Nothing smart about smart cities falsehoods

Nothing smart about smart cities falsehoods

What was claimed

The verdict

Governments are using “smart cities” technology to implement digital IDs that track and restrict people’s movements.

False. “Smart cities” refers to programs that aim to improve human wellbeing through technological advancement. They do not use digital IDs to track and restrict people’s movements.

By Frrank Algra-Maschio

Conspiracy theories about smart cities technology are spreading on social media with an assortment of false claims, including that the technology facilitates digital IDs that are used to track and restrict people’s movements.

An image of a poster (see below) that has been widely shared claims real time data and tracking by a digital ID will mean the public will be restricted to a “20 minute travel limit without a permit”.

The poster also claims: “All your money, shopping, travel, entertainment, daily activities and carbon footprint will be tracked and monitored by your digital ID. If you exceed any regulations set by government you will be denied access to everyday activities.”

But the claims are false. Experts told RMIT FactLab that there is no overarching digital ID that Australian governments could use to track people or limit their movements.

poster making false claims about smart cities

The poster conflates conspiracy theories on smart cities and the concept of the “15-minute city”.

According to a recent academic review article, there is no universal definition of a smart city, but features common to smart city initiatives around the world include improving human wellbeing through technological advancement.

These features include “integrating digital technology into urban areas, involving residents in policymaking, emphasising environmental sustainability, and utilising entrepreneurship and human capital for urban development.”

The 2016 Smart Cities Plan of the federal government established a $50m grants program to advance “urban projects that apply smart technology, data-driven decision making and people-focused design to deliver economic, social and environmental benefits.”

In a local example of a smart cities plan, the Geelong City Council’s Smart City Strategic Framework details specific initiatives, including free public wi-fi, improving the CCTV network, installing LED street lights and parking sensors that gather data on parking patterns.

There is no indication that federal or local smart city initiatives plan to track and restrict people’s movements.

Research fellow at RMIT’s Blockchain Innovation Hub, Dr Alexia Maddox, told RMIT FactLab in an email that while digital IDs theoretically could track people, an overarching ID that Australian governments could use for surveillance purposes did not exist in practice.

 “While the capability for digital IDs to track people exist[s], an omniscient one that the Australian government could deploy for social control purposes, implied in the statement [in the poster], does not,” she said.

“Given that we access government services, commercial services and social media using multiple and often not connected profiles, it is clear that there is no one digital identity that can provide access to the full range of practices [mentioned] in the statement,” she said.

Lecturer and smart cities expert at the University of South Australia, Shadi Shayan, told FactLab in an email that the claims do not accord with smart city initiatives more generally.

“While some smart city projects may involve the use of digital ID, this does not necessarily mean that they are designed to track people’s activities,” she said.

“They can be used to provide secure and convenient authentication for accessing city services, such as online payment systems or public transport. This is the same as what people use for their bank apps.”

The poster on Facebook also urges people to let their local council know that they object to a digital ID – along with several other matters, such as cashless businesses and “a China style social credit system”.

Despite the poster referencing Australia and an Australian government webpage, it was shared to a Canadian Facebook group with 4.1k members and was shared from the original user’s post more than 500 times.

Smart cities also garnered recent attention in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, where protesters alleged a local council was implementing “total surveillance” and “prison technologies”, where “every movement by car, bike or on foot is tracked 24/7”, based on the introduction of smart cities technology such as CCTV cameras.

Several experts have expressed concern over the introduction of technologies such as facial recognition tracking and digital ID systems, highlighting the need for sufficient safeguards in place when governments plan to increase surveillance and data collection.

However, conflating these concerns with the claim that governments will require people to gain permits to travel further than 20 minutes, such as to see a doctor, is incorrect.

These claims draw on the urban planning concept of the 15-minute city, which has been subject to various misinformation claims. 

These concepts are often associated with smart city initiatives.

The 15-minute city suggests people living in urban centres should be able to access all their daily needs – work, leisure, healthcare, education etc – within a15 to 20-minute walk, cycle or public transport trip. 

The 15-minute city was also the source of a claim proven to be false by RMIT FactLab in 2022, in which pundits claimed that the Oxfordshire council in the UK was confining residents to six separate 15-minute neighbourhoods.

The original architect of the concept, Carlos Moreno, has stated that the claim that “you will be locked in your neighbourhoods”, amongst others, are “lies”.

Former head of city planning in Vancouver, Brent Toderian, similarly told ABC Radio National earlier this month that suggestions that 15-minute cities are an “attack on individual freedoms” and confine people to “sectors”, are “lies”.

Deputy lord mayor and chair of planning at the City of Melbourne, Nicholas Reece, has also suggested these claims are “ludicrous”.

Planning Victoria writes in its Metropolitan Planning Strategy that its policy objective of creating “20-minute neighbourhoods” will not result in people being confined to their neighbourhoods, stating it will give “people the ability to meet most of their everyday needs” within a 20-minute radius.


The verdict

False. “Smart cities'' is a broad concept that focuses on increasing the public's wellbeing through technological advancements. Smart cities, and the associated concept of the 15-minute city, do not track people’s activities through a digital ID, or limit people’s ability to travel.


08 March 2023


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