Research | Queen’s University Canada

Smart Cities: The City of the Future?

Smart Cities: The City of the Future?

Mark Witten
September 24, 2019

What does a smart city look like? Will technology rule? Or, should technology be a means to an end in creating a good city where diverse human beings can flourish?


What does a smart city look like?

Will technology rule?

Or, should technology be a means to an end in creating a good city where diverse human beings can flourish?

David Murakami Wood’s research starts with these fundamental questions to define the concept of a smart city, and then assess the smart city projects being proposed and developed in large global cities such as Toronto, New York and London.

Smart city, surveillance city

In his influential case studies on surveillance in cities as diverse as Tokyo, New York and Rio de Janeiro, Murakami Wood has shown that the data collected by close-circuit television cameras on street corners, drones flying overhead, pervasive wireless networks and distributed sensor platforms are being used increasingly in smart city initiatives for surveillance purposes. “The smart city is the archetypal urban form of the data-driven ubiquitous surveillance society,” says Murakami Wood, former Canada Research Chair in Surveillance Studies, and associate professor in the Department of Sociology.

In Tokyo, where he did research on surveillance as an Exchange Visiting Fellow at Waseda University in 2006, Murakami Wood found that video surveillance cameras and other surveillance measures were being used to compensate technologically for lost social trust and community. In an Urban Studies paper, “Surveillance in Urban Japan,” he says, “Japan is an advanced urban surveillance society, dependent on sophisticated technologies for identifying, tracing and tracking citizens,” and concluded that open-street closed-circuit TV in Japanese cities is often a territorializing substitute for social trust that could also hasten the decline of social cohesion.

Murakami Wood has also investigated how initiatives like Rio de Janeiro’s Smart City, sponsored by IBM, have strong influences from police and military sources, crime mapping and predictive policing models. In the marginalized favelas (informal settlements) of Rio, for example, police have built walls and installed costly networked video surveillance systems without community consultation and against local wishes, in contrast to the minimal amount spent on sewage and water services. Community members living in favelas, who wish to be treated as ordinary citizens, reported they were being watched and observed like suspects, notes Murakami Wood, who is also editor-in-chief of Surveillance & Society, the international journal of surveillance studies.

David Murakami Wood, former Canada Research Chair in Surveillance Studies, with PhD students Debra McKinnon and Michael Carter.
[David Murakami-Wood and research team]
Audio Story:

From the Babysitter to Alexa: Surveillance is All Around

Season 2, Episode 07

Big-data surveillance on a large scale in Toronto

A timely example of how surveillance technologies are being embedded in the DNA of future urban communities is the smart city pilot project proposed by Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., owner of Google) in Quayside, on Toronto’s Eastern waterfront. This innovative partnership between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto will build a high-tech neighbourhood and testbed that aims to integrate technology wherever possible to create a more efficient and heavily automated urban environment.


  • Sidewalk Labs’ vision calls for trash cans and recycling bins that keep track of when and how people use them.

  • Environmental probes will measure noise and pollution over time, and cameras will collect data to model and improve the flow of people, cars, buses and bikes throughout the day.

  • Monitoring sensors inside and outside buildings and on streets would collect data about everything from water use and air quality to the movements and habits of residents.

  • Streets would be closed to all vehicles except autonomous ones and buildings would be constructed from modular units that allow them to quickly change uses.

Murakami Wood is examining how people’s ability to give consent to use of their personal data will automatically be removed in a smart neighbourhood, or city, where big data surveillance on such a large scale is conducted and controlled by giant global technology companies like Google.

But a focus on privacy concerns alone, he suggests, obscures the larger questions about the impact and implications of smart cities on human rights in a broad sense –  on equity, justice and access to services. “Do smart cities fail to address existing inequalities and injustices, and actually create new inequalities and injustices?” he asks.

Toronto skyline

Real-world or lab experiment?

Murakami Wood suggests that Sidewalk Labs could have created a more socially equitable and truly experimental project by launching a smart city pilot in Toronto’s Jane-Finch area (which has the city’s lowest equity score) or in an underprivileged Scarborough neighbourhood.

“It would be interesting if Sidewalk Labs were running a smart city experiment in a real urban neighbourhood, which was responsive to the needs of the people living there. A bottom-up approach would ask citizens from the neighbourhood: ‘What would you like data to do? What problems would you like data to solve? What information do you want to be public and be private?’”

He’s skeptical about whether the target demographic for the Quayside project is representative of the city’s diverse population and wonders if urban dwellers who are less privileged and less tech-savvy would have equal access to the purported benefits of the smart city. “It’s more like a lab experiment than one in the real world. This will be a smart enclave for technology developers. But is the project actually for the rest of the people in Toronto?”

David Murakami Wood: Royal Society of Canada

David Murakami Wood: Royal Society of Canada

Dr. David Murakami Wood, a member of the Royal Society of Canada – College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists program discusses key issues of democracy and human rights in relation to security, surveillance, identity and privacy. His work has covered new surveillance technologies, the globalization of surveillance, and comparative studies of surveillance in global cities.

Will a smart city be a good city?

Murakami Wood contrasts the narrower North American concept with the broader European idea of the smart city. “In North America, smart cities are all about technology companies and what data can do for the city. There’s a very different concept of smart cities in Europe.  Europe’s idea has more to do with a good smart city, places that are convivial, nice to live in and sustainable. It’s the idea of a good city and the technology is played down. In Europe, data and technology are a means to a broader social end, which goes well beyond narrow techno-economistic purposes,” he says.

Murakami Wood sees a crucial role for governments in helping to ensure that the city’s inhabitants have a strong voice in how technology and data are used to make the city a good or better place to live for all the people who live there. “It’s very fashionable to attack governments. But government does mediate between us and the market. The market loves winners and losers. Governments try to make things not as hard for people who lose out and not to allow winners to run away with everything,” he says.

If governments relinquish that role and the market rules, Murakami Wood worries that the tech companies’ interests will prevail and the smart city will be shaped more by what’s good for their bottom line rather than what’s good for the people living there.

In his Ubicity project, Murakami Wood worked with research assistant Vincenzo Alaimo, MA’16 (Sociology), on “Open Data Smart City,” an article in Municipal World. Alaimo looked at how several Canadian municipal governments have started using open data as a way of developing smart city infrastructure. The two Ubicity researchers regard open data as a tool that enables a democratic, bottom-up approach to smart city development, as citizens are offered a chance to share concerns with government, community groups, business, and other urban stakeholders about pertinent issues and cooperatively work towards generating solutions to concerns. Citizens’ input is used to enhance the urban landscape, helping to make cities more efficient and liveable.

“We should think of the city as one of our highest human achievements and aspire to the ideal that the city is a good way to live,” he says. A smart city would be one with a responsive government, that’s locally based and builds up from what people want. It’s about how cities can use technology and data, among other things, to build a good city and create a civic environment where many diverse people can flourish.”

Santa Fina

Una D’Elia
Pietro Torrigiani, a competitor of Michelangelo, carved this bust of a saint out of marble and then painted it so that blood seems to run in this determined young girl's veins. This lively piece, made over five hundred years ago, is an example of the kind of naturalistic sculptures that have been little studied, as most scholars focus on monochrome "high art" statuary. The sculptures I am studying were not confined to museums, but were a part of the social lives of Italian men and women, who talked to, touched, kissed, worshipped, attacked, and dressed sometimes uncannily realistic coloured sculptures.
Location of photograph:
Musei Civici, San Gimignano, Italy
Faculty, Art History and Art Conservation
Year of entry: