GAITHERSBURG, MARYLAND – Located on the outskirts of the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area in a city of barely seventy thousand, researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have been at the forefront of the federal government’s efforts to establish the technical regulatory frameworks and scientific standards for the smart city.
Parallel to its covert activities with the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2006 to insert a backdoor decryption method into the NIST’s SP 800-90A encryption standard, revealed in the Snowden leaks, the 120-year old institution was laying the groundwork for the Internet of Things (IoT) “revolution” by coordinating with public, industrial and academic sectors to develop standards for the smart grid and provide pivotal open access to consumer energy usage data.
Title XIII of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 created the NIST’s Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP), an international cross-sector consortium comprised of utility companies from around the world, energy corporations and technology firms, including familiar names like IBM, Cisco, Microsoft, Intel and MITRE corp., to name just a few. The SGIP’s first meeting didn’t take place until the Obama administration funded the new entity through the controversial $787 billion stimulus bill, known as the “Recovery Act” in 2009.
Soon thereafter, Aneesh Chopra, who was appointed the country’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) that same year, announced the “Green Button” energy data standardization initiative, which drove smart meter implementations in New York, California, Pennsylvania and Utah – four key states in the roll out of smart city infrastructure.
Momentum gathered quickly. Multiple pilot programs and projects were launched globally as large, enterprise scale players pounced on the billions of freshly-printed American federal dollars on tap to take advantage of the weakened state of municipal governments all over the world, which found themselves holding worthless bonds in the aftermath of the sub-prime mortgage debacle.
Promising to usher in a new day of accountability and transparency, the giant transnationals marketed their products of mass surveillance, data capture and encryption technology as solutions to the fallibility of human-run systems. In 2014, the NIST launched the first Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC) in over 200 cities and 500 companies across the U.S., Africa, Asia and Europe.
Architects of the Global City
According to a 2016 paper by then GCTC director, Sokwoo Rhee, the goal of the GCTC is to “establish and demonstrate replicable, scalable, and sustainable models for incubation and deployment of interoperable, standards-based IoT solutions and to demonstrate measurable benefits in smart communities/cities”.
Among the projects GCTC has carried out in cities throughout the world, many have focused on the use of artificial intelligence to manage healthcare, natural disaster response and energy consumption. In order to achieve technological convergence, the GCTC applies a system of smart city “SuperClusters“, which brings together groups of stakeholders, municipal entities and corporate interests to work on specific areas, such as transportation, public safety, education and agriculture.
Originally launched in partnership with the White House/National Science Foundation broadband network initiative called US Ignite, GCTC is the vehicle used by companies like AT&T, IBM and many others in the Information Communications Technology (ICT) space to stake out their markets and build out their smart city technologies, aided by the NIST, which introduces open standards so these proprietary IoT devices can “talk to each other” and do for “grid devices what Android did for the smartphone”.
One such example is the self-driving shuttle Olli, which has been deployed in Washington D.C. in partnership with IBM Watson and was the result of a GCTC project based on the Autonomous Robotics for Installation and Base Operations(ARIBO) concept, originally funded by the U.S. Army. Similar examples abound and are not limited to the U.S., since as much as 40% of GCTC’s participants are cities outside of the United States.
Over the course of the GCTC, other smart city initiatives have been spawned in different departments of the federal government. The Department of Energy inaugurated its Communities LEAP (Local Energy Action Program) Pilot, which aims to benefit “low-income, energy-burdened communities […] experiencing either direct environmental justice impacts, or direct economic impacts from a shift away from historical reliance on fossil fuels”, by funneling millions of dollars to ICT companies, clean energy consultants and any number of smart city-related vendors. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Commerce and the Department of Transportation have started their own smart city programs, as well.
As Biden dangles his $3.5 Trillion “Build Back Better” infrastructure bill in front of Congress, corporate America’s bought-and-paid for politicians are jockeying for position to deliver as much tax-payer money as they can to their sponsors, in order to subsidize their long-standing plans to build the digital enclosures, a.k.a. smart cities, or what American urbanist Adam Greenfield correctly identifies as “a lifestyle of consumption, convenience and security [for a few] and a permanent state of exception for everyone else”.
Speaking at an event in 2014, titled Dangers of Smart Cities, Greenfield talked about the “valuations, theories and beliefs built into” the smart city paradigm and revealed the stark reality behind the push to corral us into these glorified company towns, where the goal is the “computational extraction of value from everyday activity”.
Greenfield highlights the definitions that industry leaders like IBM, Cisco and Siemens give to smart cities, effectively exposing the true nature of their endeavors. Couched in already cliché language of “sustainable” economies and “prosperity for everyone”, the fascist tone of the body of the message is unmistakable and terrifying if we are willing to see through the flowery terminology and understand what IBM means when it states that smart cities will give “decision-makers” the tools they need to “anticipate problems and manage growth and development”.
To clarify, Greenfield points us to the company’s developer guidelines for the intelligent systems operations manual, in which questions about the number of troops, which might be required in a particular street at any given time. These kinds of scenarios are laid out for operators training on a system like the Rio Operations Center Project (COR) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; a four-story, 80-screen facility staffed with over 100 operators and secretariats from all municipal departments.
He also highlights the case of Quividi, a French facial recognition company, which offers a technology that can apply 81 different metrics to the faces that happen across a camera running its software to not only identify age, gender and ethnicity, but to determine whether people are looking at a billboard by measuring light bounced off their eyeballs.
Such banal applications align perfectly with Cisco’s definition of the smart city, which they describe as “the seamless integration of public and private services, delivered across a common network infrastructure, to individuals, governments and businesses.” Greenfield reminds us that the word ‘seamless’ in a technological context is dishonest, at best. “Digital information technological networks are inherently heterogeneous,” he tells his audience and urges them to consider that “anybody offering to provide you with a seamless experience is lying to you”.
Perhaps the most chilling description of the smart city is the one provided by Siemens, which characterizes the goal of the smart city as “optimally regulat[ing] and control[ling] resources by means of autonomous IT systems”. Again, Greenfield makes a keen observation by challenging the notion that a city can have a goal at all.
What we can know for sure is that the promoters of smart cities and smart city technology do have a goal and the creative human element that makes a real city thrive and communities grow does not figure in their master plans. More ominously, many of these same interests are actively experimenting and piloting programs designed to insert behavior and biological modification technologies into the urban landscape. Some, like IBM’s Health Pass blockchain-based credentials are already being deployed. But, together with the NIST, the IBMs of the world are banking on a brave new world of nanoscale control mechanisms to “minimize disruptions” to their bottom line.
The NIST plays a “key role” in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) and created the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) in partnership with the Department of Commerce to “move nanotechnology from the laboratory to the marketplace”. The CNST provides state-of-the-art nanoscale fabrication (NanoFab) equipment to private and public researchers, so they can hone their nanoscale tech applications even as the NIST standardizes protocols surrounding advanced nanomaterials, which are increasingly overlapping with smart technologies.
Nanotechnology’s convergence with biotechnology, information and communications technology, along with advances in neuroscience, are already being targeted as the next frontier of the smart city paradigm. Project’s like NATO-funded NANO LC, which is developing nanoscale biosensors to dump in the water supply for the ostensible purpose of monitoring the quality of our drinking water are being replicated throughout the world and urban spaces are the target of many of their applications.
In a 2019 interview with Nano, the chairman of the World Nano Foundation (WNF), Paul Stannard, detailed many of the potential uses of nanotechnology within the context of the smart city, boasting that “our homes, clothes and even our bodies will be able to harness this nano-enabled data in real time so that we can be smart with our health, energy, food, transport, infrastructure, water resources, education, security, communications, and finances”.
Less than a month ago, U.S. President Biden announced the 30 members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which is co-chaired by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director, Eric Lander, a principal member of the Human Genome Project. The Council’s resident nanotechnology expert is Paula Hammond, Ph.D., co-founder of MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) in partnership with the U.S. Army, which provides approximately half of its funding and works with members of its ISN Industry Consortium founded by Raytheon, DuPont and Partners Healthcare.
Like the military self-driving project that resulted in Olli, currently rolling through the streets of Saudi Arabia, Italy and New York, who’s to say that the nanotechnology developed at places like MIT or the NIST’s NanoFab lab won’t soon be part of smart city infrastructure? WNF’s Stannard certainly seems to think so: “In fact,” he says, “pandemics and plagues can be monitored and controlled using nanosensors, new point of care diagnostics, and nanomedicines.”