Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Problem With ‘Smart Cities’

Silicon Valley's platforms send wealth away from communities. Is there a local alternative?

When I hear the term “smart cities,” I think of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film, Metropolis. The 1927 classic portrays an Art Deco landscape of wealthy industrialists reigning from high-rise towers over masses of catacomb-dwelling uniformed workers who labor underground to keep the city’s huge turbine-driven machines humming. (If you’ve never seen it, it’s visually fantastic, especially with the new soundtrack.)

The builders of contemporary master-planned cities—the Middle East’s Dubai, Asia’s Songdo, or India’s Gurgaon—are smart in some sense. To be sure, these places draw on top talent in their architects, planners, and environmental consultants. They in turn create luxury districts where technology enables a gleaming and growing mix of oligopoly, exploitation, and surveillance.

These arrangements create stark contrasts. As architect Douglas Kelbaugh told James Howard Kunstler, he spent two years in Dubai designing billion of dollars’ worth of “perfume bottle” (beautifully vapid) skyscrapers and abandoned urban projects the size of Manhattan Island—all while encountering daily the thousands of low-wage workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China needed to create this immense Ponzi scheme of the most luxurious city-state on the planet.

But Dubai’s private buses full of mostly manual workers paid $5 a day are only superficially different from Songdo’s legions of programmers and developers: both groups are meant to be invisible and disposable elements in the workings of a neoliberal urbanism with endless ambitions to create a city-state which looks like—in Kunstler’s sardonic phrase—“yesterday’s tomorrow.”

A key aspect of the “smart cities” movement is the promise of personal technology to create new economic opportunities. But the fact is that no sharing actually goes on in most of what’s called the sharing economy—companies such as Uber, AirBnB, Lyft and TaskRabbit extract value from contract employees, not in the service of some dewy-eyed mutualistic scheme, but rather for the benefit of perfectly conventional Silicon Valley venture capitalists. The latter process is sometimes called “Uberization.”

It turns out that the sharing economy is mostly about exploitation of workers and earning yourself an enforced membership in the precariat, that mass of short-term (“flexible”) contract employees who now make up about 40 percent of the worldwide labor force.

These are people who live precariously with no guarantee of a job beyond the short-term, generally less than 40 hours of paid work per week, as well as no unions or industry regulation to speak of, given the dramatic disparity in bargaining power here. Where is this all going, we may well wonder.

To take only one set of dark projections, in Average Is Over, economist Tyler Cowen foresees a future in which a tiny meritocracy makes millions while the rest of us struggle on anywhere between $5,000 and $10,000 a year. It already works quite well in Mexico, Cowen quips.

If you happen to be a millennial or know one, then you’re probably familiar with the issues around digital work. But this economic threat to our democracy—the Internet as an inequality machine—is bigger than one generation. It’s in the process of overturning the traditional rights of workers going back to the 19th century. And it’s quickly scooping in oceans of our personal data—a form of personal property—in order to leverage that asset into creating even more value for the few owners of the digital platforms now driving a large proportion of our lives (Amazon, Facebook, Google, etc.).

Thus we see the rise of a new movement employing an old rallying cry: platform cooperativism, a marriage of the historic cooperative model of business and digital platforms aimed at bringing genuine democracy to the internet, especially in the form of distributed ownership. The urgent goal of these activists and entrepreneurs is nothing less than to reset the norms and culture of work.

What if Uber drivers set up their own platform, or if a city’s residents controlled their own version of Airbnb? How about if enough Twitter users got together to buy the company in order to share its ownership?

The latter idea comes from Nathan Schneider, co-editor of one of the best guides to this emerging area Ours to Hack and To Own. It’s a fascinating collection of not-all-that-techy articles on cooperative initiatives to resist the cooptation of the Internet.

Platform cooperativism is simply communal ownership (with roughly 170 years of cooperative movement history) brought together with today’s notions of democratic governance. The term platform, as the editors explain, “refers to places where we hang out, work, tinker and generate value after we switch on our phones or computers.”

Principles of cooperativism are well developed and plenty of impressive examples exist worldwide, from the Mondragon Corporation in Spain (actually a network of coop enterprises employing over 74,000 people) to the dozens of consumer, agricultural and healthcare coops in Italy’s economically resilient Emiglia-Romagna region. In this country, some 30,000 coops contribute an estimated $154 billion to our national income.

Further, coops—values-based businesses that operate for member benefit—have a lower failure rate than conventional businesses, are more likely to promote community growth (via local ownership), can have low startup costs, and help stabilize communities in their role as business anchors by multiplying local expertise and social capital.

We’re talking not about socialism but a form of capitalism—algorithmic capitalism—and how to create more capitalists, people who are genuinely owners. We’re also talking about formulating the first charter of workers’ rights for the growing but invisible digital labor force.

Another important topic addressed here—and a key part of “digital commoning”—is that of countering the corporate, surveillance-driven model of the smart city being promoted by big tech companies. Thus models of public ownership of civic data are needed in order to foster new forms of social innovation.

Notable contributors to this collection include Douglas Rushkoff (Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus), Juliet Schor (Plenitude: the New Economics of True Wealth), Yochai Benkler (Wealth of Networks), Michel Bauwens (P2P Foundation), Saskia Sassen (Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy), David Bollier (Think Like a Commoner), and co-editor Trebor Scholz (Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy).

(To follow developments in the platform cooperativism movement, I recommend the clearinghouse website platformcoop.net, which is loaded with resources.)

Building cities that enable true human flourishing—and utilizing new technology to make it happen—is possible. But we must recognize the pitfalls of handing control to a few unaccountable companies. The city that can capitalize on platform cooperativism may yet outsmart the master planners.

Elias Crim is the founder of Solidarity Hall, a group blog focused on renewing civil society.



Become a Member today for a growing stake in the conservative movement.
Join here!
Join here