22nd Karlsruhe Dialogues - Speakers

This is What a Democratic ‘Smart City‘ Looks Like

Prof. Dr. Trebor Scholz


© Michael Nagle
Trebor Scholz is a scholar-activist and associate professor of Culture & Media at The New School in New York City. His book Uberworked and Underpaid. How Workers Are Disrupting the Digital Economy (2016) develops an analysis of the challenges posed by digital labour and introduces the concept of platform cooperativism as a way of joining the co-op model with the digital economy. His edited volumes include Digital Labor. The Internet as Playground and Factory (ed., 2013), and Ours to Hack and to Own. The Rise of Platform Cooperativism, A New Vision for the Future of Work and a Fairer Internet (eds. with Nathan Schneider, 2017 – included on the list of Top Tech Books of 2017 by Wired magazine). In 2009, Scholz started to convene the influential Digital Labor Conferences at The New School. Today, he frequently presents on the future of work to media scholars, lawyers, activists, designers, developers, union leaders, and policymakers worldwide. Scholz is a member of the Barcelona Advisory Council on Technological Sovereignty. His articles and ideas have appeared in The NationThe Chronicle of Higher Education, the Financial TimesLe Monde, and The Washington Post.



1. What do you consider to be an ‘intelligent’ city?

I would like to push back and suggest that cities have always been intelligent; I am somewhat sceptical about the rhetoric around so-called ‘smart cities’.


2. In your opinion, what are the most urgent problems that have to be solved on the way to intelligent cities?

I think that certainly in the United States, in large urban areas without snow and the grid, the introduction of self-driving cars is imminent. As these cars will be too expensive to be owned by individuals, it is likely that they will be based on a subscription model. These vehicles will drive day and night as that will be more economical than parking them. Cities will gain much space as most parking lots will become vacant. Since the development of this artificial intelligence (AI) is exorbitantly expensive, however, cities, just like the rest of the digital economy, will find themselves in a winner-takes-all market where only a small number of owners will dominate. Could you imagine Karlsruhe as a ‘Google city’, ‘Apple city’, or ‘Microsoft city’? In other words, we will live in cities where transportation will run on private, proprietary infrastructures. Don’t forget that these are also the companies that have access to the rest of our digital footprint, our ‘data portraits’ if you will. These ‘stacks’ – the horizontal integration of our data and this multitude of services with one another – are absolutely frightening in the most bone-chilling sense of the word. Such visions of centralised private ownership of vital urban infrastructure, likely replacing public transportation, should mobilise activists and inspire policymakers to work overtime. Like the rest of the digital economy, these implementations, such as the Internet of Things and, of course, Artificial Intelligence, into the bloodstream of the city, will, as they already do, create amazing conveniences and short-term benefits for consumers (the people previously known as citizens). At the same time, however, they will also come with obvious concerns about privacy, data ownership, and the future of the public good.

The World Wide Web has never been more non-democratic. How the stranglehold of the ‘Frightful Five’ – Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple – over urban space will play out can only be imagined. If I am forcing myself to be positive about this development, it is likely to solve the so-called ‘last-mile problem’ for people in more remote regions, and it will have positive effects on people with disabilities. In the suburbs, I could imagine play dates getting a whole lot easier because parents don’t have to drive their children to, let’s say, soccer practice anymore; the car will.

My main question for all of us is the one of ownership. I am working on an alternative economic model – platform cooperativism, now backed by a set of some two hundred businesses and projects that support them globally – that is based on broad ownership and democratic governance of digital platforms.

This discourse, practice, and culture inserts itself mostly into debates about labour but, of course, you can’t have those discussions without also thinking about digital infrastructures that underlie all of that: everything from city-owned Internet services, and cooperative data ownership (think of the Swiss platform MIDATA.coop), to the cooperative cloud.


3. What are, in your opinion, the most exceptional chances arising with the change towards smart cities?

What matters to me most about the discussion of the ‘smart city’ is that we don’t pretend the future of technology or of our cities to be in any way inevitable. It isn’t. It is not clear that these companies will succeed with their plan to dominate – we saw other digital empires dissolve in front of our very eyes before –, it is not clear that we will let them win. The pinnacle is ownership. You cannot substantially change what you don’t own. Automation is not, as the often cited Oxford study makes us believe, about making half of us unemployed or become deeply affected by the rise of robots. It is also not about whole groups of people becoming unemployed and then retraining for jobs in the artificial intelligence industries. What is most likely to happen in the near or medium future is that technology, and here I am also referring to AI, will be increasingly functioning as a supplement for more and more professionals. Technology gets more and more embedded in their daily workplace and workflows. Think of a nurse who can detect melanoma through an iPhone app that cross-checks photos she takes against the findings in a database of a few million photographs of melanoma in real time. This technology does not replace the dermatologist, but it changes the role of the nurse. Ownership impacts on how decisions about technology are made and how they affect the workers. In a worker-owned cooperative, workers can huddle together and think about how they want to make their work easier and more productive through automation. They can figure out how that automation could create a better future for them rather than solely focusing on effectiveness and productivity. A platform co-op taxi business like Green Taxi in Denver is owned by the drivers. The drivers could collectively decide to introduce self-driving cars, which would put them out of a job, but they would still be the owners of the company operating those vehicles. What we must do then is to push for open artificial intelligence, broad-based ownership, and democratic governance. We must project a future that we want our children’s children to live in and, with platform cooperativism, work towards what French theorist André Gorz called a ‘non-reformist reform’.