The real smart cities fight hasn’t even started yet

Are you ready for the revolt against smart cities? James O’Malley predicts that unrest among the people of Oxford is just the beginning of an anti-tech fight that will mark the 21st century

If you had to guess where in Britain would be the epicentre of right-wing outrage, you probably wouldn’t guess Oxford.

But not far from the dreaming spires, ivory towers, and one of the densest concentrations of Remain voters in the country, a controversy has been rumbling that has made Oxford a centre of protest for conspiracy theorists, cranks and crackpots.

Why are they so upset? It’s shocking news that Oxfordshire County Council… has installed six sets of traffic cameras around the city.


Unsurprisingly, the council’s plan is as boring as you might expect: to reduce traffic in Oxford City Centre, the cameras are like a miniature version of London’s congestion charge. They use automatic numberplate recognition to spot cars moving in and out of the restricted zone, and issue fines to anyone who drives inside without a permit.

The policy is controversial locally, as motorists now risk being told they can’t go somewhere they previously could or face fines of up to £70. That’s why the council tried to placate residents by offering permits that grant up to 100 days a year free access, as well as dispensations for care workers, those with disabilities and trades people.

So whether or not it is ultimately a good idea (I think it probably is), it is unsurprising that it has upset some local residents.

The Great Reset

If this were a normal controversy, it probably wouldn’t trouble anywhere further afield than the pages of The Oxford Mail. But for some reason, the installation is now an international news story.

For example, controversial right-wing professor Jordan Peterson has waded in from Toronto, gravely warning that the installation of the cameras is part of a nefarious “well-documented plan”. And he is the more palatable face of opposition to the plan.

This is because somehow, inside the dark underbelly of the internet, the congestion charging plans melded with a broader conspiracy around the idea of a “Great Reset”.

This was a phrase initially popularised by the World Economic Forum (WEF), and was basically intended to describe a set of ideas for the post-pandemic recovery that advocated that politicians and business leaders should care more about climate change, sustainability and inequality. In other words, exactly the sort of anodyne blather you might expect to hear at a big global conference.

But since it was coined, the phrase has taken on a darker meaning, and has been adopted by conspiracy theorists to act as a catch-all term to describe things they don’t like. For example, measures to support the rollout of vaccines or climate change are often accused of being part of some sort of nefarious “Great Reset” plan.

So what… exactly is the link with the cameras in Oxford? Essentially, since the beginning on both the WEF side and the conspiracy crank side, “smart cities” has been another fashionable concept often linked to the “Great Reset”.

For example, writing for the United Nations, Minerva Novero-Belec argued that: “The ‘great reset’ is an opportunity to build truly smart cities, cities that pursue digital and innovation strategies anchored in the priorities of communities, and leverage smart technologies – and human capital – to build more equal, inclusive and sustainable cities.”

I think Novero-Belec is right. New technologies, like 5G, internet-of-things sensors and “big data” are a massive opportunity to make our cities and our society work a little better.

However, I think it is also an ominous sign for the future that smart cities have become such a cause célèbre for conspiracy theorists – not because building them isn’t a good idea, but because debates about smart cities are set to become an even bigger part of our politics in the not too distant future.

Smart cities require trade-offs

The frustrating thing about the smart cities discourse is that the conspiracy theorists do have a point – albeit an incredibly narrow one. It’s true that if we want our cities to take advantage of clever new technologies like smart cameras for congestion charging, there are inevitably difficult privacy and civil liberties trade-offs.

For example, any congestion charge scheme needs cameras that can read number-plates. And they will need to store what they see in a database, so that restrictions be enforced and bills can be calculated. This means that it is conceivable that the authorities could use the cameras to monitor the movements of individuals into and out of the congestion zone, for reasons other than congestion charging.

Similarly, other “smart” city management tricks also involve building up databases of our movements.

For example, mobile operators are already routinely selling anonymised movement data to local authorities, the police and other organisations to help them understand how people are moving around.

My favourite example of this, however, is on London’s Underground train network. This is because it illustrates the trade-off in the starkest possible terms. Since 2019, if you’ve walked into a Tube station, TfL’s Wi-Fi hotspots have been logging your phone’s location – even if you’re not connected to the Wi-Fi.

smart cities protest data london underground
London Underground’s network is pinging your phones — but for good reason

It’s not an original idea and the technique is widely used in public spaces, but for the first time it enables TfL to work out how people are travelling around its network. And it does so using Wi-Fi pings at different stations to ‘follow’ journeys around the network.

TfL can now figure out the different routes people use to get between two stations. For example, if they need to know how people are getting from Kings Cross to Waterloo, they can see how many people changed at Leicester Square, how many took the Victoria to Oxford Circus instead, and how many people took a more circuitous route.

And this data is directly used to make services better. Using it, TfL can better estimate how crowded trains are – and provide indicators in apps and on screens on platforms, indicating the best places to board to get a seat. If a line goes down, it can use Wi-Fi data to see how demand is being redistributed on to other lines.

In other words, it’s an astonishing trove of intelligence for managers. But for it to work, there is a real trade-off with our privacy. The Wi-Fi tracking system requires TfL to collect passenger MAC address data and log their locations on the system. And although TfL has gone to great lengths to point out the various legal and technical safeguards (all of the data collected is pseudonymised), it is conceivably possible to reverse-engineer individual passenger movements from the data.

In my view, this sort of data collection is probably worth the trade-off (or maybe I just like looking at cool maps). But my point is that there is a real trade-off beyond what the conspiracy theorists say, and any attempt to build smart cities is going to have to factor this in[1].

Smart cities are the only option

What’s slightly scary about the smart cities backlash, which is also evident in some of the opposition to things like London’s Ultra-Low Emissions Zone, is that the big fight hasn’t even started yet. Because there’s an enormous political iceberg on the horizon that Britain is going to hit in the next decade or so – and no one in politics wants to talk too loudly about the fact that it is going to happen.

The problem is that of road pricing.

At the moment, Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) – or road tax as we tend to call it – and Fuel Duty (petrol tax) are major sources of government income. They don’t just pay for maintenance of the roads, but the cash we pay to use our cars feeds into the general tax pot.

The move towards all vehicles running on electricity will leave an increasingly large hole in the government’s tax revenues.

At the time of writing, electric car owners currently do not have to pay any VED at all, although they will be taxed at the lowest possible rate from 2025. And, of course, they don’t need to pay for any petrol either.

So how are we going to pay for stuff in the future? That’s why the expert consensus has broadly moved towards advocating a system of road pricing to replace the old tax regimes. And there’s a compelling logic to it, from a technocratic point of view.

This is because we don’t want to discourage the shift to EVs, so it would be silly to impose higher equivalents to VED, which are currently based on your vehicle’s emissions. And though it is conceivably possible to tax the energy used at motorway charging stations, just as you would petrol pouring out of a pump, realistically most EV owners are never going to go near the EV equivalent of a petrol station, as most will be charging at home overnight.

So the revenue model is fundamentally broken and something new is needed to replace it. Hence, charging for road use.

This will require a technological solution, whether it is cameras monitoring vehicles on the road, GPS trackers, or some other solution. Whatever we go for is inevitably going to involve similarly contentious technology.

smart cities protest

The real fight starts now

As far as I can tell, there isn’t yet any sort of consensus on exactly what charging model will work for our roads. For example, you can imagine one proposal being to charge motorists to drive on motorways, like in France, or another proposing charging motorists for driving into cities, as happens in London at the moment[2].

But wherever policymakers land, we can safely assume at least two things. That the solution will involve some sort of database logging your car’s movements (again, like London’s Congestion Charge). And that it will make people very unhappy.

It’s obviously dangerous to make predictions, but I can’t envisage how this important and necessary transition is going to end up in anything but a massive political storm. Because it has all of the right ingredients.

First, there is the reality that any new system will, like Oxford’s congestion charging system, scratch the same conspiracist itches: it will be the government trying to control our behaviour and tell us where we can and cannot drive. It is pretty much a pitch-perfect issue to divide along ‘culture war’ lines, pitching traditionalist, petrol-driving oldies, against woke, vegan EV hippies.

The second is that any transition of a complex system to a new revenue model, based on different conditions and different factors will, whether we like it or not, create winners and losers. When we eventually move to the new system, there will be some motorists who find themselves paying less under the new regime than they did previously. There will be others who end up paying more.

So even we imagine the new system to not, for example, ‘punish’ tradespeople who need to drive their vans every day, or for people with disabilities who require a vehicle to get around, there will inevitably be a pool of ‘losers’ who will be able to tour the studios of Good Morning Britain and LBC, complaining about the unfairness of the new regime. And they will have a legitimate grievance. And they will be primed by their material circumstances to be suspicious of new technology.

Thirdly, the politics of the transition to a smart system of road charging is going to be an utterly toxic political football. Whether it is the blue team or the red team who are eventually forced to reform the road tax system after looking at the Treasury’s empty coffers, it will be an utterly irresistible opportunity for the opposition to give their political opponents a kicking[3].

So this is all to say that when it happens, it might not just be something a handful of fringe weirdos care about. Any transition to smarter cities is going to mean there are crumbs of legitimate scepticism – and though the current shitstorm in Oxford might seem pretty mad to us right now, it could just be a sign of politics to come.

This article has been tagged as a “Great Read“, a tag we reserve for articles we think are truly outstanding.

[1] It is also important to talk about these trade-offs, because the managers overseeing systems like the ones described above have a strong incentive to collect as much data as possible. Not for nefarious reasons – but simply because the more data they have, the more they can legitimately improve services.

The benefits of tracking and data collection have a specific, useful purpose to the authorities that manage them – but the risks to civil liberties are perhaps no less important, but are definitely more diffuse across society.

[2] An additional appeal from a planning perspective on charging for actual road usage is that there’s lots of tasty possibilities for dynamic pricing depending on the time of day or congestion – which could be great for managing demand on crowded routes. It could also be a great way to shift incentives and get people out of their cars and on to public transport.

[3] I’d bet that even parties and MPs that are more sympathetic to the problem will behave opportunistically. If it’s the Conservative Party that end up introducing the changes (under Prime Minister Wilf Johnson, no doubt), it will be the chance of a lifetime for Labour, the Greens and LibDems to out-flank the Tories amongst motorists.

Illustrations created by Barry Collins using MidJourney (read Barry’s guide to using MidJourney here). Photo from Adobe Stock.

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James O'Malley

James O'Malley is a freelance politics and technology writer, journalist, commentator and broadcaster. He has written for Wired, Politico and The New Statesman and was editor of Gizmodo UK. He has also written a number of articles about cutting-edge technology for