Smart City, Surveillance City

June 30, 2015

Smart cities are one of the latest in a long line of utopian projects that seek to harness the combined power of communications and computing for government. This dates back to cybernetics and the dawn of the modern computer age in the 1940s. Previous projects have included the ‘information society’ schemes of the 1980s, ‘digital cities’ and ‘cybercities’ from the 1990s onwards, and the whole array of schemes for ‘e-‘ or  ‘i-‘ government, phrases that are still to be heard in the corridors of power, although now more as cliché or even sarcasm than ambition.  

The civic vision of smart cities is mostly relentlessly positive, with references to goals of sustainability, conviviality, democracy, participation and so on. In that sense, the smart city is another one of those ‘imperial phrases’ that tries to encompass and include all other previous and existing utopian urban ideas. But there is always a dark side to utopia, and there are parallel histories of ‘smartness’ that have seemingly little to do with these visions of conviviality and sustainability, even as they are woven into smart city schemes. The smart city is both a surveillance city and a security city, which should make us consider the implications for human rights and the kind of flourishing interaction that utopian visions promote.  

Cybernetics, the new discipline that gave birth to electronic computing and the Internet, was always about security and control. The earliest visions, those 1940s projects funded by the US military, were about understanding the world as a system in order to master it, with information envisaged as a tool of this mastery. In the Cold War, as the title of Paul Edwards’ brilliant examination of US military computing put it, the aim was to create a ‘closed world’, under total surveillance, or as US military strategic documents from the late 1990s onwards framed it, ‘full spectrum dominance’.  

At national and city scales, such dreams of total control were already reflected in the ambitions of policing, even if in reality there was little prospect of this actually being the case. That was until the worlds of policing and the results of military cybernetics projects started to come together. As Steve Graham has shown, long before 9/11 the world’s militaries had become increasingly concerned about the ‘unruliness’ of cities and the possibility of both military action by non-state combatants (such as terrorism) or conventional Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). The answers always seemed to involve forms of distributed sensor platforms, and computer analytics, to enable forces to get a ‘clear picture’ of the complexities of the urban landscape and its inhabitants.  

Policing had taken a turn to the computerised with the advent of crime mapping and so-called ‘CompStat’ (COMPlaint STATistics) accountability and predictive models, which, combined with ‘Zero Tolerance’ policing on the ground, was popularised under the former Mayor of New York, Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Giuliani and his Chief-of-Police William J ‘Bill’ Bratton. Both now run lucrative security consultancies, just two of the many organisations pushing this combination of intensive street-level policing and predictive computer targeting, or other variations on ‘intelligence-led policing’, throughout the world.  

In the UK, of course, this quickly became linked in with the ubiquity of video surveillance cameras. After 9/11, in the USA, there was a demand particularly from the conservative right, for the immediate implementation of ubiquitous computing strategies not for civic reasons but for security reasons. While such calls were not at first followed in literal terms, there has indeed been massive funding in the USA through both Homeland Security and post-2008 stimulus packages for integration of video surveillance with other emergency services and new analytic technologies in cities across the USA. This was typified in Chicago and New York, where we saw the construction of multi-agency ‘Fusion Centers’ designed to provide spaces where there could be shared access for law enforcement to the databases of many previously separate agencies.  

There are also some very specific experiments where such physical and digital initiatives have been combined, particularly in ‘smart border’ projects, and the so-called ‘Domain Awareness’ initiatives, which until recently focused on the maritime environment, mainly ports. Now, for the first time, domain awareness and smart cities have come together in a new initiative in Oakland, California, which extends an existing port security project way beyond the maritime ‘domain’ into the surrounding city, combining military and conventional civil government. 

But even in conventional smart city projects, security can occasionally be highlighted: for example, in the USA, Durham North Carolina boasts of its use of ‘police analytics’ in reducing crime, as part of its involvement in the IBM Smarter Cities initiative, ostensibly based on reducing educational and economic disparities. Philadelphia has policing and crime prevention as a key headline function of its smart city scheme.  

However, it isn’t just these linkages that should give us pause in thinking about the potential impact of smart city initiatives on human rights. Whatever their ostensible goals, smart cities are inevitably surveillance cities. They rely on the continuous capture of data from multiple (and multiplying) sources, and the generation of big urban data, to be sorted and classified to allow certain kinds of events and situations to be anticipated and managed. Relying on increasingly invisible webs of sensors and opaque software operations, smart cities spread the norms of computer networks into the structure of cities and urban life, replaying the results of their data operations onto urban spaces and people.  

Promoters of smart cities generally do not acknowledge the central place of ‘surveillance’ as such within smart city projects, but the intensive management of urban flows requires information about everything that moves in the city, including its people, as IBM emphasizes in the 2013 report on its trademarked ‘Smarter Cities’ program:  

The availability of vast collections of data about all aspects of city life makes it possible for civic leaders to understand how things really work so they can make better decisions. Much of this data comes from sensors and video cameras that are being used to monitor everything from public safety to traffic jams. In addition, city agencies are increasingly sharing their data with one another and with the public. This allows leaders to get a holistic view of the city, and to unlock the value of all of that data they’re collecting. (6) 

Surveillance is not necessarily a problem, indeed there are many empowering and democratic outcomes one could imagine from the accumulation and analysis of more urban data. However, as the French philosopher, Giles Deleuze pointed out in his seminal essay on contemporary digital surveillance logic, the logic of what he called the ‘control society’ is based on flows. It is not so much that a discipline is imposed for moral reasons, however specious those might be, as in the old industrial city, rather these flows are modulated based on organisational efficiency. As IBM say: “Smarter cities of the future will drive sustainable economic growth. Their leaders have the tools to analyze data for better decisions, anticipate problems to resolve them proactively and coordinate resources to operate effectively” (IBM 2013b). At its worst, this logic could result in the emergence of a kind of ‘ambient government’ in which the outcomes desired by the state are built into surveillant and responsive urban environments, which would both continuously collect data on their inhabitants and work to prevent or produce certain preprogrammed unwanted or desirable outcomes. 

Many of the features of smart city projects seem to be entirely reheated versions of earlier utopian schemes, with the advent of big data, cloud computing, wireless networking, smaller and cheaper sensor platforms and the resulting progress towards an ‘Internet of Things’, there is a sense that ‘now we can really do it’ – whatever the previously, distant utopian ‘it’ was. But we need to pay attention to the ‘it’. Dreams of control seem less like phantoms and more solid. Whether the reality of the dream is in fact as far away as ever, even the failed attempts to automate cities and to anticipate the movements and even desires of their citizens are likely to result in outcomes that need to be scrutinised. This could ensure that neither existing inequalities and injustices become ‘built-in’, nor new inequalities and injustices created, and perhaps, instead the empowering potentials of greater knowledge of the processes that underlie our urban lives might be maximised.  

David Murakami Wood is Canada Research Chair in Surveillance Studies at Queen’s University, Ontario and Principal Investigator for the Ubicity Project:




Deleuze, G. 1992. ‘Postscript on the Societies of Control’, October 59: 3-7.

Edwards, P. 1997. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.


Graham, S. 2010. Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. New York: Verso.


Huber, P. and Mills, M. 2002. ‘How technology will defeat terrorism, City Journal, 12(1): 24-34.


IBM. 2013a. How to Reinvent a City: Mayors’ lessons from the Smarter Cities® Challenge, IBM Smarter Cities® Challenge White Paper, January 2013. Armonk NJ: IBM Corporation.


IBM. 2013b. ‘Cities and Challenges’, IBM Smarter Cities Challenge website:


IBM Smarter Cities Blog. 2013. ‘The Durham, N.C., Police Department reduced the amount of violent crime with Analytics Technology’, 8/19/13,


Manning, P. 2008. The Technology of Policing: Crime Mapping, Information Technology, and the Rationality of Crime Control. New York: New York University Press.


Monahan, T. and Palmer, N.A. 2010. ‘The Emerging Politics of DHS Fusion Centers’, Security Dialogue, 40(6): 617-636.