Fifteen-, or twenty-minute cities are enthused upon by legacy media as bland and innocuous plans, or principles, that are increasingly underpinning urban plans. Critics have been excoriated as far right.
15-Minute cities are envisaged as walkable neighbourhoods where basic urban amenities, required at all life-stages are available within a 15-20 minute walk. This includes shops, parks, playgrounds and healthcare centres.
This Substack draws attention to the contradictions of this romantic imagery. While upbeat language sells the concept, what result in are policies that limit freedom of movement, inherently disadvantaging women, working families and the poor. These policies promote exercise but don’t think about all the other inputs that drive health. They create pervasive uncertainty for small and medium sized businesses, but produce opportunities for large oligopolistic firms. Policies that ultimately predicated upon surveiling and penalising, and actions to predetermine these policies, outside of public forums.
We don’t see such contradictions raised in legacy media discussions, such as in Wired and the Irish Times. Their podcasts fail contextualise the entanglement of family and social life, health, and the massive uncertainty that accompanies linear regulations and open-ended systems. These podcasts are unwilling to recognise the power of digital technology to over-ride important social and cultural considerations and the democratic slide. Then they pitch opponents as far right with their nice questions to people who already support their position. Oh well done.
Inevitably New Zealand’s interpretation has been to build bike lanes and make it easier for buses. The focus for local town planners in Five Eyes nations appears to concern restrictions of private vehicle traffic, and the promotion of public transport and bike riding. The amenities might not be there, but it is transport logistics, and financial penalties that appear as the instruments of choice.
What we don’t see is meaningful, gutsy discourse on how we drive thriving, because thriving arises from greater structural policies that actively promote health and democracy but which inevitably threaten big business. Such conversations remain firmly out of the picture.
Yet we keep observing 15-minute city policies pop up in our local government plans.
THE LIVES OF REAL FAMILIES
Let’s look at the chaotic lives of busy working parents, bringing up kids and caring for aging parents. This world has been excluded from any discussion. Complex lives do not factor in, and it is fine for that family to be stuck in narrow traffic lanes for the greater climactic good or be financially penalised if they overstep.
What secondly, can be observed, is calculated policy measures that skirt democratic process. The ‘promising’ by central government of electric buses on the premise that Oxford will be an early adopter of ‘traffic calming measures’. But the policy has been predetermined, even in the wealthy university town of Oxford. So, from the start, we have exclusion of the people we should most protect, and we have exclusion of civil society in decision-making.
These manipulative and autocratic measures from central to local government reveal government officials to be seemingly unconcerned with the obligations of democracies to meaningfully consult with civil society. Our so-called democracies don’t prioritise deep consultation with citizens to deeply assess what is important to localise community, and fulfil social, health-based and cultural needs. They’re in a hurry.
Therefore, instead of being led by bottom-up consultation to ensure that this works for families and small businesses, it’s directive, top down and focussed on logistics. That’s neat and tidy. In their tidy world, the first step is to impose road user charges for deviants. This is tyranny, not responsible governance.
Who will suffer? Working families, where mum doesn’t know from what day to the next which doctors appointment she has to take a kid to (yes, it is more likely to be a mum) – is it the psychologist this week, the specialist in irritable bowel, the heart specialist, or the ear, nose and throat doctor? Casey has netball in a north-east suburb Tuesday, Sam has footy practice twice during the week and on a weekend, and Sara rows 4 mornings with the local public school.
Dad’s working shift work so that’s why mum is more likely to do it. Dad’s working for a small business that’s only got 4 workers on, and they’re all over town. Then they’ve got older parents in the west and east, one with early dementia and the other who has stopped driving but won’t get on the bus. Then they try to get out of town on the weekends to see granny on the farm, or hang out by a river.
These are the deviants. Because if they don’t spend all day on the phone to bureaucracy explaining why they’ve gone across into the next control grid to see granny before ducking out of town, they’re bad.
‘TRAFFIC FILTERS’ ARE JUST CAMERAS HANDING OUT FINES
15-Minute cities are digitally – not people or health – led. The first step are cycle lanes and bus lanes which narrow transport options for complex lives. Then, secondly, cameras taking photographs of miscreant number plates and fining people.
To be people led we would evaluate how complex family life is and identify what is under-resourced across city districts. But that hasn’t happened.
I understand why this initiative is being led by people and genteel academics who live in ancient cities such as Paris, Canterbury and Oxford. They want to protect these areas. I understand why China wants to double down on 15-Minute cities and digital surveillance, because it protects the CCP from indignant public outbursts which could lead to another Tiananmen Square ‘incident’.
Rich Oxfordshire was selected to be an early adopter, where cameras monitor 6 ‘pinch points’, or traffic filters, and locals are fined GBP70 for passing without a permit. The words are technical and nice.
People can drive freely around their own neighbourhood and can apply for a permit to drive through the filters, and into other neighbourhoods, for up to 100 days per year. This equates to an average of two days per week.
The alternative is to drive out on to the ring road and then back in to the destination.
A maximum of three permits a household will be allowed where there are several adults with cars registered to the address.
Buses, coaches, taxis, delivery vans, HGVs, motorbikes and bikes are exempt and there are exceptions for blue badge holders and people with caring responsibilities.
WORKING FAMILIES & SMALL BUSINESS ARE THE COLLATERAL
These tidy, technical rules are not designed around families taking kids to sport, families navigating the complex health problems that result in far more visits to specialists than grandparents ever visited (i.e., because the diseases and conditions are predominantly environmentally driven.)
They’re not designed around the natural assets that make towns liveable – the drive to the river, the sea, the large park. We all know that the poorer parts of towns are never near these places. They might be designed around permissions granted (benevolently) up to 100 days per year…
Any family with dependent children and dependent relatives and friends would crumble under such a regime.
I’m keenly aware of the ongoing debates in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty – the buses are put on, but no-one rides them. Limited funding means the buses are not frequent enough (dependable) yet, and for many people their work involves not just driving to work, but then carting kids to sport, care and clubs.
This is the social, political and cultural world we inhabit. We can use technology to support what it is to be human – to love our friends and family, to visit our local natural environments, or we can drive compliance through car user charges.
Which of course always, always hits the poorer families disproportionately.
But 15-Minute cities are based around transport-led growth and technology. These are technical concepts that do not address, from the ground up, what it means to be a healthy, resilient community.
LEGACY MEDIA & THE RIGHT WING HERETICS
As a result, 15-Minute cities are facing backlash. It felt it important to listen to Wired, whose podcast Conspiracy Theorists Are Coming for the 15-Minute City aimed to shed light on how a
‘movement to promote neighborhoods with amenities has enraged far-right activists.’
Wired informed us that the 15-minute city plan, is simply a plan that enabling 15 minutes walk to parks, shops and schools. But Wired explained that that this has been hijacked by the 15-minute conspiracy theory that has become entrenched in the UKs political fringe. As Wired noted, these groups are hooked into an
‘evolving conspiracy theory which has bumbled up innocuous ideas in urban development, from traffic calming and air pollution measures to cycle lanes, – into a kind of meta-narrative, a meeting point for anti-lockdown activists, anti-vaxxers, Q-Anon adepts, anti-semites climate deniers and the far right.’
Wired explained that the idea of the great reset is the meta-conspiracy framework.
Oxford residents would require permits to drive on certain roads. What’s the problem? Apparently, all the people coming out of the woodwork in Oxford to protest are some crazy mix of these outsiders.
The Irish Times podcast Sensible urban policy or sinister globalist plot? The uproar over 15 minute cities, informs us that the ‘bland and innocuous plan’ to increase shops and services and develop 15-Minute cities has turned into a scary narrative. That government and council plans instead, simply plan for:
‘everything you need for a nice life within a 15 minute walk or cycle of your home… this means shops, schools, it means other facilities. Cultural facilities like cinemas, theatres, it can also mean medical facilities, not everyone is going to have a hospital in their small town – you should have a decent level of facilities, health centres, doctors – so that basically it’s the notion that we would have had centuries ago of your small town providing everything that you need. So you don’t necessarily need to leave it. …Your job would allow you to be within your small town… that can be Dublin or a suburb of Dublin. You won’t have to, every day get in a car, get in train and go on a very long journey for what you need.’
I notice that these legacy media podcasts don’t interview anyone that can challenge their perspective and that they absolutely excoriate anyone with a contrary perspective.
I BET OLD DUDES PAST CHILDREARING AGE DREAMT THIS UP
15-Minute cities. How romantic. How bucolic! I can imagine it, just like the Marais in Paris – I walk to the beautiful shops, the greengrocer, a café, I take little Herbert and Anastasia to the lovely doctor around the corner, once a month, kinder is just on the way to the lovely primary school. Then I hop on the bus which takes me straight to grandmama and I walk directly past the exact shop for the exact bits and pieces she needs on the way.
Climate change rhetoric drove the funding to this university town. Why didn’t central government instead award GBP32.8 million towards a fleet of electric buses in a poorer northern region, with far less money for vehicle transport?
The public had complained that there was a lack of meaningful consultation.
The gap is the absence of discussion of family networks, medical networks and sports and social life. 15-Minute cities might suit older people who are past childbearing and childrearing age. It’s questionable whether 15-Minute cities suit small and medium sized businesses who are not comfortably enmeshed in wealthy enclaves – but are the sort of businesses who are looking to compete with larger firms, but might target customers across the city.
But the Oxfordshire situation demonstrates how central government conspired with the local government to ensure funding would be available for electric buses, once the policy was in place.
When do such arrangements for 15-Minutes cease, I wonder, when they occur behind closed doors, for our own good.
But Moreno’s follow up highly cited 2021 paper leaves issues like access to real food out of the equation. As a Sorbonne Business School, Université Paris academic, I can only surmise that he lives in a neighbourhood where the local greengrocer supplies the perfect selection of in-season legumes and tomatoes.
The goal is for safer, more resilient, sustainable and inclusive cities. These people focus on health – but for them health is purely a function of exercise, and access to a medical centre. They ignore systemic inequalities that drive health food and nutrition and the cultural basis of food and food sharing. I guess because, their food culture is more deeply ingrained in political life than in more recently colonised nations.
The challenge of accessing safe and nutritious food in Five Eyes nations and the global south is rarely addressed. Food deserts are real, and supermarket duopolies are narrow access points. While some 15-minute cities papers discuss this reality,
…others, like the paper by Moreno and colleagues, blithely glide over these gnarly issues.
THE WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM
While Google Scholar has relatively few articles on 15-Minute cities, the lobbyist organisation WEF is ground zero of 15-Minute cities. The WEF, whose role, as a merger of big food, big tech, big social media, big biotech, big digital, big management consultancies – anything big trade – whose role is to get their policies into government agendas, is the driving force of 15-Minute cities.
Why is WEF so passionately in love with them? The create a fertile policy ground for big business.
15-Minute city discussions hosted by the World Economic Forum can traverse complex issues – but inevitably targets infrastructure as key – pivoting directly to consumption, transport and logistics. This complements their focus on agile, data driven cities, their ‘Global Future Council’ of cities revolves around their C4IR Platform – their Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We see policies to finance the future co-developed with management consultancy firms such as PwC, who are always enthusiastic on less government, and more public-private contract arrangements.
While WEF papers are happy to discuss digital connectivity, climate resilient cities, circular economies and green recoveries none of these papers discuss the consistent actions of corporations and lobbygroups to sideline and dismiss the toxicity of the chemicals that they apply to our foods and household products. They ignore the global failure to regulate ultraprocessed low-nutrient food technologies, and the absence of technologies to filter synthetic chemicals at endocrine disrupting levels from drinking water and water emissions to the environment.
The virtue signalling is focussed on climate and technology to secure environmental legitimacy. Their biodiversity claptrap is narrowly focused on nice projects, but fails to discuss the drivers of pollution at scale, including in the production of all these climate ready technologies.
Regulation is where the buck stops for meaningful change to protect human and environmental health from industrial, digital, agricultural and industrial food pollution. This is not an interest of the WEF.
There is no admission of a need of, and certainly no demand for the funding for uncomfortable contradictory science that might critically scrutinise generic representations of the digital and the green – and the role of globalist autocracies in perpetuating knowledge and ignorance.
All the w@nking on about inclusion in the world, profoundly ignores that unless people cannot access safe and nutritious food, and pollutant free water – massive inequalities in health will be sustained and continue to grow from conception onwards. Because I can pay for organic, and water filters, and you can’t. But today, environmental virtue signalling across academia and legacy media and these powerful NGOs all too often, solely concerns climate change.
POWER AT SCALE
Technologies are now at a stage where tech and artificial intelligence are fusing to such an extent that there is capacity to roll out technologies at the national and global level. Limiting traffic movement is the first step of a grand opportunity to reset.
The pandemic accelerated the transition to online commerce, and created the policy climate which not only normalised surveillance, but enabled the greatest transfer of wealth (also here) in human history.
Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret’s Great Reset paper – so speedily produced in 2020, one can only presume they commenced work 2019, does not discuss structural and epistemic injustice, or even, for one so interested in COVID-19, the role of nutrition and immunity. Food is logistics. Just in time manufacturing, low wage jobs and food scarcity. His single paragraph discussing food in depth outlined the pandemic risk where the pandemic could exacerbate food shortages. He is excited by the microtrend of consumer sectors moving fast to integrate O2O – online to offline – ‘eversion’.
In these environments the authors accepted that large oligopolies would increase traction. It was as inevitable reality:
‘This new reality is captured in the market capitalization of Zoom (the videoconferencing company) that skyrocketed to $70 billion in June 2020, higher (at that time) than that of any US airline. Concurrently, large online companies like Amazon and Alibaba expanded decisively in the O2O business, particularly in food retailing and logistics.’
But the brutality with which they imagine a transition to commercial environments dominated by commercial oligopolies is clear. For these Schwab and Malleret, small and medium businesses really have no space. Schwab was aware of the throat-punch to small business during COVID-19, especially food:
‘This sector of activity has been hit by the pandemic to such a dramatic extent that it is not even sure how the restaurant business will ever come back. As one restaurateur put it: “I, like hundreds of other chefs across the city and thousands around the country, am now staring down the question of what our restaurants, our careers, our lives, might look like if we can even get them back.” In France and the UK, several industry voices estimate that up to 75% of independent restaurants might not survive the lockdowns and subsequent social-distancing measures. The large chains and fast-food giants will. This in turn suggests that big businesses will get bigger while the smallest shrink or disappear.’
Schwab envisaged that the behavioural shift to online shopping may be unlikely to be reversed in the post-pandemic era:
Consumers may be willing to pay a bit extra to have heavy and bulky products, like bottles and household goods, delivered to them. Supermarket retail space will therefore shrink, coming to resemble convenience stores where shoppers go to buy relatively small quantities of specific food products. But it could also be the case that less money will be spent in restaurants, suggesting that in places where a high percentage of people’s food budget traditionally went to restaurants (60% in New York City for example), these funds could be diverted to and benefit urban supermarkets as city dwellers rediscover the pleasure of cooking at home.’
What we have here is the expansion of both these mega lobbyists such as the WEF, mega charities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, management consultancy firms such as McKinsey that have been plugged into governments for decades; and massively influential ownership structures such as BlackRock and Vanguard – that are weaponised to sustain and grow their market power.
For them, robots are an inevitable substitute, as long as the numbers add up.
The foundation that will perpetuate their power is digital knowledge and the control of information and resources. What the public (‘consumer’) do, what they want, how they are nudged to want, to understand and to desire. So, ownership structures inevitably overlap as they have the digital architecture to surveil, to nudge and then to supply.
But the most chilling issue – is that our governments are toothless.
Firstly, they’ve had the teeth pulled – ethics and law, long-form media, and a slow death of democracy from common law principles to often technical statutory law that erodes principles of transparency and accountability.
This erosion has been undertaken by a failure to place good purposes and principles that are then tied to specific rules demanding transparency and accountability in government officials, and giving these officials the funding and the distance from the politics of the day.
“The executive power in our government is not the only, perhaps not even the principal, object of my solicitude. The tyranny of the legislature is really the danger most to be feared, and will continue to be so for many years to come. The tyranny of the executive power will come in its turn, but at a more distant period.”
― Thomas Jefferson, Democracy in America
Secondly, they’ve then entangled their rules in global laws set by global institutions who themselves, have not oversight – no accountability. Our governments have signed onto trade deals and international agreements which favour corporations and off-shore institutions. Trade isn’t just about apples and oranges – it’s about services – this means the digital sphere. These secret deals leave local businesses impotent when quoting on a contract against a massive offshore corporation.
Thirdly – the effect is an absolute failure of sovereign governments to prevent the massive ownership structures that leave these behemoths larger and wealthier than nation-states. A central feature of democratic governments, the potential to prevent abuse of power – has failed. At this stage our Commerce Act or foreign anti-trust legislation is doing sweet F-A to highlight this disproportionate power. But it gets more impressive, as the relationships between reserve banks, the investment giants and the social media giants converge at meetings such as the WEF.
It’s perfect asymmetry – as democratic governments have been defanged over a forty year (neoliberal) process, and tethered to the whims of the IMF, the United Nations and WHO else… in perfect formation we see the untethering, the rise of these behemoth corporations.
We have the case study. It’s called China.
And the patronising legacy media is so busy, all this time, immediately targeting any protest as far right, and probably racist, and likely anti-science.
Bless. Who pays their bills?
But we’ve recently seen other policies that zero in on one thing, while ignoring historic norms and scientific realities. Governments have placed healthy not-at-risk people in quarantine camps. They ignored the reality that coronaviruses rapidly mutate, and that family and community life is inseparable from our health. Our governments believed that stringent measures were the best, that young people could be expendable, and valorised a technology designed to alter gene function.
SURVEILLANCE TECH UNDERPINS 15-MINUTE CITIES
15-Minute (or twenty minute) cities are in play because surveillance technologies permit this. And what we’re not seeing – at all – are governance processes promoting transparency and accountability. Instead, they aim to get the job done and get it done quickly, usually with a boost from central government.
For local councils limited by rate-payer funding, the multimillion-dollar bribes are a gift sent from heaven.
The digital space is fundamentally untrustworthy. The digital – and the knowledge that accumulates with surveillance – is the new weapon of the state. And it’s fused with the private sector, as private sector contractors provide solutions to problems. The private sector have profound conflicts of interest, and all the big players are members of the World Economic Forum lobby group.
Companies are the driving force behind World Economic Forum programs.
It’s clear that there are plans for expansion, and that we shouldn’t be naive.
SOCIAL CREDIT SYSTEMS & PROGRAMMABLE CURRENCY
The Chinese social credit system is a
‘digital sociotechnical credit system that rewards and sanctions the economic and social behaviours of individuals and companies’.
China is the early adopter of digital technology in the service of social control, which requires good behaviour from citizens. Misbehaving citizens are blacklisted and shamed. Often these citizens are low income, and debt shaming for failure to pay bills is commonplace.
The close relations between China and the World Economic Forum reveal how social credit software can be leveraged for control. Programmable digital currency, which expires, is capped, and can be directed to certain purposes niches into the digital governance architecture.
Social credit programmes, and programmable digital currency can work together to drive behaviour. Access to digital currency can be dependent on good social credit scores.
Global forums are fusing Chinese social credit system policies into debate that is firmly outside civic society and democracy. The WEF and International Monetary Fund are encouraging discussions on social credit systems based around access to digital finance, and tracking based on carbon-footprints and consumption.
Chinese commerce giant Alibaba fused with the Chinese state over COVID-19 to upscale social credit systems. In 2022 at the World Economic Forum Alibaba president Michael Evans stated:
‘We’re developing, through technology, an ability for consumers to measure their own carbon footprint […] That’s where they’re traveling, how they are traveling, what are they eating, what are they consuming on the platform.’
SURVEILLANCE AND SOCIAL CREDIT TO CONTROL PUBLICS OUTSIDE CHINA?
CBDC can allow government agencies and private sector players to programme to create smart contracts, to allow targeted policy functions. For example, welfare payments, for example, consumption coupons, for example, foodstamps…
Therefore, when we consider pretty WEF diagrams – do you see how the web of digital oversight and digital control is simply, well, forgotten about? There is no admission here about civics, the democratic process and the holding of power to account.
But digital currencies are being undemocratically slipped into Western government architecture via trade routes.
And no, algorthyms are not neutral, and megatech is using enormous firepower to limit regulation of artificial intelligence which can be deployed through digital and social credit systems to for social control.
Digital knowledge, and the information can be weaponised by the state to sustain power. Surveillance is natural, but now the tech capability is out of control.
I say weapon deliberately, because we know from good New Zealand citizen journalism (here and here); international research (such as here and here and here and here), and local poorly formed Bills;- that nation states eyes and ears are expanding rapidly, but that there are little or no regulatory controls on the state’s expansion – to hold power to account – inside our governments.
Policy development is distorted by deference to external management consultants, as Bryce Edwards has recently written, distorting good process and producing a ‘bonfire of policy’. (I might have mentioned this issue, too.)
The New Zealand state is armed for surveillance. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, the Hon Chris Hipkins has selected the Ministerial portfolios of Ministerial Services and National Security and Intelligence. Hipkins was previously police and education Minister. Young people are signing up for Real Me en masse in order to access tertiary education. It’s no accident that the Department of Internal Affairs both regulates and manages Real Me. As I’ve said before, their ‘trust’ rhetoric is not buttressed by a robust policy framework. Their policy rhetoric talks about regulating external companies, but never themselves or the companies that work closely with them…
When your key digital identification is accessible across government with a flick of a button, when that digital ID is used to access public and private services, when it’s tied to your mobile number, which is the key identifier across all social media messaging platforms – we can see that central government is armed with extraordinary and unprecedented power, that is set to scale.
“Both oligarch and tyrant mistrust the people, and therefore deprive them of their arms.”
It’s ordinary for technology development to outpace regulation. But without doubt, the regulatory asymmetry is an existential risk for democracy, which is predicated upon the governed understanding what the governors are doing. Mechanisms of accountability prevent overreach and abuse of power.
What stays out of the Wired and Irish Times podcast discussion is any mention of left-wing authoritarianism. Or even the hijacking of left-wing desires of democratic utopias, by powerful interests, in the service of those interests.
So when I think about Oxford, which is famous for its traffic jams, a couple of things come to mind.
Oxford is a gentrified university town, so, it will be wealthier on average.
But Oxford University (where young management consultancy post-grads rush off to get their Masters) is not about to deliver an advanced critique of the precarity of democracy in the first half of the 21st century, nor decry the oligopolistic cartels. The political economy that drove the systemic consolidation of the corporate sector and the social, political, economic and legal arrangements of the public sector that perpetuate relations between the two spheres is really just, out of scope. They’re much more likely to publish papers on CSR and climate change and virtue signal their goodness through these mechanisms.
(NB. All papers contradicting me from Oxford to the contrary are welcome, especially if I don’t have to pay for them.)
Oxford and the top 100 Universities can talk about gender, racism and climate change until they are blue in the face, but they’re not going to talk about digital colonisation and entrapment, and the democracies Archilles heel – the untethering of constitutional and administrative law and the rise of diktat by statute. Nor are they particularly interested in the untrammelled power of the global mega powers, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, and the conflicts of interest across these big ‘arrangements’ that should be held to account.
What continues is surveillance capitalism and digital colonisation, not just onto first nations land, but into our homes, and onto and into our bodies.
Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet member Duncan Enright said:
‘It is about making sure you have the community centre which has all of those essential needs, the bottle of milk, pharmacy, GP, schools which you need to have a 15-minute neighbourhood.’
Nah mate. It’s a bit more than that. You made a deal behind closed doors.
Once we start considering other factors, like families and small business, everything slows down. That’s not something the megacorporations, central government, nor the WEF want.
But that is democracy.