Design, control, predict: Logistical governance in the smart city, by Aaron Shapiro

Journal of Urban Affairs > Book Review > Design, control, predict: Logistical governance in the smart city, by Aaron Shapiro
Design, Control, Predict

Leonardo de Castro Harth (2022) Design, control, predict: Logistical governance in the smart city, by Aaron Shapiro, Journal of Urban Affairs, 44:1, 107-108, DOI: 10.1080/07352166.2021.1939596

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Dr. Aaron Shapiro is a trained scholar in the fields of anthropology, communications, and urban studies. In Design, control, predict: Logistical governance in the smart city, he amalgamates his scholarly knowledge with his idiosyncratic experience as an on-demand worker for the tech industry to challenge the self-proclaimed disruptive power of smart city technologies. His research illustrates how the integration of information and communications technology (ICT) with urban services often subsidizes the maintenance of archaic power relations, despite being portrayed as transformative tools.

The book is organized into five chapters; after an introduction, the author dedicates each numbered chapter to a thorough case study related to one of the smart cities’ aspects in the book’s title—Chapter 1: Design, Chapter 2: Control, and Chapter 3: Predict. These chapters are followed by a short conclusion in which Shapiro discusses alternatives to ICT deployment which can more substantially impact the lives of urban dwellers. Each chapter is subdivided by subtitles that organize the themes within. Some of those themes have subdivisions of their own and the font size is the sole indicator of the passage’s hierarchy in the chapter. The writing is clear and concise and the structure is well articulated; each section has successfully tackled the questions I formulated while reading the previous one.

The introductory chapter reveals Shapiro’s framing of smart cities as an umbrella term for a set of logistical interventions and utopian narratives designed to uphold and expand managerial control over urban dynamics. His choice of focusing his analysis on existing smart cities interventions aims to dissect the motivations and consequences of these systems for cities and their dwellers.

The first chapter, “Design,” presents an extensive analysis of the LinkNYC public Wi-Fi network. I was impressed by the multifaceted approach of the research and by the many connections Shapiro successfully established between the actors’ motivations. His research reveals a tokenistic approach to the design competition that chose the replacement for the city’s phone booths; the idea of having Wi-Fi kiosks with generous dedicated advertisement space was laid out even before the competition was announced. Mobilizing tech enthusiasts and designers to submit ideas for phone booth replacement was a means to legitimize a pre-established plan. He also depicts how this maneuver served as a subterfuge to implement a large-scaled, highly profitable advertisement system that poses a real threat to NYC dwellers’ privacy through veiled data collection. Moreover, he exposes how LinkNYC fails to bring free high-speed internet to those who need it the most.

In my opinion, chapter “Control” is the most fascinating case study in the book as Shapiro offers his personal experience working as a courier for a food delivery company to complement his breakdown of the disruptive power of on-demand app-based companies. He builds a strong case that shows on one hand how elusive the flexibility offered for on-demand workers actually is, and on the other hand how profitable the lack of work regulation is for those companies. His testimonials, as well as excerpts from semi-structured interviews with other on-demand workers, narrate a timeline of an increasing lack of transparency in the information exchange between company and on-demand workers. After a brief harmonic period of captivating “partners” to build their fleets, transportation network companies (TNCs), food delivery apps, and other on-demand services continuously changed the rules of the relationship to wield more managerial control. He makes a compelling point about how these companies’ apps employ nudges, notifications, and user ratings to bypass the managerial limitations they have, since their on-demand workers are legally classified as contractors. Shapiro waves a red flag at the dangers of this exploitation as he observes the shift in the workers’ profile from people who supplemented their income with part-time engagement with the apps to more economically vulnerable populations working full-time for TNCs and other services.

The third chapter, “Predict,” discusses the use of algorithms by police enforcement agencies and focuses on the development of one specific system created by a Philadelphia-based software company. The chapter begins with an overview of several of these tools and their inherent problems, such as the embedded societal bias that skews ratings and classifications from automated decision systems designed to assess an individual’s propensity to re-offend. A big highlight of this chapter is the sharp explanation of how predictive policing may render itself useless in the long term due to inaccuracy problems. The text is clear and approachable for non-technical audiences to fully understand the dilemmas intertwined in these systems. Furthermore, Shapiro points out the risks of overconfidence in algorithmic postulates, leading to police officers taking crime predictions for granted and developing harsher attitudes toward specific geographies and populations.

Shapiro wraps up his book by reminding us how the neoliberal obsession with banishing regulations is a powerful drive for new smart city endeavors and other large-scale logistical experiments. He strengthens his claims by pointing out the common grounds in logistical governance found across all case studies: the need for legitimation, the mediation of social hierarchies, the modulation of these hierarchies, and the authority to solve specific tensions created by the systems. The conclusion also presents two examples of citizen-focused smart city technologies, showing alternatives to the neoliberal model that are currently sold as uncontestable.

In Design, Control, Predict, Shapiro throws light on the veiled residual outcomes of smart cities enterprises. By asking who benefits the most and who is left behind, he discloses hidden agendas, harmful inaccuracies, and potential dangers that are often obscure in the promises of a shiny technological future. This is a great read for planners who want to understand the hidden perils of technological adoption before they deal with the voracious appetite of tech companies. This is also an accessible read for introductory planning theory courses that wish to embrace up-to-date themes in their debates. But most of all, this is an enticing and informative book that tells a contemporary story of deception and appropriation of public goods.

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