Will “smart” cities lead to surveilled education and social control?

“What is a Smart City?” is the third entry in my slide presentation series “Education in the Cloud.” If you haven’t yet seen them, prior posts include an introductory essay and “Digital Classrooms as Data Factories.”

Part 3 of Education in the Cloud: What is a “Smart” City

A growing number of metropolitan areas are being shaped by “Smart” City policies. Bloomberg Philanthropy’s “What Works Cities” aims to bring these programs to mid-size cities as well. Even in communities without explicit “smart” initiatives, “innovation” or “empowerment” zones are being proposed, often around school districts, enabling outside interests to sidestep existing legal and contractual protections under the guise of “autonomy” and “flexibility.” I hope the information I’ve pulled together will reveal how “smart city” and “learning ecosystem” interests often intersect and encourage others to think critically about similar programs in their communities. It is important to consider digital classrooms as nodes of smart cities. Classrooms touch the lives of many, and thus are logical places to begin normalizing the idea that as citizens it is our duty to generate and hand over massive quantities of personal data that will supposedly shape policy for the “public good” and manage our economy.

Smart Cities are defined by their reliance on digital technology across government functions and the use of sensor-transmitted data to regulate provision of public services. The high cost of installing such networks, monitoring data, and maintaining the systems, especially in our current climate of austerity, means municipalities will increasingly look to partner with private companies and outside investors to provide basic public services. I anticipate “smart city” policies will fuel social impact investing. There is a belief that investments in “efficient” technologies will yield future cost savings, and therefore such infrastructure projects could become significant profit centers for venture capital.

Cisco Financiers

This video from Cisco discusses the role financiers are anticipated to play in the development of “Smart+Connected” cities. Social Impact Bonds are also mentioned on pages 94-97 of the “Handbook of Urban Infrastructure Finance” put out by the New Cities Foundation. In November 2015, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and the Philadelphia branch of the Federal Reserve hosted an all-day conference on “Capital for Communities” where Pay for Success Finance and social impact bonds were discussed with representatives of Bloomberg Philanthropies, Goldman Sachs, and the White House Office of Social Innovation. After his term ended, Nutter joined the Economic and Community Advisory Council of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve.

Philadelphia has been on the Smart Cities’ bandwagon since 2011 when it teamed up with IBM to develop Digital On Ramps, a supposedly “ground breaking” human capital management program. As part of this initiative Philadelphia Academies, led at the time by Lisa Nutter (wife of Democrats for Education Reform former mayor Michael Nutter), developed a system of badges for youth that promoted workforce-aligned “anywhere, any time learning.” You can view a 2012 HASTAC conference presentation on the program starting at timestamp 50:00 of this video.  Lisa Nutter now works as an advisor to Sidecar Social Finance, an impact investment firm, and Michael Nutter is, among other things, a senior fellow with Bloomberg’s What Works Cities. This relationship map shows some of the interests surrounding the Digital On Ramps program. Use this link for an interactive version.

Digital On Ramps

Digital On Ramps has since combined with Collective Shift’s initiative City of LRNG operating with support from the MacArthur Foundation. Besides Philadelphia, ten other Cities of LRNG are spread across the country: Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Kansas City, Orlando, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento, Washington, DC and Springfield, OH. The premise is the “city is your classroom” where students “learn” through playlists of curated activities that are monitored via phone-based apps. Many of these cities are also “smart” cities. The Philadelphia program is presently housed at Drexel University, an institution that is involved in education technology research and development, that is a partner in Philadelphia’s Promise Zone initiative (education is a major component), and whose president John Fry served a term on the board of the Philadelphia School Partnership, the city’s ed-reform engine. Drexel’s graduate school of education is currently the lead on an unrelated NSF-funded STEM educational app and badging program being piloted with Philadelphia teachers in the Mantua neighborhood within the Promise Zone. It is touted as “an immersive, mentor-guided biodiversity field experience and career awareness program.” In April 2017, Drexel’s School of Education hosted a lecture by DePaul University’s Dr. Nichole Pinkard entitled “Educational Technologies in a Time of Change in Urban Communities,” in which the MacArthur-funded 2013 Chicago Summer of Learning pilot was discussed. In this clip from the Q&A that followed the lecture, an audience member raised concerns about credit-bearing out-of-school time learning in the ecosystem model.

The 2011 IBM summary report for Digital On Ramps noted that among the four top priority recommendations was the creation of a “federated” view of the citizen in the cloud.” Of course, 2011 predates developments like Sesame Credit, but looking at it now I can’t help but conjure up an image of the “federated citizen in the cloud” as portrayed in Black Mirror’s dystopian Nosedive episode. Digital On-Ramps appears to be a prototype for a career pathway, decentralized learning ecosystem model for public education. As the task-rabbit, gig economy becomes more entrenched with freelancers competing for the chance to provide precarious work at the lowest rate (see this short clip from Institute for the Future’s video about Education and Blockchain), what will it mean to reduce education to a series of ephemeral micro-credentials? And what dangers are there in adding behavioral competencies from predictive HR gaming platforms like Knack into the mix? Tech and human capital management interests are counting on the fact that people are intrigued by new apps. We’re predisposed to seek out pleasurable entertainment. Gamification is both appealing and distracting, consequently few people contemplate the downside right away, if ever.


I would argue that the LRNG approach to “appifying” education is something we should resist at all costs. Take for example the XPrize adult literacy apps being piloted in Philadelphia right now with support from the Barbara Bush Foundation. Certainly adult literacy is an issue of great importance, but do ICT interactions provide a way to meaningfully support adult learners in developing reading skills? Or are they an inexpensive means by which to compile data on individuals, one that could perhaps be used to establish baselines for future Pay for Success investments? Education should be a human-to-human activity, free of intrusive data-mining and tracking. Embracing micro-credentials, badges, and educational apps will hasten the transition to an era in which we, and our children and grandchildren, will be pushed into cut-throat competition with one another as we quantify ourselves and work to maintain up-to-date, online portfolios of skills supplemented by socially-acceptable “reputation scores.”

This April Philadelphia joined a group of six cities chosen to explore use of connected everyday devices (Internet of Things) as part of a Knight Foundation grant. Two other programs related to the grant include the MetroLab Network and NetGain, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla, both of whom are interested in decentralized, badge-based learning. Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, whose graduate school of education is designated a “Future Ready Schools Partner,” are coordinating with Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology as part of the MetroLab Network. The office, which manages the information and communications technology programs for the city, was established the same year as the IBM grant by executive order of Mayor Nutter. In a future post I will discuss the ways in which xAPI protocol will be used to track learning experiences outside of school settings. For the moment, however, simply note that IoT infrastructure is key to widespread adoption of “anywhere” learning.

In June, representatives of hundreds of “smart” city projects descended on Philadelphia for the annual “Smart Cities Summit,” preceded by the LoRa Alliance Open House and Marketplace. The LoRa Alliance is a member-based non-profit established to promote adoption of the LoRa Protocol “as the open global standard for secure, carrier-grade IoT (Internet of Things).” James Kenney, our current mayor, addressed attendees of the Summit noting that the city’s “ReBuild” program, funded in part by a newly approved soda tax, would endeavor to incorporate technology into renovations of Philadelphia’s libraries and recreation centers. It should be noted that “Pay for Success” proponents John Arnold and Michael Bloomberg pitched in funds for an ad-campaign in support of the soda-tax last year. Philadelphia City Council recently approved ReBuild’s $500 million investment in libraries, recreation centers and parks. Also worth mentioning is that a $100 million for ReBuild is coming from the William Penn Foundation, the powerful regional philanthropy that hired Boston Consulting Group to recommend closure of 23 Philadelphia schools in 2013. In January, the foundation launched a new initiative in support of community-based “informal” learning. The focus? Why it’s early literacy, an area of particular interest to the social impact investing community. The Pritzkers and Goldman Sachs are funding a pre-k social impact bond with an early literacy component in Chicago right now. There has been considerable emphasis on grade-level reading programs in Philadelphia in recent years. I feel strongly that pay-for-success literacy pilots may be coming to Philadelphia very soon.

The William Penn Foundation also gave $25 million to the Free Library’s strategic plan “Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries Initiative.” The plan has a strong emphasis on “partnering” with local schools, which for the most part have no school libraries. The headline of a January 2017 Inquirer article describes Philadelphia school librarians as “a species nearly extinct.” Despite the direness of the situation, the Free Library system has remained silent with regards to the plight of school district libraries. Libraries are a key part of the learning ecosystem model, and the Free Library System was designated a teen learning lab pilot with support from IMLS in 2014. There is some overlap between cities that received funding for library learning lab pilots and Cities of LRNG: Dallas, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Kansas City. Certainly we all appreciate the need for up-to-date, safe public amenities, especially those serving our children. It will, however, be interesting to see what the technology infrastructure looks like, given that the goal of learning eco-systems is to gradually shift public education into out-of-school settings like libraries.

Comcast Smart Cities

Comcast, headquartered in Philadelphia, began to implement its new Internet of Things machineQ platform here in the fall of last year. Chicago, home of an IoT “array of things” program, and the Bay Area were also selected as early adopters. machineQ uses a system of LoRa (low range, low power radio frequency) chips to connect devices to the Internet of Things in Smart City applications. Comcast sponsored many events during the summit, including a hackathon. The second place winner of that competition was a team that developed a “noise sniffer” intended to be installed in parks and other public spaces. So it would seem we are on the threshold of an age where cointelpro meets invisible ubiquitous computing.

In the Smart City milieu there is pressure to aggregate data, automate processes, incentivize efficiencies, limit human oversight, and deliver metrics to justify the provision of meager public services or invite private-sector investment. It can be couched in the language of innovation and autonomy or flexibility and transparency, but ultimately it is about doing more with less and squeezing profit from public assets for private benefit. All aspects of society are affected, from water systems to the prison-industrial complex to public education. In some cases, like the predatory “Pay for Success”-ready, MacArthur-funded Edovo tablet-based online “education” and “behavioral therapy” program piloted in Philadelphia prisons in 2014, they actually overlap. As community leaders make decisions about software systems, sensor deployment and consulting contracts for “smart” services, we must hold them accountable. What does it mean to live within increasingly monitored environments that will become even more so as the Internet of Things takes hold? We owe it to our children to slow down and consider how the choices being made today will affect their futures and the future of both public education and employment.


If digital classrooms evolve as extensions of “Smart Cities,” where big data rules and efficiency and control are prized, to what degree will students and educators be able to imagine, think and act independently? Will learning beyond the reach of devices and sensors be allowed? If a student learns something, and it isn’t uploaded to their Learning Record Store (LRS) will it “count”? What is the impact of digitally mediated feedback loops on developing minds? How is the concept of public education changing in the age of the quantified self? How will a student’s data define them? What if the data is wrong?

What does it mean for communities to outsource public education to cultural institutions and businesses offering “playlist” learning opportunities? What impact will credit flexibility have on school funding? Who funds the badge providers, and to whom are those providers accountable? Who would ultimately be responsible for the safety and well being of children navigating a brave new world of learning ecosystem education?

LRNG About

In a society that is increasingly unstable socially and economically, does it make sense to delegate public education to private entities working at the behest of global finance, telecommunications giants, Silicon Valley, Big Energy/Petro-Chemicals, Big Pharma, or the military industrial complex? Is it prudent to amass vast amounts of personally identifiable data on children and upload it to cloud-based servers that are vulnerable to hacking and ongoing surveillance? Will we have to train up future generations steeped in coding just to control the Internet of Things nightmare that our government and their corporate solutionist consultants are so busy creating? And if the world ends up revolving around code, will we remember all we have lost? Who will be left to write the novels and tell our stories?

10 thoughts on “Will “smart” cities lead to surveilled education and social control?

  1. brackenkaren says:

    You may or may not be aware but the Smart Cities initiative is UN Agenda 21. I have researched this for years and have done many presentations on the subject. This is all about stack and pack housing in urban cities where you work, shop, worship, seek medical care, entertainment, education all within walking distance and of course the bike is your means of transportation. All so they can monitor and control every human activity. The rural land will be off limits and most of the suburbs as well. Housing will be so expensive you will no longer be able to afford to own property. The planned society or better known as Communism.

  2. Laura H. Chapman says:

    There is another initative intended to decouple public education from citizen oversight.
    It is an elaborate scheme for ranking cities by the degree of their “innovation” in education, including the work of cities in hosting accelerators for entrepeneurs in education.

    I think that the decoupling of education from place-based schools, what I called de-schooling education on a large scale, does not yet look at the legal and economic issues in outsourcing education into a gig environment where badges for competency and/or “experience playlists” serve as the equivilent of place-based schooling. Home-schooling has scaled up in part because parents have organized and figured out how to pick and use resources not radically different from those developed for school.

    Apps for very young children (ipad, iphone) are shoving a lot of conventional educaational content out the door. This is to say that profit-seekers are eager to work with market segments. For K-12 this still means that the online resources with built in survellience systems are making use of the traditional concept of age/grade-level competencies with a system of tokens and rewards for ancillary games and treats (edutainment). These apps can be used anywhere, anytime including schools (e.g., Rocketship) or in any venue where students can be parked while adults are otherwise engaged. Versions of conventional curriculum materials are migrating to capture international markets with modules that teach English as a foreign language.

    I spent some time today looking at the patents for Age of Learning, Inc., developer of the online ABCmouse.com Early Learning Academy for children ages 2–8.
    For a subscription fee of $7.99 per month or $79.99/year you receive an app (for ipad or iphone) that offers “a standards-aligned curriculum (reading, math, social studies, art, music, more) intended to build “a strong foundation for academic success.” The curriculum is being expanded to higher ages/grades levels and for use internationally through a program that teaches English as a second language. Here is a brief bio of the lead developer and patent holder.

    Doug Dohring is the founder of The Dohring Company, a major market research firm for the sports, entertainment and automotive industries; financial and health care services; retail merchandising; in addition to other organizations, including government agencies. It developed OpinionSurveys.com, with software enabling rapid posting of live online surveys (subsequently acquired by Microsoft). In 2000 Dohring and his team developed Neopets, a virtual own-the-pet website with games and virtual currency to purchase amenities for the pets. In 2005 Dohring sold Neopets to Viacom’s MTV Networks Groups. In 2007, he founded Age of Learning, keeping his management team from The Dohring Group and NeoPets. The website for ABCmouse.com illustrates the conventional content repackaged and larghely “teacher-proof.”
    Read more at CB Insights: https://www.cbinsights.com/company/age-of-learning

  3. TC says:

    Just curious if you happen to have submitted a proposal to be a presenter at the Title I National Conference . . . in Philadelphia, Feb. 2018.

  4. Sheila Resseger says:

    Alison paints a grim picture of our dystopian future here. What is remarkable (or probably not) is that in the frenzied rush to wirelessly connect more and more of society and mine the data to potentially unscrupulous and damaging ends, there are actual threats of the IoT to physical safety and health. Here is an article warning of the potential for criminal hacking of smart devices. “While smart devices and systems are making life easier for its users, the steady adoption of the Internet of Things and the integration of more smart systems into critical infrastructures are making many industries and consumers more vulnerable to attacks—possibly with life-threatening repercussions. With cybercriminals looking past desktops and mobile devices, consumers must be more careful when it comes to the security of internet-connected devices and systems.” https://www.trendmicro.com/vinfo/us/security/news/internet-of-things/fbi-warns-public-on-dangers-of-the-internet-of-things

    And then there are the warnings of adverse health effects from the ubiquitous IoT radiation: “Israeli research studies presented at an international conference reveal that the same electromagnetic frequencies used for crowd control weapons form the foundation of the latest network – branded as 5G – that will tie together more than 50 billion devices as part of the Internet of Things. Current investigations of wireless frequencies in the millimeter and submillimeter range confirm that these waves interact directly with human skin, specifically the sweat glands. Dr. Ben-Ishai of the Department of Physics, Hebrew University, Israel recently detailed how human sweat ducts act like an array of helical antennas when exposed to these wavelengths. Scientists cautioned that before rolling out 5G technologies that use these frequencies, research on human health effects needed to be done first to ensure the public and environment are protected.

    “’If you are one of the millions who seek faster downloads of movies, games and virtual pornography, a solution is at hand, that is, if you do not mind volunteering your living body in a giant uncontrolled experiment on the human population. At this moment, residents of the Washington, DC region – like those of 100 Chinese cities – are about to be living within a vast experimental Millimeter wave network to which they have not consented – all courtesy of American taxpayers,’ stated Dr. Devra Davis, President of the Environmental Health Trust.” https://iervn.com/2017/03/27/the-internet-of-things-poses-human-health-risks-scientists-question-the-safety-of-untested-5g-technology-at-international-conference/

    All of humanity as guinea pigs for mad scientists and profiteers

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