Are We being Dumb About Smart Cities?

Many techie types, government officials and self-driving car evangelists love the concept of the smart city.

Over the past few years, the idea of an ultra-connected, data-driven, municipality running at peak efficiency has become almost Utopian in many of these circles. Recently, though, the voices against the smart city have gotten louder. In particular, a critical op-ed article in The New York Times written by Dr Shoshanna Saxe, an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute, has enjoyed a good bit of traction.

Saxe is not the only smart cities critic pounding the table. Another is Steve Malanga, a senior fellow at Manhattan Institute who has written extensively over many years on the subject. Malanga pointed out a major argument against them, namely that “any number of observers have noted how smart cities are designed from the top down by an elite group of technologically sophisticated, highly educated people”. In contrast, Malanga continued: “The most successful cities evolve street-by-street, the product of millions of individual decisions over the decades that wind up expressing a community vision of the city, not an elite vision.” Malanga and others worry that this is by its nature anti-democratic, with conception and even management guided by a small cadre of like-minded elites rather than a large, diverse, and inclusive electorate.

Kristian Kloeckl, an associate professor at Northeastern University known as an authority on smart cities, believes the current concept of them: “Is criticized for being techno-centric and based on approaches of ‘total control’, as manifest by the installment of urban control centers in various cities. These control centers bring together data streams from a multitude of urban systems that become apparent to operators of technology systems and city administrations but remain invisible to citizens.”

Kloeckl gives the example of the Rio de Janeiro Operations Center, a central repository through which flows data from around 30 agencies in the sprawling Brazilian city. Designed by a division of IT giant IBM called Smarter Cities, the flood of data is put through various algorithms to provide insight and identify patterns Rio officials can use to manage their city. So, it’s a system designed by a foreign company that is potentially taking the lead in identifying the city’s problems and coming up with solutions – as opposed to the citizenry, or the local government bodies elected and appointed for such jobs.

That torrent of information is another significant area of concern many critics have with smart cities. Some argue that this rapidly increasing appetite for data puts personal privacy at serious risk, or at least pushes it far down the priority list. This is a particularly acute worry in an atmosphere where it’s theoretically easier than ever to keep tabs on a person, vehicle or household. “Sadly, most cities are far more interested in grabbing data than thinking about privacy,” lamented Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Until cities and local governments actually address these privacy concerns, a smart city is a surveillance city,” he added.

That goes double for the automobile, which is a key element in most smart city conceptions. After all, the promise of an advanced, information-driven municipal system is that it can address most if not all urgent transportation issues. In order to effect this, though, the smart city is going to need massive volumes of data across numerous functionalities of the vehicle. Again, this brings up that old concerns with Big Data, privacy. “You just have to think about what information [modern vehicles] collect,” says Tien. “If you want cars to drive themselves, they’ve got to see the environment, which includes people and other cars.” That’s just the data harvested from external sensors. Internal ones can track “not just the mechanical aspect but watching what passengers do, what music they listen to, how much they weigh, maybe whether they’re drunk or using drugs,” Tien said.

Although numerous smart city proponents acknowledge these risks, they are quick to point out that they can be mitigated, or even avoided, if the proper care is taken by the smart city’s designers and managers. Addressing those major concerns of elitism and privacy, noted smart city evangelist and CMO of transportation informatics company Iteris Joe Boissy suggests a top-down, shared approach. ” By focusing on a defined goal, you eliminate any tension or misunderstanding between the various stakeholders – namely the bureaucrats, theoreticians and people living in the city. I have seen this basic formula working, but the greatest success stories always attach metrics to the goals – for example, we will reduce traffic congestion by X% or increase bike adoption by Y%. This renders [the goals] more tangible and displays more visible benefits to the smart city concept.”

Like it or loathe it, the smart city is a powerful idea that has caught the imaginations of many of the stakeholders Boissy mentions. Whether it moves forward into reality will depend, at least partially, on the participation of those stakeholders. More critically, whether the smart city can be effectively designed and implemented to satisfy those needs for inclusion and privacy.

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