Remote Controls, Switchboards, Dashboards, War Rooms: The Cybernetics DNA of Smart Cities

Is the smart city an authoritarian construct?

We’ve all seen this trope: a couple begins to bicker over a remote. One person wants to watch National Geographic; the other wants to watch Downton Abbey. It’s understood that whoever ends up with the remote control seemingly has the control.

Caetlin Benson-Allott, a media scholar from Georgetown University, gave at talk at MIT called “What Remote Controls Can Teach Us about the Nature of Control” in which she discussed the history of the remote control. The term remote control was coined in 1794 around the trial of Thomas Hardy, who was tried for high treason for demanding universal suffrage and direct democracy. During the trial, Solicitor General Sir John Milford uses the phrase to counterpoise Hardy’s demand for “a revolutionary government…in which the people are to be considered…as having perpetual control over the government of the country, not an indirect or remote control.”

This sort of “mastery at a distance” between the user and apparatus is an idea that advertisers have recast onto radio/TV remote control technology as early as the 1920s. Since its beginnings, the idea of remote control is associated with — even conflated with — the notion of remote power.

Image: 1956 Remote control TV ad (

Image: 1956 Remote control TV ad (

Perhaps without coincidence, the same type of rhetoric shows up in the way we construct the discourse about smart and responsive cities.

Therein lies the problem with instrumented cities — that is, cities equipped with information and communication technology (ICT) that responds to the environment and feeds back the data to some source. In marketing materials and press releases for smart city initiatives, we hear about idyllic dashboards, switchboards, and control rooms, artifices that enable government decision makers to interface with data streams being produced by the city and simultaneously obscure the process from those people who inhabit it.

My ongoing research on sensor journalism includes looking at sensor networks that are embedded in cities (examples here, here, and here). With the increasing ubiquity of sensor networks and the growth of the smart city market, it may be more common practice for journalists and the public to access sensor-based data (see the Sun Sentinel ‘Above the Law’ series about speeding cops). For that reason, I’m interested in the implications of how smart city technology is implemented, who has access to it, and how it is marketed vs. perceived.

That said, I am inclined to ask:

Are smart city dashboards or switchboards proxies for the remote control? What do the design, deployment, and demand for such tools imply about our perception of authority and power?

Cybernetics DNA of the Smart City

The history of smart cities is unequivocally linked to that of cybernetics.

Classically, the word cybernetics was first used in the context of “the study of self-governance” by Plato in The Alcibiades to signify the governance of people. The word cybernétique was also used in 1834 by French physicist André-Marie Ampère (after whom the unit for electric current, the ampere, was named) to denote the sciences of government.

Twentieth-century cybernetics is built on World War II research, which focused its energy on anti-aircraft targeting techniques. The field sought to advance the performance of targeting technology by using sensing and feedback to preemptively locate enemy craft. In cybernetics, everything — machines, organizations, cities, even the human mind — can be seen as a “system, a balanced network of things connected by information flows” (Townsend 75). The components of any system, and the flows between them, could be quantified and represented as a set of equations and data. This is not unlike the thinking behind Big Data today, with the growing volume and ubiquity of data captured from devices that measure our environment and the people in it.

Jay Forrester, a researcher at MIT’s Servomechanisms Laboratory, played a key role in WWII cybernetics research. Once the war ended, he campaigned for the application of cybernetics technology beyond military means. His book Urban Dynamics (1969) was an ambitious effort to push computer-based urban simulations as a model for assessing civic health. Unfortunately, it was released at the tail-end of a legacy of unsuccessful quantified solutions for urban problems:

In 1960, the city of Pittsburgh attempted a data-driven approach to urban decision making, but a combination of having too much data as well as shaping policy questions around the limitations of what the data could show with concurrent technology led to the approach’s demise (Townsend 79). Then, in 1970, the RAND Corporation implemented a system in New York City to optimize fire department response times. Eventually, the hyperquantified approach led to the closure of certain fire houses that appeared not to be as busy as others on average. It turns out that the project managers didn’t take into account that all local fire stations could be out fighting fires at the same time. Thus, “the resulting closures were concentrated in poor areas of the city; the demands of the remaining of fire companies soared; and the Bronx (and several other neighborhoods) burned” (81). Soon after, Forrester’s lab at MIT closed its doors, curtailing the short-lived and complicated trajectory of the urban dynamics movement.

Until 2010, that is.

This is the year that IBM set its sights on governments as an untapped market for technology and analytics. And so began the Smarter Cities Challenge. Working with cities like Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Sendai (Japan), and Providence (U.S.), the initiative (from website) “contributes the skills and expertise of IBM’s top talent to address critical challenges facing cities around the world…[they do] this by putting teams on the ground for three weeks to work closely with city leaders and deliver recommendations on how to make the city smarter and more effective.”

Since then, other corporate and non-corporate players have funded and supported smart city projects, simultaneously widening the market for smart cities and spurring competition within it.

Top notches, dials, and buttons

In April 2010, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil suffered disastrous floods and mudslides, killing hundreds and leaving tens of thousands homeless. Reacting to the crisis, Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes decided that the city drastically needed to reconfigure; they needed to be more prepared for crises. Paes partnered with IBM during the Smarter Cities Challenge, and in the spring of 2012, the rest of the world previewed what they created together: “a remote-control city” (Townsend 67).

IBM developed Rio’s Intelligent Operations Center, a $14 million facility that combines data from weather stations, traffic cameras, police, sewer sensors, and social media into one room. The Center’s objective is to allow city managers to “tweak the city’s dynamic performance in (and ideally, ahead of) real time” (Greenfield 70).

Image: Rio Operations Center in Brazil (

Image: Rio Operations Center in Brazil (

Similarly, Cisco’s New SongDo (Korea) smart city project also resulted in a similar control room, the U-Life Digital Management Center, a wall of screens streaming real-time video from CCTV cameras placed across the city.

Image: SongDo’s U-Life Center (

Image: SongDo’s U-Life Center (

Both Rio and New Songdo’s control rooms carry the undertones of projects like Project Cybersyn’s (for “cybernetics synergy”) Operations Room, the brainchild Stafford Beer in the 1970s, an “unlikely savior for socialism” in that he was a British executive for United Steel and International Publishing Corporation, one of the biggest world media companies at the time (Morozov). The Cybersyn Operations room was designed for the Allende socialist regime in Santiago, Chile, to provide a real-time feed of factory data from around the country. Economic data from factories in Chile were delivered to the control room, then input into a computer on a daily basis. The computer would then make predictions and suggest adjustments for the factory managers.

Image: The Operations Room (or Opsroom) of Project Cybersyn (Wikimedia)

Image: The Operations Room (or Opsroom) of Project Cybersyn (Wikimedia)

If there’s one thing to note about the smart city projects I’ve mentioned so far, it’s that they are massively funded by corporations and supported by governments. They also place decision making power into the hands of a few. By design, these few sit in a room literally closed off from the constituency it is meant to serve. And governance, at least rhetorically, is reduced to a matter of adjusting buttons, knobs, notches, and dials.

Adam Greenfield’s Against the Smart City provides a polemic against corporate smart city projects. The reasoning behind this is to stretch the discourse beyond the technologically determinist, optimistic rhetoric around smart cities. Despite that an enormous amount of human attention and energy is devoted to integrating information technology (not to mention billions of dollars in capital), the public usually only ever hears claims about how smart technology will change the future for the better and improve citizens’ lives with almost unbearable efficiency. But what happens if and when projects don’t live up to their promises? What if there are factors that planners didn’t account for? The paucity of a truly critical view, according to Greenfield, necessitates such an argument.

When looking at smart cities from a purely top-down perspective, the view can be a bit foreboding in the context of power distribution. However, there are some other models that have begun to emerge, ones that seek to open the door to citizens to weigh in on government decisions.

Responsive and responsible

In Responsive City, Crawford and Goldsmith talk about the digital civic switchboard for governance, a site of connection, community, and solution — one that puts governments and constituents in contact with each other. Like old telephone switchboards, calls could come through from one party and be facilitated and redirected to another by an operator.

The idea of a responsive city, in Crawford and Goldsmith’s case, doesn’t just refer to the city’s information technology — it refers instead to the ability of the government to respond to its citizens and vice versa through the use of that technology.

“The switchboard operators of yesterday did far more than connect phone lines…They embodied the community’s voice and its memory. In their ability to match a specific person’s problem with the resources needed to solve it, they delivered solutions to individuals and encouraged their engagement with their neighbors.” (14)

Image: 1952 switchboard operators (Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA)

Image: 1952 switchboard operators (Seattle Municipal Archives from Seattle, WA

For example, Christchurch, New Zealand’s SensingCity project aims to equip the city with sensors that gather data about environmental factors, helping both the government and residents of Christchurch better understand aspects of flow in the city — traffic, air quality, water quality, etc. The project operates on some key principles: (1) the data will be openly accessible by the public; (2) no individuals will be tracked; (3) measure as much as possible. Further, residents of Christchurch will also eventually be able to help gather and submit data.



Chicago’s Array of Things project plans to create better sensor data feedback loops among “residents, software developers, scientists, and policymakers so that all can work together to make cities healthier, more livable, and more efficient.” Similar to SensingCity, the data are meant to be openly accessible so as to keep the public as well as the government informed about the city’s health.



A dashboard or switchboard for these projects might look something like London’s City Dashboard, a combination of news streams, live traffic camera feeds, weather forecasts, and transit information. The dashboard enables more efficient decisionmaking for London citizens (i.e. when to leave to catch the train and whether or not to bring an umbrella along), and at the same time, it diagnoses the city’s inefficiencies so that the government or the appropriate parties can act on them.

Image: London city dashboard from UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysi.,

Image: London city dashboard from UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysi.,

SeeClickFix, a mobile engagement platform that allows people to report non-emergencies (like potholes, light outages, busted pipes) to city governments, operates on similar philosophies of responsiveness. The company partners with governments as well as the media to identify, raise awareness for, and encourage the improvement of problems in cities — all while designing a mobile app specifically for the public’s use. (See also Boston’s CitizensConnect app.)



Many more projects like these are emerging within the civic technology space, creating more opportunities for people to engage with and organize around issues of concern to their own communities. As the conversation about smart cities evolves, projects like these remind us, importantly, that responsiveness doesn’t just come from the top — that meaningful change involves input from the grassroots too.

Middling out

As Townsend puts it, “Every city contains the DNA of its own destruction — some existing fissure that, under pressure, can erupt into conflict or cascade into collapse” (11). The cybernetics DNA of smart cities inevitably links it to a genealogy of surveillance, violence, imbalance of power, and exclusion. These things still exist in our present and will continue to do so, in spite of our efforts to diffuse them. However, that is a narrative that we can attempt to fork, one we can hope to change.

Will the future of smart cities continue to exist in (to use Greenfield’s terminology) “generic time” and “generic space” — some proximate future where things are better, in some place designed by others that we may have heard of but can’t ascribe physical attributes to? Or, will the future invite us, the plebeians, the lay people, the populi, to help define, design, even build it?

Tuan-Yee Ching, an urban planner and architect from MIT, provides some helpful language to think about these new models. Whereas we usually refer to either top-down or bottom-up strategies, Ching suggests something called a middle-out approach, one that combines government authorization (sometimes even funding or resources) as well as community engagement and organization.

Whether we admit it or not, the smart city is, indeed, an authoritarian construct. But that doesn’t have to be a terrible thing. We inherently like control over our lives and the many factors that govern them. It’s a matter of enabling that control for as many stakeholders as possible, and locally — not just remotely.
Cover image: Wikimedia



See the original post here.

Special thanks to Anthony Vanky of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab for recommending Townsend’s book to me and for getting me to think more about smart cities in general; Rob van Kranenburg, who provokes thoughtful criticism on the growth of IoT (and Michael Wayne for connecting me with Rob); JP de Vooght for sending me Morozov’s article about Cybersyn; Adam Greenfield for his awesome taste in audio and inspired criticism on smart cities; Ethan Zuckerman for guiding me toward a more critical view of sensors, when I was initially seduced by them; MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program for enabling the researcher in me.

Benson-Allot, Caetlin. “What Remote Controls Can Teach Us about the Nature of Control.” MIT Comparative Media Studies Colloquium. Podcast. Published September 26, 2014. Accessed October 10, 2014.

Bruns, Axel. “Some Exploratory Notes on Produsers and Produsage.” Blog post. Published March 11, 2005. Accessed October 10, 2014.

Ching, Tuan-Yee. Smart cities: concepts, perceptions and lessons for planners. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Thesis. Accessed November 1, 2014.

Crawford, Susan & Stephen Goldsmith. Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance. Joss-Bass: Hoboken, NJ. 2014.

Greenberg, Adam. Against the Smart City. Do Projects: Edition 1.0, October 2013.

Johnson, Barnabas. “The Cybernetics of Society”. Retrieved 8 January 2012.

Morozov, Evgeny. “The Planning Machine: Project Cybersyn and the origins of the Big Data nation.” The New Yorker. Published October 13, 2014. Accessed October 14, 2014.

Townsend, Anthony M. Smart cities: big data, civic hackers, and the quest for a new utopia. WW Norton & Company, 2013.

Lily Bui

About Lily Bui

Lily Bui's masters research focused on using sensors to support environmental monitoring, and communicating sensor-based data to different stakeholders. She is currently a PhD student at MIT's School of Architecture & Planning in the Department of Urban Studies & Planning. She holds dual bachelor's degrees in International Studies and Spanish from the University of California Irvine. Before joining MIT CMS, she worked at Public Radio Exchange (PRX), where she helped generate and distribute science public radio; and SciStarter, where she helped find and tell stories about citizen science. In other past lives, she has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.; served in AmeriCorps in Montgomery County, Maryland; worked for a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter; and performed across the U.S. as a touring musician. In her spare time, she can be spotted on a surfboard or skateboard (and/or strumming a ukulele) somewhere warm. Thesis: Sense and the City: Representations of Air Quality Data in the “Smart City”