Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Surveillance and urban nature

What does surveillance, data, and authoritarianism have to do with urban nature?

The other evening I attended a panel discussion at Leonard, a start-up incubator funded by the French infrastructure construction company Vinci. The theme was “Surveillance, data, security—is the smart city authoritarian?” This seems to have nothing to do with urban biodiversity, but let me explain.

The panel was presented by Rafaël Languillon, senior study officer at the think tank Fabrique de la Cité (, which collaborates with Leonard. He started out by suggesting that the goal of new surveillance technologies is to develop traceability—just as traceability of produce from farmer to consumer allows us to know and guarantee the conditions of production, the construction of digital personal identities that can be followed across real and virtual spaces allows companies and public actors to know and guarantee the behaviour of individuals. He also made the point that just as there is a distinction between information and data, there is a distinction between “numérique” and “digital”. Unfortunately these are both translated as “digital” in English and I’m not familiar with how Anglophone scholars make this distinction. In any case, “numérique”, corresponding to the original French equivalent construction for ‘digital’, refers to an individual-scale relation between a user and a discrete computer, like we had in the 1990s. “Digital”, as a second-wave loan-word from English, represents the shift to a broader relationship between society and a profoundly interconnected digital system. Traceability is one aspect of this. This shift was the subject of the panel discussion and has interesting resonances with urban biodiversity research as well.

The four panel members included Cécile Maisonneuve, president of the Fabrique de la Cité think tank, Régis Chatellier, a researcher at the Laboratory of Digital Innovation (, Myrtille Picard, post-doc at Sciences Po, and Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, former French ambassador to China. They broadly discussed facial recognition technologies in cities in Europe and China. I was particularly interested in Myrtille’s comments on how the design of technologies and other interventions for “safe cities” can be understood from the perspective of Foucault’s ideas about security and discipline. Individuals’ behaviour in cities becomes defined as ‘normal’ in a specifically statistical sense, and the goal of city management becomes to move data points away from the outliers or the ends distributions, towards the mean. Cartography and statistical analysis become planning methods not for the policing of individuals, but for the constitution and control of populations with defined distributions. Technologies that use video surveillance not only to recognise people wanted by the police, but also to identify people behaving ‘abnormally’ in public, are actively being developed and tested. This has the potential to create a fragmented landscape of different forms of surveillance and control, of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

During the questions, the panel also discussed how the city has historically been a site of anonymity, and that this anonymity may be seen as making the city liveable and dynamic. The city is a place where people have traditionally escaped the social monitoring and judgement of small towns. Perhaps we can tolerate the diversity and bizareness of others with whom we are forced to coexist in cities because they are strangers whom we know nothing about and will probably never see again. Certainly this anonymity allows people to reinvent themselves, to take risks, and to change social status. A member of the audience asked whether, on the other hand, surveillance technologies, used by private companies or the government, could be used to provide a personalization of services—like what Amazon or Facebook do with suggestions and ads, but applied to person-to-person service interactions—that would counteract social isolation in cities. The panel, however, rejected this rosy scenario. Cécile argued that surveillance and traceability cannot replace genuine social solidarity. Régis also made the point that being included in a system of some kind, even one intended to help you integrate into society, does not necessarily give a sense of individuality or personal recognition.

The fundamental and central importance of personal relationships, of physical social interaction based on familiarity and care, is something that has been emphasized by various anthropologists in their analyses of life under modernity, such as David Graeber or Daniel Miller. At heart, I think this insight can and must also be extended to understanding the functioning of our ecological relationships with other species. It is a truism of nature conservation that people only conserve what they understand, and only understand what they love. More broadly, the kinds of place-based knowledge that we need to solve problems of climate adaptation, sustainability and ecological restoration are dependent on knowledge (academic and non-academic) formed through interaction in situ, which over time inevitably leads to personal, emotional, connections.

What are the legitimate (and illegitimate) places where we can come to care about nature? What is the place of nature in modernity? One of the critical sites for experimenting with this question of how we situate and relate to nature is the urban. Under modernity, nature seems to have no place in the city—it is “matter out of place” (the classic definition of ‘dirt’ by the anthropologist Mary Douglas: Nature, under modernity, is that part of the environment not not sorted and arranged and brought under control, where ecosystem processes happen by themselves on unpredictable schedules, animals and plants live messy autonomous lives, and the climate fluctuates dangerously. Bringing this chaos into the city seems inherently contradictory, and a threat to the intricate work of city governance and management that keeps urban spaces clean, orderly, and safe. One of the modernist strategies for bringing the messy, the disorderly and the risky into the heart of modernity is through appropriating scientific procedures and technologies. A classic example of this is how during the 20th century the kitchen changed from an unsanitary workshop to a laboratory-inspired display room.

Arguably, gardens have always been the mechanism for bringing plants (principally) under human control in human spaces. Today however a more biodiverse, less static nature is clamouring to be let in to the city on the grounds that climate change and land use change can only be addressed through the political power and concentrated resources of cities. This is accompanied by data collection on urban biodiversity and data-driven approaches to urban nature planning. The data-fication of nature (which is not unique to urban nature) can be understood as a way to make it orderly and controlable, if only in the form of databases and simulation models (see Readings below for a sample). Big plans are underway to create a Digital Ecosystem for the Planet ( Yet this has the effect of bringing not material, living nature itself under control, but its simulacra. This also leads to a number of disjoints between data that is scientifically well-behaved, and knowledge that derives from place-based observation and practice.

The equivalent to a shift from “numérique” to “digital” happened for relations with nature many decades ago, when natural history, followed by fields such as zoology, ethology, and botany, were replaced by statistically and technologically more sophisticated approaches focused on systems approaches and large spatial scales, with less and less emphasis placed on observation, interpretation, and judgement. Data can tell you where there are many bats, but not how best to attach a box to a tree so that it will be regularly inhabited by bats. Of course, you can monitor and experiment with bat box design and placement, but ultimately, a good bat expert or local natural historian already knows this and has place-based experience with successful bat housing. The Digital Ecosystem for the Planet, in fact, sees no place for either scientific theory or place-based knowledge, proposing that actionable insights can be derived directly from emergent computing algorithms.

Absorbtion into databases, algorithms and bureaucracies inherently involves a process of standardization and a loss of particularity, as pointed out by the panelists at Leonard. When discussing people, this is often discussed in terms of a loss of privacy. But what happens to nature when it ‘loses its privacy’?

This reminds me of an anecdote I read many years ago in a paper about human-wildlife conflict in Portugal (Krauss, 2005). Rural people were unsympathetic to an otter reintroduction project: “On top of this [excessive investment in studying otters implanted with transmitters], it was claimed, one day the locals would also be implanted with such transmitters so that every step could be controlled, and that all actions could be placed under surveillance. In the opinions of these locals, what the environmentalists were in reality trying to achieve, was total control of everything and everyone.”

What do we have to not know about nature, specifically in the sense of not having data about it, in order to live in a civil society with nature? Where do we articulate the partition between data and practice-based observational knowledge of nature to coexist with nature in cities?

Thanks to Alexa Hagerty for her input into some of these ideas.

KRAUSS, Werner. 2005. Of otters and humans: An approach to the politics of nature in terms of rhetoric. Conservation and Society, 3(2) 354.

Corcoran, E., Denman, S., Hanger, J., Wilson, B., & Hamilton, G. (2019). Automated detection of koalas using low-level aerial surveillance and machine learning. Scientific reports, 9(1), 3208.

Hobson, K. A., Norris, D. R., Kardynal, K. J., & Yohannes, E. (2019). Animal migration: a context for using new techniques and approaches. In Tracking animal migration with stable isotopes (pp. 1-23). Academic Press.

Norouzzadeh, M. S., Nguyen, A., Kosmala, M., Swanson, A., Palmer, M. S., Packer, C., & Clune, J. (2018). Automatically identifying, counting, and describing wild animals in camera-trap images with deep learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(25), E5716-E5725.

Parsons, M. H., Sarno, R. J., & Deutsch, M. A. (2015). Jump-starting urban rat research: conspecific pheromones recruit wild rats into a behavioral and pathogen-monitoring assay. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 3, 146.

Schofield, D., Nagrani, A., Zisserman, A., Hayashi, M., Matsuzawa, T., Biro, D., & Carvalho, S. (2019). Chimpanzee face recognition from videos in the wild using deep learning. Science Advances, 5(9), eaaw0736.

Villa, A. G., Salazar, A., & Vargas, F. (2017). Towards automatic wild animal monitoring: Identification of animal species in camera-trap images using very deep convolutional neural networks. Ecological Informatics, 41, 24-32.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein, 11-9-2019

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