Originally published on Medium
Silicon Valley’s most famous tech trio, Apple, Google and Facebook put up a combined $4.5 Billion for affordable housing projects in the Bay Area of Northern California last year. Touted as altruistic endeavors to address a homeless problem they helped create, the skyrocketing collective net worth of their CEOs stands in stark contrast to the proscribed economic angst imposed upon the U.S. working classes since March as a result of dubious health measures, which have driven the country to the verge of a nationwide housing catastrophe and promises to create a new underclass of displaced Americans when eviction moratoriums enacted at every level of government come to an end.
In a potential watershed moment that could see anywhere between 17 to 40 million people evicted from their homes in the United States, Big Tech is poised to swoop in and fill the vacuum left by federal, state and local governments in affordable housing projects and income inequality, more broadly. The wave of displacement will come in spurts as moratoriums cease over the following months. The federal eviction freeze, which expired in July, covers all Section 8 housing and Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac mortgages making Uncle Sam the nation’s biggest landlord.
As the crisis deepens and more low and middle-income groups end up on the street or in their cars, Congress will face public pressure to take action on these issues and, with control of more than half of the nation’s mortgages, the assets to offer the private sector in exchange for some help quelling the popular unrest that is sure to follow.
According to a recently-published report by the Institute of Policy Studies, the combined home equity wealth of the 17 million households that comprise the entire Black population in America is equal to the collective wealth of only 12 U.S. billionaires. The wealth disparity is also reflected by the percent of Black and Latino workers who have the option of working from home, which stands at 19.7 and 16.2 percent, respectively. This leaves as significant majority of low-income families in a precarious position as schools follow lockdown orders and leave children at home for the new school year, forcing income-strapped minorities to pay for child care.
As the pandemic exacerbates the economic hardship of millions of Americans, our future is being handed over to the mathematically constricted imaginations of the Big Tech fraternity, who are pouring billions of dollars into city infrastructure projects for what they and their friends at the World Bank and the World Economic Forum (WEF) are betting will be the next phase of capitalist growth.
This new chapter in resource extraction and wage exploitation has been christened as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” or 4IR; brainchild of Klaus Schwab, founder and CEO of the WEF, who gushed over the “possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power,” in his 2016 book of the same name. At the very top of Schwab’s fourth industrial revolution hill is also a new kind of city.
The smart city, considered to be “one of the next big targets of the digital age”, has no universal definition as of yet. But, it does have a very particular meaning for the interlocking boardrooms and organizations that have been building them — piece by piece — for decades. The scaffold for the smart city is the controversial 5G cellular network currently being deployed globally. Network nodes, like IBM’s bespoke law enforcement control centers for Rio de Janeiro and other cities will eventually rely on city-wide 5G wireless protocol. Not to mention, the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) market, which is projected to balloon to over $1.3 Trillion over the next five years.
Smart cities can be visualized as a stack of three blueprints overlaid on a drafting table: The Operations Systems blueprint covers governance and procedural agencies like law enforcement; the City User Systems blueprint, just underneath, contains the interface through which city-dwellers access services and, finally, the City Infrastructure Systems blueprint is the city itself as a civil engineer of old might imagine it, but for the inclusion of what is referred to as Information Communications Technology (ICT).
ICT is the “fundamental enabler” of the smart city and encompasses everything required to manage the networks and collect the data moving through the ubiquitous sensor technologies embedded throughout the city and in the IoT. It is the central nervous system of a full spectrum surveillance apparatus, that collects information from every source point and makes it available to the services and agencies plugged into the system. Whether it’s how many times you turned on the light in your bedroom or where you like to get your coffee every morning, the smart city will have a stable of companies and organizations lurking behind their algorithms, which will determine if you need to be sold a new light bulb or called in for a checkup at your preferred doctor’s clinic.
Software companies like Microsoft and IBM are both heavily invested in developing ICT-based infrastructures at the governance tier, while companies like Apple and Facebook are making strides in the areas related to user system infrastructure. Google’ parent-company, Alphabet has been aggressively pursuing opportunities in physical city infrastructure projects to do “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge”, in the words of former Alphabet and Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
The city of Toronto did, in fact, put Schmidt’s former employer in charge of a 12-acre smart city pilot project in Toronto, Canada, called Quayside. Selected for the project through a municipal RFP, Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs was nevertheless forced to abandon the “largest climate-positive development in North America” after facing resistance from activist groups like #Blocksidewalk and dissension in-house over security and privacy concerns.
Fallen by the Quayside
Dan Doctoroff, co-founder of Sidewalk Labs with Alphabet, Inc., affirmed in a Medium post that “thousands of Torontonians from all over the city, excited by the possibility of making urban life better for everyone” had crossed his path since the start of the project. But, lamented that his company had to pull the plug on a two-and-a-half-year effort to build the “smart” waterfront development, citing that it had “become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan”.
According to the company’s detractors, that “core” part was data and, specifically, who would own it. In 2018, just months into the Quayside project, a Sidewalk Labs consultant and Canada’s former privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, resigned from the project after Sidewalk couldn’t guarantee that the data collected in the smart city pilot would be “de-identified at source”. Cavokian was the second person to step away. A member of the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, Saadia Muzaffar, wrote an illuminating resignation letter wherein she disclosed Sidewalk Labs’ intention to ask consultants to relinquish “any intellectual property that is developed” during the project or extend “an exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide licence” to Sidewalk Labs. It was an inauspicious beginning that foreshadowed the wall of resistance that grew up around the Quayside project from ethical, political and even legal perspectives.
A grassroots campaign against Sidewalk Labs sprung up in Toronto early in 2019 called #BlockSidewalk, which called for the development of “Toronto’s waterfront for the benefit of Torontonians, not corporate shareholders”. The group echoed similar worries of other cities targeted for “smart” re-developments, such as the handing of public land to private corporations with no public input and the prospect of hardwiring the urban center with sensors to track every activity.
“How does Sidewalk Labs make any money?”, asks Matti Siemiatycki, an urban planning professor at the University of Toronto. “You expect them to want a return on investment, being affiliated with Google and having a long-term interest,” he said. Original BlockSidewalk activist and Tech Reset Canada co-founder, Bianca Wylie observed that it “isn’t just about data being sold. It’s also about how is this data being used… You can move a lot of information around within Alphabet without having to sell it, and we need to talk about that.”
Doctoroff, Mike Bloomberg’s former deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, was sure the financial argument would be sufficient to win the people of Toronto over. “We’re prepared to take the risk up front of developing a model to help make that happen, and we’re prepared to essentially get paid back when we’ve demonstrated that it can be successful”, he told The Star at the beginning of the project.
Torontonians should have been grateful that Sidewalk Labs was in a position to finance “mass transit and affordable housing in an era in which there is not enough money.”, according to Doctoroff, who also serves on the board of directors of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which launched the American Cities Climate Challenge in 2018; a $112 million fund (down from $200 million) for “smart-city climate change and data sharing”.
Sidewalk Labs is one of Alphabet’s many “sister companies” that fall into a particular category of investments, which it calls “Other Bets”. These companies, together, have lost 29% of their capitalization, according to Alphabet’s Q1 2020earnings report. But, not even such ghastly numbers can keep Google co-founder and eighth-richest man in America, Larry Page away from Sidewalk Labs, whose team he initially led himself from New York. Money is no object for billionaires like Michael Bloomberg or Larry Page and a host of other preposterously rich individuals who are in the position to lose millions of dollars on what some might interpret as fringe projects, like Page’s flying car startup. But, these people aren’t stupid and rarely move a penny without securing a return on their investments, which begs the question: Do they know something we don’t?
Sidewalk Labs sure did. In February 2019, The Star reported that internal documents obtained by the news organization showed that Sidewalk intended to expand the original 12-acre project to a massive 350 acre development extending to the adjacent Port Lands neighborhood, that would include “financing [for] underground infrastructure and a light rail line.” The plan, according to a “proprietary & confidential” presentation given to the parent company, Alphabet, described how they could “benefit from [the property’s] increased value once other developers build there”.
Sidewalk Labs CEO, Doctoroff, interviewed by The Star, confirmed the plan and offered that he didn’t “think that 12 acres on Quayside has the scale to actually have the impact on affordability and economic opportunity and transit that everyone aspires to.” Other revelations in the secret slide presentation was that Canadian officials from three tiers of government had participated in “weekly briefings” with the company and even drafted “regulatory dispensations” to move the project forward without public knowledge.
This led the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) to file a lawsuit against the three tiers of the Canadian government, accusing them of selling out Canadians “constitutional rights to freedom from surveillance and sold it to the global surveillance mammoth of behavioral data collection: Google.” CCLA also made the case that neither “Waterfront Toronto, let alone Sidewalk Labs”, have “the jurisdiction to make rules about people’s privacy,”
Just last May, Sidewalk Labs decided to away from the Quayside project in Toronto. “I believe that the ideas we have developed over the last two-and-a-half years will represent a meaningful contribution,” wrote Doctoroff in his parting letter.
IBM and the Smart City PD
The Internet of Things, AI, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, 3-D printing, quantum computing and everything that Klaus Schwab, in his bleak transhumanism, foresees as the future of mankind is meticulously laid out in a 2015 paper published by the WEF, titled “Deep Shift: Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impact”. The 44-page report surveyed “800 executives and experts from the information and communications technology sector” to project a timeline for when certain innovations would arrive at the “tipping point” of widespread adoption or acceptance. Smart cities came in near the end of the timeline, but just a stone’s throw away in 2026.
Few corporations have had more influence on the trajectory of smart city infrastructure than IBM. It’s long-standing ties to government and American intelligence has put the company’s officers in powerful positions that shape policy directly for the executive branch as was the case with former IBM CEO John Opel, who chaired Reagan’s Task Force on Intellectual Property.
Opel was among a group of American CEOs who got together in the 1980’s to transform the global trade regime to favor their own interests under the guise of national security. Leveraging their collective power and backed by the U.S. government, IBM and other companies with a stake in the information economy, succeeded in introducing new IP trade protocols, allowing them to use patent law as the tip of the spear in their quest for market supremacy and generate the underlying revenue streams that are tied to the emergence of Big Tech and the global surveillance apparatus currently under construction.
Opel’s company, IBM, has been involved with law enforcement for decades. In the 1960’s, their machines were used by police departments from New York to Salt Lake City for fingerprint tracking. Since the advent of big data, the company has developed several “predictive” analytics systems for law enforcement, like the IBM Crime Information Warehouse (CIW) suite of products, which incorporates “advanced Web-enabled tools like geographic imaging software and live video feeds for a detailed view of an enforcement area”.
After the 2004 Madrid train bombings, IBM partnered with the Iberian capital to create CISEM, Spanish acronym for Integrated Center for Security and Emergencies of Madrid, which replaced the city’s entire mobile infrastructure for emergency responders and connected the city’s critical services to one single, centralized management node where “any sensor input — video, data or voice — from any source can be readily incorporated into the data stream and accessed by anyone who needs it.”
The system was also implemented in New York City during Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as Mayor in 2005 as the Real Time Crime Center (RTCC); a tactical and surveillance control technology for the NYPD, which relies on the “information foundation” of IBM’s CIW software, hardware and services suite. The CIW, itself, was born from the Crime Data Warehouse (CDW); a master database developed by IBM Business Consulting Services and the NYPD between 2002 and 2005, which included “police databases that track arrests, complaints and criminal summonses, among other things”.
This was followed by a 2008 to 2016 partnership with the NY Police Department to develop facial recognition technology with a built-in skin-color search feature, that made headlines during the George Floyd protests. Efforts at damage control spurred, CEO Arvind Krishna to pen a letter to Congress calling for police reform and held that the company “firmly” opposed to “uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values”. Documents uncovered by The Intercept in 2018, however, show that IBM pitched the software with racial-profiling included.
In 2010, IBM inaugurated one of its most ambitious “smart cities” projects; a brick-and-mortar “public information management center for Rio de Janeiro” in partnership with the Brazilian city called the Rio Operations Center Project (COR). The “multimillion-dollar plan was sold as a way “to help meteorologists, geological surveyors, field operations and security work together to speed up emergency responsiveness.”
The project received considerable hype and celebrated as an exemplar of smart city infrastructure by organizations with vested interests. More than 60 foreign delegations have visited the compound to learn more about its inner workings, according to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank. The Boston Consulting Group gave COR a stellar review in a 2016 case study published through its think tank, the Center for Public Impact.
Left out of international headlines was the fact that Brazil actually terminated the contract with IBM after a study conducted by a government working group, found serious flaws in the system’s design and decided to write their own software using only some elements from IBM’s original scheme. According to another study cited in a Privacy International report, an agreement was reached between the parties that allowed IBM to continue using COR in its marketing campaigns. Even Sidewalk Labs took a jab at the project in a Medium blog postlamenting that COR “failed to go beyond high-tech marketing rhetoric and help real people living in the city.”
The four-story, 80-screen facility in Rio de Janeiro staffed with over 100 operators and secretariats from all municipal departments, exacerbates the endemic problems found in police departments anywhere. The 600 CCTV cameras feeding video footage into the center are mostly concentrated in wealthy neighborhoods, which effectively reduces the resources available to more marginalized areas by directing those resources to the places where the data is coming from. Far worse, the violent repression of the 2014 World Cup protests was directly aided by the capabilities at COR.
$90 Trillion Dollar Tree
IBM claims to have over 2,000 ongoing smart city projects around the world and, yet, it is barely making a dent in the $57 Billion-dollar smart cities IT market, which is dominated by perennial government contractor Cisco and includes other firms like Intel, GE Lighting, Oracle and Siemens. Several European cities have been categorized as “Early adopters” such as Barcelona and Amsterdam, while San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Miami and Minneapolis — which bought into IBM’s Intelligent Operations Platform in 2013 — are among those adding “smart” capabilities in the United States.
According to The New Climate Economy (TNCE), a “major international initiative” by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, “the world is expected to invest around US$90 trillion in infrastructure over the next 15 years,”, in which the “Global South will account for roughly two-thirds of global infrastructure investment (or about US$4 trillion per year).”
TNCE and its parent organization, the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (GCEC), are part of a grand collection of non-governmental organizations executing the rebranding of predatory capitalism as a planet-saving force with an environmental conscience. Terminology like “clean” or “renewable” energy; “green economy” and “carbon capture” is carefully-crafted language that conceals a mandate for unfettered resource extraction, wage exploitation and poverty, which a $90-trillion-dollar quota requires.
The mind-boggling figure was hatched at the 2014 G20 summit held in Brisbane, Australia, where future infrastructure investment trends were deemed to be at risk of suffering a $15 to 14-Trillion-dollar shortfall from the prevailing trend of $79-Trillion. From the summit, an NGO called the Global Infrastructure Hub(GIH) was formed to “help implement the G20’s multi-year infrastructure agenda” at the level of Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors from countries like the U.K., China, Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Korea among other signatories.
Led by the World Economic Forum’s former head of Infrastructure Initiatives, the GIH coordinates between G20 countries and the Infrastructure Working Group (IWG) of the Institute of International Finance (IIF), a D.C.-based “global association of the financial industry.” The IWG is composed of “representatives from industrial companies involved in infrastructure, […] investment funds, rating agencies and interested government entities”, who engage “major pension funds, life insurers, asset managers and sovereign wealth funds to address the dearth of funding for infrastructure investment,”; in other words, a sophisticated looting operation of the world’s wealth to put trillions of dollars on tap for the globe’s largest corporations, who will reap the lion’s share of both the “investments” and the projected profits built into their artificial, smart city eco-system.
The chain of command of this organized plunder goes up to the IWG’s D.C-based parent organization, IIF, which is run by former Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs of the Bush Administration, Tim Adams. Adams describes his rolein the Bush White House as the “point person on international financial issues,” dealing with policy issues surrounding the exchange rate and matters of the IMF and World Bank.
The IIF “represents more than 100 financial firms with more than $45 trillion in assets under management” — precisely half of the magic $90 Trillion. Sonja Gibbs, the institute’s director of global policy initiatives and sustainable finance, extolled the virtues of the smart city as a means to turbo-charge the public-private partnership model in a 2018 interview for the Paulson Institute:
“Smart cities integrate information, communication and transportation technology to optimize the efficiency of city operations, including by reducing resource consumption. Cities like New York, San Francisco, London, Paris, and Tokyo are making great strides… More than 500 Chinese cities have begun or are planning smart-city transformations. Over the next decade, the number of smart cities in the world is expected to explode — and not just in wealthy or middle-income countries. Public-private partnerships will remain a particularly effective means of financing this transformation.” [emphasis added]
– Sonja Gibbs
“Reduced resource consumption” in this context means a digitally-superimposed life plan for the masses confined within the city limits of an AI-managed reality, while mining, gas and other resource extraction activities go into overdrive to supply the raw materials needed to achieve the $90-Trillion benchmark and perpetuation of the fully-realized technocratic dream.
The Cost of Utopia
Critics have attacked the utopian visions of smart city planners, doubting its “feasibility and potential” and questioning whether smart cities are just a “wedding of vendors and local governments” that “leaves out real community problems”.
The impending eviction catastrophe in the United States may well turn out to be a proof of concept moment for Big Tech and its partners to create their own “living labs” as millions of people are left twisting in the wind and offered the chance to embrace “the paradigm of a city, or dwelling-place, where human beings simply follow the directions provided by algorithms, without feeling the need to interrupt this with their own ideas or spontaneous actions born of their own free will… in other words a completely dead intelligence. An intelligence with no conscience.”
Sidewalk Labs is so sure the people will accept such a dystopian arrangement, that it spun off an investment company called Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners(SIP), which “builds, owns, operates, and invests in both advanced infrastructure projects and technology companies with innovations that enable and apply to those projects.” One of its co-founders and Sidewalk Labs’ head of investment, Jonathan Winer, is also a close business associate of McKinsey & Co alum, Vikram Raju.
Raju led the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) climate-related private equity funds across emerging markets as its principal investment officer, and oversaw the delivery of $4.3 Billion to South Korean smart projects after the organization established its presence in the country.
South Korea is a leading partner of the World Bank and the World Economic Forum in the implementation of smart technologies and is considered a global leader in IoT networks with the first “5G deployment worldwide”. South Korea is forging full steam ahead with the 4IR and the city of Songdo’s International Business District (IBD) — built with Cisco Systems “leading edge technological infrastructure” — is held up as a model for smart city implementations.
35-year old IDB resident Lee Mi-Jung said she “felt something cold” when she moved to the city with her husband in 2015; specifically, a lack of “human warmth and interaction”. The boasts of the WEF about Songdo’s carless paradise also fell short, with examples like that of a Belgian ex-pat who had to buy a car to avoid walking 20-minutes to the nearest grocery store in freezing weather. Lindy Wenselaers marvels at the high-tech amenities that are peppered throughout her apartment and the city, but will often drive an hour to Seoul just to be around other people.