Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 1

As I promised, here is the first of four posts that summarise in English the Russian-language chapter Galina Orlova and I wrote for this book. A draft of the chapter in Russian can be downloaded here. This post also picks up the story after the series of posts I wrote last year about Covid in Moscow and Russia.

Сети города: Люди. Технологии. Власти: Под редакцией Екатерины Лапиной-Кратасюк, Оксаны Запорожец, Андрея Возьянова

…In spring 2020 Moscow implemented a ‘regime of heightened readiness’ – a heterogeneous approach to the pandemic which combined partial quarantine (karantin) with self-isolation regimes and targeted state financial support that conformed largely to a neoliberal logic of delegated responsibility.  We also pay attention to the technocratic ‘fix’ attempted which was highly ambitious and at first disastrous.

One aspect worth highlighting is that electronic ‘nadzor’ – ‘surveillance’ was built into the Moscow-city government’s response from the start. Over 65-year-olds’ transport cards were blocked and individual housing blocks were assigned set times for exercise.

At the same time we trace the evolution of Moscow’s Smart City 2030 plan. This plan was fundamentally affected by Covid and the previous version removed from еру web in May 2020 (prompting various characteristic of Covid conspiracy theories). In our book chapter we discuss the glaring disparity between the smart city goals about ‘quality of life’ and the Covid reality, which was about enrolling new agents (human and otherwise) of police control via the smart city. Similarly, the low quality of so-called ‘algorithmic’ solutions was laid bare for all to see. Our chapter is called the ‘not-so-smart city’ in English, which loses the pun of the Russian title – (bez)umnyi gorod: the ‘(de)mented city’. Crazy/mad/demented as a noun is derived from the root word ‘mind’, or ‘clever’.

So how did the Mayoralty change their plan for smartification? If anything they doubled down with the help of the decree signed by the president in June 2020: Moscow becomes an experimental juridical regime where aggregated use of personal data is no longer constrained by law. More prosaic is the full commitment to fully digitize city-citizen services. Of note are experiments with automating 5G cleaning vehicles and – now the stuff of internet memes – ‘smart’ face-recognition door locks to communal entry-ways. Even without drunk old men headbutting HAL-like video-locks that refuse them access to their own homes, the naïve technoutopianism is evident in proposals like those to replace wheelchairs with smart exoskeletons (yes this is a real proposal) in a country whose hostility to the disabled is literally built into urban design.

Now, that’s not to say that Moscow isn’t already a leader in smart-city affordances for its exclusive citizenry. There are well developed projects for a single electronic system for doctor’s appointments, school timetabling and public Wi-Fi coverage that put many European and N. American cities to shame. Smart City 2030 is only one of three stages, two of which are already complete. For this stage, the blockchain, AI, and the internet of things are highlighted areas. The Muscovite (Social Services) Card has been around a while (2001). This is a combined bank, travel, cultural services, and medical services plastic contactless chip card. In a city that continues to provide very generous social benefits to large numbers of residents this card is highly valuable. This is evidenced by the city government wanting to making it a criminal offence for a person other than the owner to make use of the card. The card – characteristically – is also vulnerable to hacking, and contains sensitive personal data beyond that which is necessary for its use. In 2018 there were 5 million cards in use.

Annalisa Cocchia has made a systematic literature review of the differences in understanding the use of the words: ‘digital’ and ‘smart’ cities. She finds the latter to focus on a move away from technological determinism and towards decentralization. In practice we can’t really talk about even an ‘actually-existing’ smart city. There are plenty of examples of reality falling far short of rhetoric, from Songdo in Korea, to Toronto in Canada. Nonetheless, Moscow really is a leader – top in the world for carsharing apps, top-10 for internet speed, a UN-recognised leader in electronic services, and top for video surveillance for a city outside China. Characteristic of Moscow is the retention of techno-deterministic aspects and a centralizing logic and this is in contrast to the original ‘electronic Moscow’ plans from the early 2000s. There’s definite echoes detectable in the plan of Soviet ‘atomic powered communist’ technoutopianism (see Josephson 1996). 2030 is envisioned as a ‘city governed by data’, where aggregated biometric data is fed to AI, even via clothing to monitor the habits of its owner that can then be used by insurance companies. Automation of decision makers will obviate the need for citizen involvement. The thing is, there are always real choices to make in which systems to expand: free Wi-Fi, or face-recognition? Access, or Control. Covid accelerates the choice for the latter. Free Wi-Fi hotspots appeared in Moscow in 2012. I well remember getting high-speed free Wi-Fi for a while even in my apartment there! There is free Wi-Fi of varying quality in the Metro and buses. There are over 150,000 security cameras and 175,000 devices feed data to a ‘unified centre’).

In 2020 the Tholons city-rating of ‘smartness’ saw Moscow make massive gains against other world cities. Moscow scored very high, but only thanks to a change in weighting that emphasised digitization over liveability and intellectual development. In our book chapter we ask the question – is Moscow anticipating an ‘anti-humanist’ trend away from smartness as emphasising human development and towards control? Find out in the next post.

3 thoughts on “Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 1

  1. Pingback: Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 2: Social monitoring and prostheses of control | Postsocialism

  2. Pingback: Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 3: Surveillant Assemblage | Postsocialism

  3. Pingback: Moscow’s pandemic in the not-so-smart city. Part 4: ‘Affording’ suffering under sanitary authoritarianism | Postsocialism

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