenges that international (especially American) technology firms face in the Chinese market, an issue which keeps returning with every flareup in the China-US relationship. After writing the article, here are the main ongoing questions I was left with:
To what extent is China’s smart city investment push a real attempt to solve urban problems, and to what extent is it just another way to package infrastructure investment and support GDP growth? I suspect the answer is that it depends on who you ask — The policy managers in Beijing are really looking to the benefits of the technology and the industry, and local leaders often are just packaging the investment they want in terms they think are most palatable to the center.
Can Chinese smart city projects move beyond a relatively simple “informatization” of systems to create really transformative connections between them? For example, putting sensors on buses to show arrival times is useful. But connecting the bus sensors to traffic prediction analytics, electric grid balancing systems, public safety cameras, and so forth will really change the way cities work. This question applies around the world, but I think especially in China, where officials are moving fast to implement simple projects without (so far as I have seen) much thought about larger systems. On the other hand, you could argue that getting simple systems in place as building blocks for more comprehensive ones is actually better than trying to design something that nobody yet really understands.
Will China’s extremely young open data and civic hacking movements be able to develop a healthy counterbalance to the collection of civic data (including personal data) in official hands? Feng Gao, the Open Knowledge ambassador for China, is a great person to follow on this question.
I just read this very long and absolutely brilliant article (from which the above photo is lifted) on the housing crisis in San Francisco, in TechCrunch of all places. It’s completely worth it from the housing policy, governance, or simply good journalism angles, but it also had this very interesting bit to say about the intersection of tech and cities:
But the big wave [of Silicon Valley activity] of the last decade has been social networking. And every notable consumer web or mobile product of this wave has been seeded through critical mass in the “analog” world. Facebook had university campuses. Snapchat had Southern California high schools. Foursquare had Lower Manhattan. Twitter had San Francisco. These products favor social density.
People have been trying to figure out the connection between the virtual and physical worlds since at least Bill Mitchell’s 1996 book City of Bits, and this link between particular social media and particular physical environments is one I haven’t seen before. We already know great cities can be tremendously different – Paris and Seattle? Tokyo and Edinburgh? – but it’s interesting to think about how different kinds of cities might birth different kinds of social media. Perhaps physical places leave shadows on the web, after all.
The smart city research report I wrote, “Smart Cities: Asia Pacific,” has been published by Navigant Research, a major US greentech research firm.
It’s a full research report, with an analysis of smart city drivers and challenges across the Asia Pacific region, a summary of technology issues, a detailed comparison of the policy and market situation in each of six sub-regions, a short profile of the major international firms in the market, and a series of 10 year market size projections by sector and sub-region.
You can find Navigant’s summary and purchase the report at their site.