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Smartness and Innovation: a dystopian technological vision in democratic governance
Friday, May 14, 2021 | Jake Pitre

Image is taken from  the Verge.



In the Nevada desert you may soon be able to log every single thing you do on blockchain, from obtaining a marriage license to paying for your groceries. There, a largely unknown cryptocurrency magnate named Jeffrey Berns is hoping to install a “smart city” that his company, Blockchains, LLC, will control with the same rights as any municipal government. You will follow their laws. You will pay taxes they have designed. And you will use their technology. “For us to be able to take risks and be limber, nimble and figure things out like you do when you’re designing new products, that’s not how government works. So why not let us just create a government that lets us do those things?” Berns has said. 

Allowing private tech companies to run their own cities, with or without oversight, represents a fundamental reorientation of our understanding of democratic governance. In spite of this, support for these kinds of projects amongst legislators continues to grow.  Nevada recently introduced a bill advocating for these so-called “Innovation Zones,” like the one proposed by Berns, which "would permit companies with large areas of land to form governments carrying the same authority as counties, including the ability to impose taxes, form school districts and courts, and provide government services," per the AP. The bill is aimed specifically at tech companies, including Tesla, which already has a major factory in the state, and Blockchains, LLC, which plans to operate its “smart city” east of Reno if the bill passes (the culmination of a plan first imagined back in 2018 by Berns). After an undetermined period of oversight, they would be allowed to operate with complete independence. Regardless of whether or not this particular bill comes to pass, the proposed legislation reflects how governments have been allowing giant private firms to progressively take more control over society, often bulwarked by the promise of economic opportunity. 

The proposed Nevada legislation is part of a broader global discourse that associates “smartness” and “innovation” with networked technology. A recent example of this discourse in action was the now-abandoned Sidewalk labs in Toronto. Sidewalk Labs is the “urban innovation organization” owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company. The idea was to create a 12-acre neighbourhood called Quayside on Toronto’s waterfront, which would experiment with various technologies intended to offer solutions to urban sustainability, accessibility, and cost of living. The project vision included tracking resident activity within both workplaces and their homes to “make life easier.” The media initially ate up these points with the utopian tone that Sidewalk Labs used. Justin Trudeau dutifully appeared for photo ops with Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff and sang the praises of Alphabet’s then-executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The response from Torontonians, specifically from grassroots activists and Indigenous leaders, was almost uniformly negative, pointing specifically to data privacy concerns as well as frustratingly vague planning on Alphabet’s part that relied on “tech for tech’s sake,” as Waterfront Toronto's Digital Strategy Advisory Panel put it. The plan was later scrapped due to the pushback, as well as the city’s unwillingness to offer as much land as they wanted, though Sidewalk Labs blamed the abandonment of the project on Toronto’s real estate market and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The overwhelmingly negative response to Sidewalk Labs in Toronto was a victory, a resounding confirmation that citizens will not allow these infrastructural and governmental changes to happen without a fight. But bills like Nevada’s are the next stage of this process, whereby private firms are not only invited but encouraged to take over for administrations that are willing to cede power to corporations. By targeting areas like artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and biometrics, the Nevada plan further highlights the dystopian flavor of this arrangement, which aims to completely cede governmental duties to these private companies. In a way, then, the Sidewalk Labs experiment may have been a half-hearted attempt for a larger project that is only just beginning to take shape alongside propaganda campaigns by government officials like Trudeau and tech companies to get the general public on their side. In the same way that Uber relentlessly railed against Prop 22 in California by spending millions on in-app notifications for both drivers and passengers, ads and billboards, and other lobbying efforts, Sidewalk, Blockchains, LLC, and other firms engage in this style of persuasion that seeks to make their intentions as utopian as possible when the reality is far more complicated. These campaigns reflect a broader visual and textual culture that has worked very hard (not just in Silicon Valley but globally) to associate “smartness” and “innovation” with the networked technology provided by these tech companies, a naturalization process that manages to redirect failures like Sidewalk Labs into another narrative, a story instead about the inevitability of corporate control of municipal planning. 

AI, IoT, and other technological tools are key infrastructural necessities for “smart cities,” which imagine municipalities that are fully automated and networked. As Jathan Sadowski explains, “there are sensor networks to watch the city, algorithms to analyze the city, control rooms to govern the city, and plenty of other smart systems that are designed to capture every part of the city (and its inhabitants).”1 The latest example is Próspera, a “mini startup nation” off the coast of Honduras funded in part by Peter Thiel and Milton Friedman’s grandson that will soon begin accepting applications for residency. Próspera has its own laws and legal code, though the plan is for most of its “residents” to remain where they are and use Próspera to incorporate businesses, while US companies can use cheaper Honduran labor in the region. To no one’s surprise, locals greatly oppose the charter city.

Próspera, Sidewalk Labs, the Nevada plan, Bill Gates’ smart city plan in Arizona, and even Saudi Arabia’s NEOM project all reflect, in varying ways and degrees, a growing interest not only in applying smart technologies to existing citiestrackable public transportation to help with traffic, mass surveillance promising safety, data sharing among government services to ensure coordination, among other data-oriented “solutions” to urban problemsbut also in surrendering governmental power to private corporations. In each case, locals have expressed extreme concern over loss of privacy, empty economic promises, tech solutions to nonexistent problems, and a long list of other issues. But as we move from smart cities to innovation zones (a distinction without a difference, except that the emphasis now rests on corporate governance rather than squarely on technological solutionism), it becomes more difficult to ignore the propagandistic rhetoric being espoused by tech firms and governments that envision a future that suits their (financial) interests and needs and nobody else’s. The emphasis on innovation zones is, in part, a way to bypass the now-fraught discourse over smart cities without altering anything about the proposals other than foregrounding the desire for full governmental turnover. 

In many ways, through tracking, data-gathering, and other means, we already live in Amazonville or Googlopolis—these companies have become essential intermediaries to our lives and the infrastructure of our cities. Innovation zones are merely the final stage, smartness in totality, or rather a full commitment to private tech ownership. As Orit Halpern, Robert Mitchell, and Bernard Dionysis Geoghegan have written, “insofar as smartness seeks to steer communities algorithmically, in registers operating below consciousness and human discourse[,] critiquing smartness will in part be a matter of excavating and rethinking each of its central concepts and practices (zones, populations, optimization, and resilience).”2 If this isn’t the future that local communities want, they must take action, like Toronto’s activists succeeded in doing, critiquing not only the dystopian technological vision which structures many of these projects but also, and perhaps more importantly, the proposed changes to democratic governance that would make them possible. 

 1. Jathan Sadowski, Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020), 20. 

2. Orit Halpern, Robert Mitchell, Bernard Dionysis Geoghegan, “The Smartness Mandate: Notes toward a Critique,” Grey Room 68 (Summer 2017), 125.


Further Reading

Claudel, Matthew, Carlo Ratti. The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

Townsend, Anthony M. Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014. 


Jake Pitre is a Montreal-based academic and writer.  Editorial support by Emily Doucet.