"With the coronavirus crisis, the solidarity of digital giants comes off as a marketing campaign disguised as humanitarianism"

 Photo: Paolo Cardullo

Photo: Paolo Cardullo

Roser Reyner
Paolo Cardullo, Italian researcher from the Urban Transformation and Global Change Laboratory (TURBA Lab)


Paolo Cardullo prefers to talk about the intelligent city rather than the smart city, because for him the first concept puts the needs and interests of the many over those of the few. That, and because the second term, much more widespread, is a concept now associated with neoliberalism. The Italian researcher recently joined the Urban Transformation and Global Change Laboratory (TURBA Lab) at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) to focus his research on how the aforementioned smart (or should we say, 'intelligent') city policy transfers to different contexts, particularly in the case of the city of Barcelona. In this interview, which he gives while confined in Italy, he talks about our globalized urban world, the threats and opportunities of technology and the current coronavirus crisis.


First off, this question is a must. You recently tweeted that the coronavirus crisis will spell the end of neoliberalism. How?

Yes, I tweeted this on 12 March in the wake of the Italian Prime Minister's request to break the country's budget deficit commitments with the EU and pledge 7.5 billion euros in public spending to combat the effects of the virus and the criticism that immediately followed from the right-wing neoliberal opposition (e.g. La Lega and Forza Italia) that this was "not enough" and that Italy would need to increase the deficit by much more! And I thought, "OMG, this is it, we are going to break the European Central Bank (ECB) doctrine!".

Subsequent days have been an echo of this, with the ECB first having to adapt its policy of non-intervention and now the so-called Stability and Growth Pact (read: austerity policy), and then the American Federal Reserve announcing federal help, and then others following suit in what is now looking more and more like a new Marshall Plan or a Keynesian post-depression intervention similar to 1939's New Deal in the US. Spain's recent announcement of its own 200 billion-euro package has made this all the more clear. This is particularly because public health services around the world have been severely hit by neoliberal austerity policy and privatization. And now we are hearing the same sentiments being expressed daily, although obviously not just because of my tweet! From Noam Chomsky, Mike Davis, Mariana Mazzucato, David Harvey… They are all calling for the need to turn the tide on neoliberal economics towards models that work for the people and not for profits; for 'the many' rather than 'the few'… But all the same, the end of the neoliberal orthodoxy is probably still a ways away, who knows?

The internet is playing a crucial role in sustaining productive activity during this pandemic, isn't it?

The emergence of the coronavirus crisis created dramatic social, economic and political upheaval, urging the Italian Government, and those of many other countries like Spain, to lock down the entire population at home in order to avoid further contagion. Lo resto a casa (I stay at home) is the new buzzword. As a consequence, social media, teleworking, online courses, chats with tutors via WhatsApp groups (or Zoom or Skype, etc.) are becoming, albeit slowly and patchily, the new norm in these troubled times.

For instance, the Italian Ministry of Technological Innovation and Digitalization has launched an initiative called Solidarietà digitale (digital solidarity), in which hundreds of large and medium-sized tech players are offering services and discounts on their digital products. These include extra gigabytes of home entertainment, free online access to magazines and e-books, discounted server storage, free certified email addresses (to avoid going to the post office), and of course a wealth of distance-learning tools for online training, digital platforms and solutions for teleworking and videoconferencing. While these measures are certainly welcome in a dystopian climate (the emergency is seriously affecting every worker and learner in the country!), I believe there is a need to critically evaluate what this means.

So let's discuss that...

First, the digital solidarity race has brought to the forefront the fact that online working, leisure and communication activities are an everyday affair. I have often argued the need to promote an Internet of People for 'the many'. The current situation may be exceptional, but it will no doubt force digital practices onto people and institutions that have resisted this change thus far.

Second, and as a direct consequence, the right to the smart city ought to take into account data and communication infrastructure as being strategic to the development of human beings and their cities. If we are to consider equality and fairness as driving principles of digital societies, universal access to these infrastructures has to be a priority of modern living, and it logically follows that such infrastructures cannot be left to private and unregulated oligopolies. The fact that digital capitalism has shown its human side during this unprecedented situation of population-wide home confinement won't solve the issue, but it will make it more urgent on decision makers' agendas.

That giant providers like AT&T in the US remove caps from their users only serves to show that such restrictions are not dictated by technical efficiency; they are merely an unfair accrual of profits by private digital companies. That phone companies like Iliad offer 10 gigabytes more per month to their users in Italy is just a drop in the bucket: to put this into perspective, a film in 4K, the high-quality standard of today's streaming, uses almost as much bandwidth as this supposed 'gift'.

It seems to me that more needs to be done, especially given the long-term boomerang effects that such generosity will eventually generate: more registered accounts and metadata, more users' details and an eventual increase in subscriptions for each service. The window-dressing effects of such measures are likely to generate more profits in the long run for these digital giants, to the point that, to me, this solidarity race looks more like a marketing campaign disguised as humanitarianism. The same institutional sites promoting this digital solidarity campaign have been quick to warn against scammers or hoaxes and poor service provision, all of which hide marketing messages.

For instance, Google has been under fire by US senators for continually providing ads on masks and hand sanitizers to users searching "coronavirus" and similar items, as well as for engaging in "price gouging". In other words, it seems to me that digital capitalism is responding to the crisis with a vested interest, which ultimately leaves the pressing needs of a population stuck at home unresolved. The solution to this is a truly public ownership of critical digital infrastructures, data and the Internet of People, which works for the common good and for the many rather than the few.

Just last year you published The Right to the Smart City, a book which argues that smart cities do not have to obey the interests of capitalism and neoliberal governments.

The Right to the Smart City (Cardullo, Kitchin, & Di Feliciantonio, 2019) compiles a series of rights that puts citizens at the forefront, where they are able to control and shape the spaces they inhabit. In other words, pursuing the right to the (smart) city means creating cities that are not rooted in and driven-by capitalism. Only on these grounds, as professor David Harvey maintains, can a "genuinely humanizing urbanism" be put into effect.

The right to the city is a rallying cry for transformative political mobilization to create this humanizing urbanism and a more emancipatory and empowering city. Therefore, I would rather speak of the 'intelligent city' as alternative to the current neoliberal 'smart city', one that is based on collective rights and entitlements which are deeply political and ethical; an ideal of democratic governance that is grounded on the deliberative power of citizens – that is, within rights-based and people-focused forms of urban regeneration. These include the human right to decent housing, ownership of critical infrastructures, remuneration for the data citizens provide, and forms of governance linked to political actions which hold cities or states accountable. In an era of big data and data-driven urbanism, citizens have the right to understand what kind of data is being generated about them and the places they live in. This needs to be done within a framework that guarantees transparency regarding how these data are compiled and transformed into information and the uses to which this information is put, so that citizens are able to challenge and reconfigure those uses if need be. The right to the (smart) city is therefore a right to social justice, which not only includes but also far exceeds the right to individual justice. In this sense it is a common and not an individual right, and goes beyond individual liberty, as Harvey says.

Is the concept of smart cities also applicable to rural areas?

The notion of 'smartness' in terms of this discussion here concerns the complexities and foibles of city living, and seeks to foster an idea of the urban which is very different from the knowable, programmable, and thus linear processes postulated by urban science and algorithmic governance. However, today, the 'urban' concept rejects a difference between the city and the rural. We are all in this together, so to speak: it is a globalized urban world. For instance, a teacher giving her distance-learning class from a cottage in the countryside in Ireland is no less urban than the one doing it from central London.

Some experts say that the current pandemic, which is affecting developed countries, marks the real beginning of the 21st century. A moment when the major challenges, such as climate change or conflicts caused by the massive displacement of people, are global. In this context, can technology help to truly humanize the planet?

Technology is never neutral and through its development and implementation a series of conceptual, socio-technical, and cultural issues become manifest. It depends a great deal on the societies that use it and in which contexts, like the examples of digital solidarity I mentioned before.

What are the main threats?

Mass (and massive) surveillance, for sure. Then there's digital tracking for commercial and political purposes, redlining of minority groups and algorithmic bias. Even during this emergency, drones and surveillance cameras, and even mobile phone signals (as is occurring in South Korea), are being used to track people's movement in order to enforce restrictions. Although this is a real emergency, I'm frightened by these new technologies' totalitarian affordances: a mobile phone is, de facto, an electronic bracelet placed on people's ankles!

Finally, do you dare to predict the main changes that smart cities will bring about in our daily lives in a decade? And beyond that?

Very difficult question, but I'll try to give you a composite answer. The future smart city is up for grabs, limited – according to business guru Klaus Schwab – "only by our imagination". Along the same lines, the recent smart city platform set up by the European Commission in Brussels has been inspiringly called DREAM (Demonstration, Reinvention, Engagement, Adhesion, Mobilization), because, "All innovation begins with a shared dream".

Last year, I was at the Smart City Expo in Barcelona (SCEWC 2019) and their marketing slogan was "Cities made of dreams". Images of future smart city scenarios are increasingly being drawn from a rich repository of media imaginaries, ranging from Bladerunner-like cityscapes – driverless cars, drone-operated delivery services and hybrid AI machines – to fully-automated communism that promises abundant resources for all and low demands on workers. The future envisioned by these imaginaries is not, however, a shared narrative.

In my opinion, the underbelly of the smart city discourse is still real estate speculation and gentrification. Only a truly humanizing smart – or, as I prefer, intelligent – city that puts the needs and interest of the many over the few can seriously be considered to be a progressive change. Otherwise, thinking in terms of dystopian futures and hyper-surveillance is completely legitimate. There is no universal recipe; it depends on the context and on every piece in the digital stack. This is why the project needs to be open, transparent and, above all, democratic, as well as inherently political and agonistic, with the possibility of saying "no" and changing direction when needed.