· Published in Cities versus multinationals

Tech Giants, Privatisers and the Arms Industry. Fighting the “smart city” in France

All over the globe, corporations and politicians are hyping up the concept of “smart cities”, but what exactly lies behind the catchy slogan? And whose interests does it serve? There is growing resistance to the idea due to fears of privatisation, increasing surveillance as well as its environmental and social impacts.

Judging by the number of conferences and expos on the subject, the number of times it comes up in corporate and administrative brochures, and the number of projects out there, “smart cities”are all the buzz these days. Many of the world’s cities claim to be putting a lot of energy into becoming “smarter” through a range of projects of various scope and ambition. Interestingly, it is attracting interest from very different types of corporations. Initially the interest came from companies such as IBM and Cisco (and now Huawei), which originally coined the term “smart cities”. Then also from tech giants such as Google, and the likes of Uber and Airbnb. More traditional urban players such as public service companies, utilities and real estate developers have also been quick to jump on the “smart city” bandwagon. And now, in a less showy but no less influential manner, the security industry is also getting involved.

So what is all the fuss about? And what exactly is a “smart city”, other than a vague promise that with a lot a tech and data, everything will run more smoothly and efficiently? The label has been slapped on many different kinds of projects and policy initiatives, from transport and energy to disaster preparation and road maintenance. The only thing they have in common is that digital technology is being applied to urban issues. For corporations, the lure of smart cities is obvious: it is another stamp to put on their products, a way to attract more contracts and more public money, and create new markets. For politicians, it is often just one of those catchy slogans (like being “attractive”, “creative” or “world-class”) they seem to need to wrap around neoliberal urban policies. But what about actual people in the actual cities? For the moment, “smart cities” are a lot of talk, and involve few concrete, game-changing projects. Does this mean, however, that we’ve got nothing to worry about? Probably not.

Although actual projects may be few and limited in scope, the ultimate implication of the current “smart city” trends are nonetheless worrisome in many aspects. They carry risks for the privacy and fundamental freedoms of urban denizens, while raising serious ecological issues. They also point towards a future where local authorities and urban citizens would hand over what little control they have over the fabric, management and evolution of cities to private corporations. Industry is always keen on pushing hyped-up tech-intensive “innovations” onto people and public authorities, without giving them time to consider the risks and the reality of the benefits. The “smart city” is just another example. A lot of new tech and new data collection tools are being installed in cities right now, in the name of seemingly benevolent objectives such as efficiency, sustainability and transparency. There are good reasons to doubt these technologies will ever genuinely help to achieve these goals. The first issue with “smart cities”, therefore, is primarily the potential waste of large amounts of public money on corporate projects of little interest, which also sidetrack politicians from adopting more ambitious or effective policies to tackle the same issues – in other words, corporate “false solutions”. But these technologies could also eventually be put to more sinister uses, such as widespread surveillance by governments or corporations.

From privatised services to privatised cities

In many ways, a “smart city” is just a new name for a privatised city. It was invented to sell new services and management systems to local authorities. Under the “smart city” slogan, many imagine a centralised military-style command centre, from which managers can visualise the whole of the city in real time through a constant stream of data on climate, pollution, pedestrian and vehicle traffic, infrastructure networks, and so on, anticipating problems or spotting them the second they occur, and deciding on timely interventions. This is more or less what IBM sells with its “intelligent operations centre”, which was first showcased in Rio for the 2014 Olympics.

In Europe, corporations specialised in privatised public services such as Suez and Veolia (mostly present in the water and waste sectors) were among the first to appropriate the “smart city” label for their own interests. In this context, a “smart city” is mostly advertised as a way to integrate local public services such as water, waste, public transport, collective heating, lighting, facility management and so on in order to make it all more “efficient”. In the short term, it is hard to see this as anything other than putting new clothes on good old privatisation. Public services have been using digital technologies for quite some time now, but the local services listed above are so different in the way they are managed, and again so different from city to city, that integrating them into a single platform is often either impossible or does not result in concrete benefits.

There are even questions around some of the apparently most straightforward aspects of the “smart city” approach, such as intelligent lighting that would only turn on when there are people around. The medium-sized city of Angers, in the west of France (290,000 inhabitants), has just launched what is one of the country’s most ambitious “smart city” plans, outsourced to a consortium of companies including Engie and Suez. It will see the installation of thousands of sensors and other connected objects throughout the city, for a cost of €178m over 12 years to achieve “zero net carbon”. The projected savings for the city over a longer period (25 years) are only just over €100m, which raises the question of the cost-efficiency of the plan compared to other ways to achieve the same objectives.

In the longer term, this version of the “smart city”, driven by traditional urban service corporations, risks further entrenching privatisation and extending its reach. Issues around the ownership of information and data have often been a key obstacle for cities seeking to end private contracts and remunicipalise the management of public services. More generally, there is often huge information asymmetry between private operators and the contracting local authorities about the public service, which gives the former the upper hand in negotiating around contractual terms and rates. The advent of more extensive “smart city” solutions, with an even greater emphasis on data collection, is bound to make this even worse.

There is also the risk that the different public services will be made to gradually evolve in a way that makes them more easily integrable, i.e., to fit the needs of private corporations. In Dijon, another medium-sized city in France that also likes to promote itself as a “smart city” pioneer, the same corporation that already runs the water and waste services – Suez – has now been put in charge of the new “command centre” that will supervise all electric equipment in the city (lighting, traffic lights, electric vehicle charging stations) and might one day integrate all public services. Will Dijon some day become a city run entirely by a private company?

Tech companies taking over cities?

Such projects explain why the notion of an entirely privatised, tech-driven city is on people’s minds in a country like France, where a famous science-fiction writer, Alain Damasio, published in 2019 a novel, Les furtifs, set in exactly such a context. In the novel, the existing city of Orange, in the south of France, is acquired by the telecom company of the same name, and saturated with individualised control tech, giving access to different levels of service and even different areas of the city according to how much residents can pay (eventually, this system is overcome by activists and popular revolt). In some countries of the world, such science-fiction is already on the agenda. For the reasons mentioned above, the most advanced smart city projects are probably brand new cities built from scratch in Middle Eastern or Asian countries. India, in particular, which already has private cities reserved for the wealthy, is planning to build dozens of new, smart cities – a potentially huge market for which corporations from the US, Europe and China are all vying. It could be argued that projects such as those mentioned in France are mostly designed to experiment prototypes and technologies which the same corporations would then sell to much more lucrative foreign markets.

Another very publicised and controversial example of the “private city” logic are Google’s plans (or more specifically, Sidewalk Labs’, another subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet) for the Toronto Waterfront. Sidewalk Labs was tasked with imagining a whole new neighbourhood, raising fears about the potential privatisation of public space and the protection of people’s privacy, especially after key privacy experts left the project due to lack of sufficient safeguards. In the spring of 2019, Sidewalk Labs published a master plan for the Toronto Waterfront which was met with widespread shock. It turned out the company had its eye on a much bigger area than was assumed, and planned to both build and operate the future neighbourhood, including owning the technology and the data. It also wanted specific rules and governance bodies for the new area. Eventually, Sidewalk Labs was forced to back down, and a new agreement is currently under negotiation. This time it involves a smaller area, there are no special rules, data is publicly owned, and it has been agreed that Sidewalk Labs will not become the operator.

Whatever becomes of Google’s projects for the Toronto Waterfront, they also point to a bigger problem. The expansion of platform companies such as Google (Google Maps and Waze), Uber, Amazon, Airbnb or even Deliveroo involves not only the massive collection of data on individual habits and urban trends, but also an ability to shape the very evolution of the city (e.g. its traffic patterns, the economic development of neighbourhoods) without any control by local authorities. In this case, the “smart city” is no longer one where public authorities rely on private corporations to achieve their objectives, but one where public authorities and urban movements have to cope with forces that have the power to shape the city in profound ways, and stand in the way of policy objectives such as affordable housing or the protection of “free” non-commercial public spaces.

The French smart meter wars and other “anti-smart” urban revolts

Many cities in Europe and beyond, along with urban movements, are trying to fight off the adverse impacts of these new platform companies, starting with Airbnb and its consequences on housing in cities like Barcelona, Amsterdam and Paris. Alongside similar conflicts with Uber and the growing movement for the rights of gig economy workers, it is a sign that Silicon Valley’s vision of the city of the future is being met with increasing popular and political resistance. The same could be said of the recent, successful movements against the proposed Amazon HQ2 in New York City and the new Google headquarters in Berlin – both of them examples not only of subsidised corporate property developments, but also of a certain vision of the city.

Mostly, these revolts are pitched as battles against corporate profiteers and growing privatisation. But they also come with a growing realisation of how issues of data ownership and “technological sovereignty” are becoming increasingly critical for cities, and of the need for alternative models. Airbnb’s refusal to share its data with local authorities, for instance, is emerging as a key point of contention, which will prove decisive in the latter’s ability to regulate the platform and its impacts – or not.

In France, growing opposition to the “smart city” has also been brewing from another corner. In 2014, after a number of test pilot projects, the French government initiated the rollout of “Linky” smart electricity meters in households all over the country. The venture soon ran into massive trouble, with many users and even city councils refusing the Linky meters. The most cited reason for rejecting the “Linky” smart meter remains the potential health consequences of its electromagnetic waves. There is scarce evidence of serious risks, although it should be added that this particular smart meter is poorly designed from that point of view. The programme also raises concerns of privacy due to the data generated by the smart meter. Mostly, it is seen as an extremely costly (a few thousand euros paid by users through their electricity bills) corporate-driven, state-sponsored programme imposed on people, causing potential risks and with no actual real benefits. Evidence shows that the alleged rationale for installing smart meters in the first place – that they will help save energy through “smarter” individual consumption – does not translate into practice.

The revolt against “Linky” – as a symbol of technocratic, corporate “false solutions” – has been unexpectedly fervent in France, with several hundred mayors deciding, either on their own or pressured by voters, to ban the smart meter in their city. Some groups are now plotting to expand this revolt into a wider movement against smart cities in general and everything that goes with them: the Internet of Things, surveillance, “uberised” labour and green capitalism. After all, smart cities raise the same privacy and health issues (exposure to high levels of electromagnetic radiation for example) – especially with the rollout of 5G antennas – as smart meters, only on a wider scale. And they come with the added issue of privatisation (as seen above) and vulnerability to cyberattacks, without any obvious benefits except for the companies that will be tasked to roll them out. Even the claim that smart cities will be “greener” and more energy-efficient does not stack up, if one considers the massive amounts of minerals and electricity required to power the data storage and computing necessary to run the kind of smart city that corporations imagine.

The safe city and the arms industry

This simmering rejection of smart cities is compounded by the fact that in France, as in other countries such as the US, the arms and security industry often lurks in the background of smart cities. Among the main clients of IBM’s “intelligence operations centre” are indeed US law enforcement agencies. In France too, the “smart city” is now increasingly associated with security objectives, i,e., the so- called “safe city”. Cities like Nice and Marseille are experimenting with “smart” facial recognition video-surveillance systems in high-schools and public transport. Marseille is creating a security-focused “command centre” for the city which is supposed to be fed by data from public services, the police, social networks and citizens. Other cities, such as Saint-Étienne, are proposing to introduce video-cam- eras or noise sensors in street lamps.

Behind these projects are businesses like IBM or Cisco as well as companies from the arms industry, which are seeking to expand into the domestic security market. The leading promoter of the Marseille command centre is Ineo, a subsidiary of Engie and long-standing supplier of the French army. Behind Nice’s “smart” surveillance experiments is Thales, an arms and electronics giant. The “safe city” project in Saint-Étienne is promoted by a consortium called Serenicity, behind which is a local arms and ammunition manufacturer. This is part of a wider strategy of the arms industry, which is increasingly interested in the lucrative internal security markets and is blurring the traditional difference between technologies and materials used for external operations and those used for internal security [1]. The experimentation contract between Nice and Thales is typical of this worldview in the way it conflates “galloping urbanisation”, “natural risks” such as extreme climate events and “human risks” such as crime and terrorism into a landscape of potential “incidents and crises” that need to be predicted and prevented “in real time” thanks to the “maximum amount of existing data” in a “hypervision and command centre” [2] .

The development of “smart surveillance” technologies and their experimentation in France is explicitly endorsed by the French government as a way to develop national champions and national solutions, which can then be exported to other countries, thus avoiding any reliance on foreign technologies. Thales’ projects in Nice have enjoyed massive financial, technological and commercial support from a number of France’s state-owned entities.

Civil society groups such as the Human Rights League and the Internet rights NGO La Quadrature du Net [3] are the only ones mounting a significant opposition to these plans, which are generally supported by national and local politicians. The independent privacy regulator, CNIL (Commission national informatique et libertés), has challenged some of the projects, but remains coy about using the little powers it has. The small number of concrete, operational projects – and the secrecy which is maintained around some of them – means there hasn’t been widespread grassroots mobilisation against them. But according to La Quadrature du Net, the danger is real, even with “smart city” projects that don’t yet have an explicit security objective. Once all the sensors are in place, and once all the data is collected, they argue, corporate leaders and politicians are not going to acknowledge that these solutions can’t really help achieve sustainability objectives, and are going to find another justification for them. In a way, the installation of all these smart city technologies will inevitably create a very slippery slope towards even more surveillance and potential abuse.

A municipalist smart city?

Should we, then, just oppose “smart” and “safe” cities altogether? There is definitely an anti-technology strand in many groups currently active in France on these questions. Others see a potential use for some “smart city” solutions. In many ways, the expansion of digital technologies into the urban fabric is unavoidable. The question is, how can cities, urban groups and social movements do it differently? Fortunately, there is a lot of thinking on precisely this subject at the moment throughout Europe as well as further afield [4].

There is no ready-made policy solution given the scope of the issues and the little control cities actually have over them, but at least we know what some of the key issues are. Data ownership is one obvious one. Instead of the data extractive model that many corporations are currently pushing onto cities, we need to promote a model based on public open data, or, if possible, data as a commons, in a way that protects privacy. Another issue is that of technological sovereignty; in other words, not depending on the technology provided by corporations, nor being bound by its constraints. Another objective could be to develop municipal/remunicipalised/co-op alternatives to the services provided by the corporations seeking to take over cities, in order to foster a genuine sharing economy.

Cities are probably too small to fight corporate giants like Google or Airbnb on their own, especially as these corporations are backed by national governments. They can, however, find allies in civil society or in the solidarity economy and commons sector. A truly “smart” city, driven by the actual needs of people and democratic principles and not by the interests of corporations, still needs to be invented.

By Olivier Petitjean (Observatoire des multinationales)

Olivier Petitjean est un journaliste basé à Paris (et occasionnellement plus loin, en Nouvelle- Zélande). Il est le co-fondateur et coordinateur de l’Observatoire des multinationales, un site d’information et d’investigation sur les grandes entreprises de France et d’ailleurs.

Illustration: Eduardo Luzzatti.

Photo: Dominic Summers CC BY-NC-ND

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]


[1See the “Border Wars” reports by the Transnational Institute and partners: https://www.tni.org/en/ publication/border-wars and https://www.tni.org/en/publication/border-wars-ii.

[2Félix Tréguer, “La « ville sûre » ou la gouvernance par les algorithmes”, Le monde diplomatique, June 2019, https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2019/06/TREGUER/59986

[3See the Technopolice website.

[4See, for instance, “Rethinking the smart city. Democratising urban technology”, Evgeny Morozov and Francesca Bria, January 2018.

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