Place de la Monnaie

0. The center of the square............................................................where its diagonals intersect
1. The Theatre Royal de la Monnaie.....................................................to the east
2. The HEMA............................................................................to the north
   The public library..................................................................to the south
4. The entrance to the metro station de Brouckère......................................to the west
5. The DPO Office of AG Real Estate....................................................few hundred meters north, but very near 
   The parking lot.....................................................................underground
6. The smart-city planning offices.....................................................the 8th floor of

0. The center of the square

The Muntplein, or Place de la Monnaie, in the center of Bruxelles, is an example of the flexible event-friendly square, today ubiquitous in european cities. In 2012 the square was redesigned to match a set of requirements that would optimize the space for new types of usage.

The design brief by the city of Brussels asked for the creation of an open space that would accentuate the role of the theatre and integrate the shopping mall with the square. Overall, the proposed guidelines were the flexibility in uses of the square, the continuity with the shopping streets crossing it and the improvement of its visual readability.

MSA, the architecture and urbanism agency who executed this assignment, adopted the term “readability” in their own description of the project: “a fragmented layout dating back to the early 1970s prevented a clear reading like the easy and convenient use of space […] the project aims to restore a simple and easy reading of the public space for various uses” ( free translation from http://www.ms-a.be/les-projets?p=14 ).

In autumn 2018 the square presents itself to the public as a foreground to the theatre, a clearance along a busy shopping street, a meeting spot in the city, an open stage for commercial events, street performances and demonstrations, a backdrop for tourist photographs, a construction site.

1. Theatre Royal de la Monnaie

A shared condition for many of the square's functions is that nearly every point of the square is visible from every other point. All visual obstacles that characterized the square before the renovation have been removed. The space can be read and observed by different actors and spectators with diverse outlooks on its civic and commercial functions. When observing the square from a pedestrian level, one quicly realizes to be joining the ranks of a vast collection of human and non-human observers. These include both security/surveillance apparatuses and other actors are often encountered in public spaces, such as:

What readability means is still very much dependent on their respective vocabularies and lenses.

The Muntplein is also the site of readings which apply terms related to the economy of shopping streets and shopping centers. This text looks more closely into those modes of reading. It observes the interactions that play out daily on the square and tries to understand the social and political implications of the quantification operations used to render them readable for a set of techincal agents.

2. HEMA

The HEMA is the first store a pedestrian passes when entering the square from Rue Neuve heading towards Rue de Fripiers. Next to HEMA there is UNIQLO, I AM, NYX, TAMARIS, HAIRDIS, KIABI, ESPRIT, a pop-up store by DECATHLON, then the entrance to the metro station de Brouckère. Walking at a steady pace in a straight line, casting occasional side glances to the shop vitrines, not getting caught up in a sidewalk gavotte, it would take a pedestrian about one and a half minute to get there.

On the way, the pedestrian’s mobile phone emits a signal every few seconds to scan for wireless networks in the space, and doing so it shouts out its unique identifying address. That shoutout is heard, the unique address is registered along with a timestamp, location, signal strength, device manufacturer and in some cases a list of other networks that the device has connected to recently. The pedestrian walks on towards the metro station.

4. Metro de Brouckere

The entrance to the metro station de Brouckère is also the entrance to the shopping centre The Mint. It is an area where paths cross, steps stutter and flows twirl like spaghetti. The pedestrian descents an escalator. A large glass door is ahead, held open by the flow of people crossing it. A printed sheet of paper is pasted on the glass. It informs about the types of surveillance active in the premises of the shopping mall; next to the usual CCTV notice, another less familiar pictogram announces the presence of a surveillance system that tracks mobile devices. At this point the pedestrian might or might not be curious to further investigate the terms and conditions she complies with when crossing the space on her way to the catch the metro. The notice, signed by AG Real Estate, the owner of the shopping center, links to an online privacy policy, which can be a first introduction to the systems and the companies involved in this type of data collection. The Privacy Policy applies for The Mint as well as for other shopping centres owned by AG Real Estate, such as Gallerie Aanspach, on the other exit of the Brouckere Metro Station, and City2, few hundred meters down the Rue Neuve.

5. DPO office of AG Real Estate

Wireless tracking exploits the behaviour of most commercial smartphones, that emit every few seconds so-called probe requests, wireless signals to try and connect to one's favourite wireless networks ('saved networks'). Wireless tracking involves collecting these signals in the observed space and later analyzing the collected data. While this type of collection is relatively simple and technically banal, the sought-for service that footfall-analytics companies offer is the processing of the large amounts of data collected into quantified insights about customers that retail managers use to improve their sales.

With the inspection of this information the companies can 'place' a smartphone within the space, calculate how long it spent in front of a vitrine, if it entered a shop and how long it remained in it. Consequently, footfall-analytics companies offer precise charts of client behaviours and patterns, which shops acquire to elaborate business predictions, plan campaigns, etc. The footfall-analytics business presents an ambiguous face, well represented by the two companies involved in the Mint setting (PFM Footfall and Fidzup).. The 'good' footfall-ist (in this case, PFM footfall) promises to pseudonymize the observations, providing exclusively quantitative information to the shops, without threats for the privacy of passers-by. The shadier aspect of this type of data-collection is represented by Fidzup, which instead boasts targeted and re-targeted advertising, following shoppers at home and in their phones. In fact the company has been already condemned and fined in France for using illegal techniques to track potential customers through their mobile phones ( https://www.cnil.fr/fr/applications-mobiles-mises-en-demeure-absence-de-consentement-geolocalisation-ciblage-publicitaire ). This ambiguity is reflected in the lexicon and wording that each of the companies use in their website, to describe their own practice. On PFM's website we can read about their work in these terms:

Fidzup, instead, presents itself with a different glossary:

The contradictions of customer surveillance are well described by this ambiguous space, which promises quantification and reading people as numbers for calculating 'returns on investment', but in doing so it deploys an infrastructure that can track individuals and sell their information and behaviour patterns to advertising companies.

This type of mass tracking is legally bound to the new European regulation on data protection, GDPR. Companies are obliged to warn passers-by of the digital surveillance activity, by exposing pictograms in the premises where the observation happens, and provide the contact details of their DPO.

6. The smart-city planning offices

Quantification and prediction are of course not the exclusive trade of retail and advertisement companies. The quantity of garbage in the bins on the square, the number of cars in each of the 5 underground levels of the parking garage, the passengers that pass through the metro station... All these measurements are treated with the same set of methods and technologies. Often the same data management companies will work for both local governments and private investors.
This alignment of means to serve different ends (public / private, civic / commercial, security / customer profiling) tends to create grey areas where the commercialization of public space and public services proliferates in the confusion. The proposal of the Smart-City can be placed within this context, of which quantification and optimization constitute the shared interest. Smart-city planning has its own lexicon of terms, wordings and acronyms, intrinsic to its modes of reading shared spaces but with enough overlaps with the retail industry to be able to negotiate. Terms like "e-inclusion network", "consent management platform (CMP)", "catchment area" are strangely pertinent to either domain.

These terms seem at odds with the erratic flows of a square like la Monnaie observed from pedestrian level, but they point exactly to the promise of extracting value and models from the noise.

List of possible ways to cope with this situation: