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Technology doesn’t automatically equal progress, and this smart(-ass) prison proves it

Would it be about time to admit that most wheels were already invented decades or centuries ago?

Tiina Heikkinen


Photo via Wikimedia Commons


Our journey at the university had gone a full circle: on year one it started with us sharing a flat in the halls, and this year it would end that way as well. As much as we loved the flat we had stayed in the years in between, we thought that going back to the halls would make more sense in terms of this winter’s utility bills. We opted for one of the biggest private accommodation providers in the UK, and on the move-in date we collected our key cards.


Now, call me old-fashioned, but I think electronic key cards are to keys what electric scooters are to, well, literally any other form of transport you can think of. On the one hand I get the premise: Unite Students would probably have to dedicate a whole new bureau for dealing with missing key claims if they did not opt for key cards. If that is the price we have to pay for paying what is already grossly overpriced accommodation, then so be it. But when I was left to stand in the hallway after the lock on our door ran out of batteries the other week, I could not help but think of this prison I had seen a documentary of sometime earlier this spring.

I think electronic key cards are to keys what electric scooters are to literally any other form of transport you can think of

The Hämeenlinna Prison for women in Finland underwent a big change in 2020 when the old prison facilities were replaced with newer ones due to issues like mould in the old building. The new facilities were designed and built by a contractor that had envisioned making the new prison facility a ‘smart prison’, brining prisons back from the dark age (boring) to the new, modern, and technologically advanced 21st century (hip and cool). From now on, the prison canteen would be completely self-service, the cell doors would have electronic locks and classic prison bars had been replaced with electronic surveillance. Hämeenlinna Prison for women would pioneer the new future: three hoorays for progress, future and evolution! Mars colony, here we come!


It is needless to say that on week one the display screen in the canteen went out of order, and so did the electronical locks (the prisoners had to keep towels in between their cell doors to prevent getting locked in or out). The staff expressed annoyance over impractical design solutions such as buggy cameras and were frustrated that they had not been heard in the design process. The whole concept of a smart prison was yet another example of Finland’s public sector’s obsession with privatising and digitalising public services from primary schools to government organs.

The whole concept of a smart prison was yet another example of Finland’s public sector’s obsession with privatising and digitalising public services

Why was the new ‘smart prison’ such a flop in the end? Surely cost-cutting and half-arsed design played a part, but the underlying reason is this: most of the things in the prison that were replaced with technology did not need replacing.


Oftentimes it seems like things are replaced with technology and automation just for the sake of hailing futurism even though the new solution is oftentimes three times worse than its predecessor. Design errors, user-inefficiency and frustration become everyday occurrences as can be proved by anyone who has accidentally pressed the wrong key at a Tesco self-checkout. It is like re-inventing the wheel by adding a few components to it so that it now requires a manual, a few hours training and three more other people to use – only to become un-operational when the electricity that is required to run it is either on short supply or extremely expensive due to the glooming energy crisis.

Oftentimes it seems like things are replaced with technology and automation just for the sake of hailing futurism

Technology is useful when it is brought as a solution to an existing need, but it is starting to seem like most wheels were already invented decades ago.

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