Internet is changing our cities, but how does this affect us as citizens? Urban paradigm shifts that would have to occur to adapt cities to this new technological have been explored while creating self-sufficient cities (Guallart). Data driven cities easily become self-sufficient though optimization, however, this has led to an over dependency on technology, a threat to the privacy and security of citizens, and a shift in our economy that has challenged many jobs and services. This data, an invisible layer in our urban fabric, changes the way people relate to each other and to their urban context.

The challenges faced are not about technology, but about the societal impact technology can have, specifically the dependence on technology. Currently people are now on the internet even when they are not using the internet. Even when someone is not using a smart device, chances are that person is still somehow connected. “A couple of years ago, all the planes west of the Mississippi were grounded because a single routing card in Salt Lake City had a bug in it… the fact is that people couldn’t take off because something was going wrong on the Internet, and the router card was down” (Hillis). This event mentioned by Hillis affected millions of people that needed to travel for personal or work-related reasons, and even resulted in the stocks for many aircraft companies falling. Since the internet has become intertwined with service and administrative functions, the dependency on technology has gone from being a personal dependence to a professional one as well. “Almost 4.48 billion people were active internet users as of October 2019, encompassing 58 percent of the global population” (Clement). Over half of the population depends on the internet for their day to day tasks, and the internet keeps performing tasks for us even when we think we are disconnected. How many people could work without the internet?

When technology is not used correctly, it disconnects users from reality.  “Today the prevalence of Internet addiction in youth could be a serious crisis as tantamount as drug addiction in personal life, family relationships, social behavior and academic status. Studies show that there is a positive relationship between emotional intelligence and social skills. Emotional intelligence includes understanding, reasoning and handling our emotion. Non-cognitive skills enable us to get success in dealing with environmental conditions” (Hamissi). Humans are social creatures, and the development as a species has evolved around interactions with other people and their surroundings. What happens when people are distracted from their surroundings? Cities are meant to be a place for interaction, but when all communication is done through the internet, cities begin to change. People no longer must be part of a city, especially when their job allows them to work remotely and the city where they live becomes a matter of preference rather than a reflection of the individual or their culture.

GPS systems have also changed the way people interact with cities. These systems are often used not only to find the address of a place, but to find the best route with respect to time. The GPS’s idea of the “best” route considers only time and no other factors that might make a route enjoyable. People lose their sense of place with their dependence on GPS and might take streets that are closed or unsafe, just to reach their destination as soon as possible, instead of choosing a more scenic, cultural, and safe route that could integrate them more into the city and stimulate social interactions. “Navigation is a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ skill. Drivers in a simulator who follow satellite-navigation instructions find it more difficult to work out where they have been than those who use maps. Instructed drivers also fail to notice that they have been led past the same point twice. Mountain-rescue teams are tired of searching for people with drained smartphone batteries, no sense of direction and no paper map” (McKinlay). People have lost their sense of place and to a level have become disconnected and lost in their own cities. Navigation is a key factor in the development of the human brain and the connection both physical and psychological of a person and their experience in a city. A person navigating without GPS finds a greater sense of familiarity and intimacy with a city.

As cities start to rely heavily on technology, citizens, privacy and security begin to threaten citizens, governments, and corporations. Anything that is connected to the internet is hackable. Individuals have private information including bank accounts that could easily be accessed. Furthermore, if we talk about the internet of things, even more objects are hackable. If your home access is connected, then anyone wishing to do any harm could enter your home. The examples are endless, since any object that is connected to the internet has the same potential of creating harm as the potential it has to facilitate daily activities for people. We must consider both the negative opportunities as well as the positive opportunities that come with the internet of things. In a larger scale, corporations are even more vulnerable. These are already heavily dependent on the internet and most of their sensitive information is stored online. Any group wishing to do harm can easily access this information. The greatest threat, however, is the vulnerability of people to their own government.

Internet has changed the relationship between government and citizens, which naturally has transformed the relationship between citizens and their city. On November 2019, the Iranian government announced there would be a rise fuel prices of 50%, which resulted in protest. The response from the government to the citizens occupying the streets was to shut down the internet in the whole country (Paunescu). By disconnecting its citizens, the government gains control. “Often when governments do things like this, the goal is to keep information from spreading, keep people from organizing, maybe having fewer people out to protest because they don’t know what is happening when” (Duhaime-Ross). People depend on the internet to organize, but this method of communication can be removed by the government to prevent people from taking the streets. Lack of information and trust makes individuals remain wary of their own streets. This is happening today in Iran, but citizen vulnerability is growing with time. The government is currently creating its own intranet. “Iran might further isolate its citizens from the rest of the world through its own intranet, which the government has been developing in order to give the regime more control over what content and services people can access in the country” (Paunescu). The internet may connect people, but as soon as they become dependent on it, all communication is easily removed, whether it is communication between neighbors, or even citizens trying to understand what is happening in their city from abroad.

This situation is not unique in Iran and has happened in many other countries, which is why this becomes a valid threat that should be considered for internet-based cities. On April 30, 2019, the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, asked citizens to take the streets to attempt a military uprising (all which had to be communicated through WhatsApp given that messages are encrypted in this platform), but shortly after there was no internet service (Herrera). Although some citizens received the message and were able to take part in the uprising, many other citizens did not even know this was going on. The Venezuelan government has limited access to social media, international news, to control its citizens and to share only the information the government decides to share.  “Venezuela’s efforts to block internet-based communication has resulted in a cat-and-mouse game between the government and its citizens. Around 2014, the walkie-talkie app Zello became popular and was often used to communicate during anti-government protests across the country until the government worked to block it” (Herrera). Citizens need to communicate whether it is through the internet or face-to-face, and when there is no internet and no trust in your government, people will neither be able to communicate online nor in their own streets. How do you go about change and progress if the government is blocking communication among its own citizens? If governments have control over the internet, they have control over freedom of speech, which alarmingly results in the government having control over an individual’s city or country.

As the internet becomes more intertwined with governments and cities, the economic model changes to adapt. With this transformation many current jobs and services are challenged. Developing nations are the most vulnerable as a large part of their jobs and services could be replaced by automation. “For decades, low-wage countries have used manufacturing as an engine of prosperity, luring production from abroad with cheap labour costs… People moved from the countryside to jobs in the city, and wages would rise. But robotics is changing all that” (Abeshouse). The primary reason people are in cities is for the job opportunities they offer. With automation, According to Martin Ford, “advances in digital technology have resulted in job polarisation and ‘a hollowing out’ of middle class jobs. Routine jobs like clerical or assembly line work were the first to be impacted by digital automation, leaving ‘lower skill jobs that tend to require lots of dexterity and visual perception,’ and at the other end ‘high skill jobs that really require advanced cognitive type skills’” (Abeshouse). Through this economic shift, cities change. If automation becomes a better option than paying people, not only will employees soon find themselves without a job and without a reason to stay in the city, but a lot of those jobs might move to another country. With automation, companies are able to manufacture their products cheaper by having robots in their own countries instead of hiring people in developing countries. If production becomes localized, our cities will have to change to be able to incorporate these industries.

With the advances in technology many jobs are being replaced even in developed countries. Drones are replacing people that work in deliveries, while cars can now be autonomous. Even in developed countries many jobs can be replaced, in which (like in the previous examples) human contact is also reduced. People can now stay at home, work, order their groceries online, have a drone deliver what they need. All without leaving their house or even speaking to anybody. Cities are adapting to incorporate these new technologies even in their planning, but what happens when our cities no longer become our main space for interaction? If human contact is reduced, people are less familiar with the people that live in their neighborhood, which psychologically can affect the way people see and interact with their city.  “The public space before the advent of digital media represented the main source of information and politics and also hosted various debates… With the raise of telecommunications technologies, the activities in the public realm started to diminish, as information became easily accessible from home, via internet. This also enabled the rise of electronic shopping, while talks and debates partially migrated to web-forums. The internet has identified as a new form of public space “information agora” (Abdel-Aziz). With the evolution of technology, the activities that were primarily of cities, are now happening digitally, which reduces physical human interaction.

Admittedly, the fact that the internet is changing our cities is not necessarily wrong. There are great ideas that help citizens become a greater part of their communities. The fact that internet allows the optimization of systems, allows for connecting with people that are not physically in the same place, facilitates day to day tasks, and offers a better platform for a shared economy than the present system. It is true that there are positive impacts on our society thanks to the internet, but what about the vulnerability that comes with it? Having so much information can give people power, but it can also expose them. “The right to privacy is the fountainhead of various other rights such as right to expression… In today’s technologically advanced world the vulnerability of individual’s privacy is a major issue with presence of internet being ubiquitous” (Lukose). While the benefits of internet on our society cannot be denied, the disadvantages cannot be overlooked either.

Connected cities might provide opportunities for optimization of environmental, economic, and political systems, but they can also contribute to a darker side of the digital age in which there is an over-dependence on technology, our privacy and security is threatened, and our economic system is exposed challenging current employment opportunities. Over-dependency on technology diminishes our adaptability as a species and disconnect us from reality, while creating more waste due to constant technological updates. Cities that operate under said systems can threaten our privacy and security given the hackability of anything digital, the control and possession of data, and the control government can have on the citizens’ freedom. In terms of employment, our economy can change drastically, and current jobs can be easily replaced by automation, possible leaving developing countries in yet another disadvantage. At the same time, the same technology that has been discussed can provide many opportunities like the optimization of systems for a smarter management of resources, a safer society, a new economic system, and to create a greater connection between citizens where their voices are heard for greater political participation.

While great opportunities can be found in transforming and adapting our cities to the technological revolution, there are two sides to every story and only ethics will be able to determine the actual outcome. The current goal of creating self-sufficient cities given the climate crisis is achievable and desirable, but if we cannot protect people or democracies, then an internet-driven self-sufficient city will only be appropriate in terms of energy optimization and would neglect all other social considerations. Until the privacy and well-being of citizens cannot be guaranteed, the internet should not be taking over our cities.


“Theory Readings: The Fine Line between Power and Vulnerability” is a project of IAAC, Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia developed in the Masters in Advanced Ecological Buildings 2019/20 by:

Student: Camille Garnier

Faculty: Marziah Zad