Technology and smart cities: enabling better performance or better capture?

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Smart cities – and the technology that create them – offer the promise of more efficient and cost-effective urban environments. But what are the privacy and legal implications of wiring our buildings to monitor everything and everyone in them? Are we building valuable capabilities or is the smart city really the captured city?

Panel members: Ariel Bogle, ABC, Luke Briscoe, INDIGI LAB, Alex Fuerschke, Dexus, Dr Jathan Sadowski, University of Sydney. Moderated by Daniella Traino, Pinecone Technology Strategies.


The construction and real estate sector could learn from overseas experiences and the work of Indigenous Australians about the risks and rewards of embedding digital technologies in the built environment, according to a panel of speakers at Tomorrowland19.

Australia’s real estate industry lags other industries when it comes to building the kinds of frameworks needed to cope with the implications of digital technology, according to Alex Fuerschke, head of building technology at commercial property group Dexus.

Alex Fuerschke, Dexus

“Are we investing in the right way with technology? Have we started with the right dialogue?” says Fuerschke.

“We also have some very unique challenges that makes it harder than other industries, in particular, in the built environment where we are designing for something that might have a 30- to 50-year life and of course that’s completely opposite to how the technology industry works where every year you have the latest and greatest [piece of tech].”

Fuerschke, who is in charge of developing Dexus’ smart building strategy, says bottom-line profits are a big driver in the sector but builders and building managers do need to think about what digital technology installed in buildings means for occupants as well as for owners. 

This is especially true at a time when there has been “an explosion of prop tech” and technology is sometimes being deployed just for the sake of it.

“The one piece of data that is [now] missing is how humans are occupying the buildings.”

“I think the industry lacks people like architects and people with design thinking and the technology sector lacks people with design thinking, they are more like problem solvers,” he says. 

“I think we need to put a hold on things and look at what we are creating and building, and [whether buildings are] for the purpose of inhabitants.

“If you look at technology and data, it is ridiculous how we have been managing buildings for decades, hundreds of years … but the one piece of data that is [now] missing is how humans are occupying the buildings.”

Indigenous leadership

Luke Briscoe, a Kuku-Yalanji man from Far North Queensland, who founded award-winning company INDIGI LAB, says in many cases the adoption of digital technology is out-pacing the formation of governance for its application. 

Luke Briscoe, INDIGI LAB

However, he says Indigenous groups are starting to develop governance around access to digital data, on a local government and community level.

In some cases, because of Indigenous traditions around the division of secret and non-secret women’s and men’s business, people are accessing data online through two different portals.

“A lot of the work I do is around cultural governance and looking at how Indigenous governance can pave the way for the future,” says Briscoe.

“I think a lot of the value systems of the city have to change.”

“There is a project I am working on now on how we can use our [Indigenous] data sovereignty to derive economic possibilities,” he says, adding that there are existing examples of this kind of thing in remote areas where people have to innovate out of necessity. 

“We have to look at how we can transfer those knowledges into a city area [from rural examples].”

“We can really develop projects that can fast-track solutions to issues like climate change, from remote communities, to help drive change in the cities.

“I think a lot of the value systems of the city have to change.”

Ariel Bogle, ABC

Australian Broadcasting Corporation technology reporter Ariel Bogle pointed to overseas experience for guidance on how to best develop smart cities. 

For example, she says in a project in Toronto where Google recently received approval to build a smart city, the tech giant was accused of a lack of transparency around the planning, the long-term vision and the use of residents’ data by the developers.

Approval was granted for a city on a much smaller scale than Google had wanted; any data collected must be treated as a public asset, and the entire project will be subject to public consultation.

Whose agenda are we following?

“What that example really showed was …  that when you are negotiating, working with technology companies today you are not just negotiating with a small company that has some cool stuff; you are negotiating with a company with the power and monetary size of a country and that needs to be taken into account when government and private industry make deals, especially in the built environment.”

“Data collection is going on before people even move into buildings”

Bogle says it’s not just the implications of digital transformation of buildings that we must examine; data collection is going on before people even move into buildings.

For example, most renters have to provide a wide array of personal information – everything from income, previous addresses, copies of passports and driver’s licences – to property agents or landlords via a digital app or portal before they can sign a rental lease.

“Even that basic interaction needs to be examined,” she says.

“You have shared some really personal data … to an app that you didn’t want to use, that you didn’t really understand the privacy policy, perhaps it is not even storing your data in Australia.”

“You have shared some really personal data … to an app that you didn’t want to use, that you didn’t really understand the privacy policy, perhaps it is not even storing your data in Australia. There are so many questions to ask about even that most basic technology interaction.

“A lot of Millennials, a lot people under 40, are renters and will continue to be renters and it does put you at a power disadvantage with landlords when they want to use those apps, whether it be for applications or for when you enter a building.

“We haven’t see that much of it [in Australia] but I was recently in China where there are finger print scans for when you enter a building. 

“It does seem very efficient and cost effective but it is yet another piece of data I had to hand over about myself because I have no say in how the building I use to sleep in, eat in, whatever … is designed or built. It is not built for me; it is built for the landlord and agent.”

Technology is politics

China might seem like an international outlier in terms of lack of privacy for citizens, especially in the wake of its proposed Social Credit system that attempts to engineer individual behaviour by awarding points to citizens it says are trustworthy and “punishing the disobedient”.

But Bogle says Australia is also becoming much more of a surveillance state, with CCTV cameras on every corner, and in light of government’s increasing reliance on automated decision making, such as the federal government’s controversial robo-debt scheme that aimed to identify suspected welfare cheats.

“I wouldn’t throw the China example out there are as something that could never happen here because we are well on our way.”

Postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Sydney, Dr Jathan Sadowski, isn’t convinced we are creating the right capabilities around digital technology and says we aren’t building smart cities but rather “captured cities”.

“The essence of technology is the essence of politics itself”

He says we have to understand that the “essence of technology is the essence of politics itself”.

“I think we really have to understand technology … as a way of actualising, solidifying a vision of the world that we want or that the users and builders of technology want,”  Sadowski says. 

“But at the same time, it is also a way of shutting off other potential visions, other world views. It is a way of including some interests and excluding others; it is a way that some voices are heard and some are not heard.

Dr Jathan Sadowski, University of Sydney

“I have recently come to the conclusion that the smart city is dead, if it even was alive in the first place, and I think what we have instead is what I now refer to as the captured city, captured in multiple ways. 

“Captured in both the technological sense in terms of the surveillance systems, the data that is recording us, capturing us, storing that information, analysing it … captured on the monitor of a CCTV, captured within the [data] processor … but also captured by particular interests and groups that have a lot more power and are empowered by these technologies.”

In a sobering final note, Sadowski says the general public never hears about the “smartest” of these technologies “because they are not meant for us but for government and the police”.

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