(Not So) Smart City

With the increase in digital technology over the past few decades comes the explosive popularity of “smart” technology: smart phones offering a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, smart homes enabling us to control temperature and lighting remotely, and even smart robots like the Amazon Echo with its voice command capabilities. In my Managing for Social Impact course, we learned of an effort to push this one step further from individual smart products to a comprehensive “smart city.”

The idea behind a smart city is to record and analyze data gathered by smart phones and other personal devices such as GPS, Fitbits, and Nest home systems. This data would then connect to trillions of digital sensors distributed among the city to enable interaction among various transportation, communication, pollution, and sanitation systems. Smart city advocates hope that this technology can learn citizens’ behaviors and develop more efficient ways to operate. The most classic smart city example relates to traffic jams. Sensors placed near traffic lights could not only monitor traffic flow and calibrate to congestion accordingly, but also learn and adapt to expected traffic patterns over time. This specific technology could even communicate that behavior to cars so drivers could know the exact timing of traffic lights and plan for the most efficient route.  

Amid the excitement surrounding the unleashed potential of “smart cities” to study and improve living conditions with modern technology, I feel some pangs of skepticism. Certainly the concept offers enormous potential for us to better understand the systems within our city, but at what point are we overstepping our boundaries and encroaching on the privacy of citizens? What about individuals who don’t feel comfortable having every aspect of their daily lives recorded, monitored, and watched? By redefining society in increasingly technological terms, participation in the smart city system—whether voluntary or not—seems almost inescapable. People who might want to “opt out” simply can’t so long as they want to drive cars and make phone calls.

Smart cities also raise questions of citizen safety and security. Cases of security breaches, hackings, and information theft have demonstrated that digital is not always better. The 2013 attack on over 3 billion Yahoo accounts and the theft of over 40 million credit cards in a Target hack are just two examples of the dangerous consequences technology can have when we fail to install and monitor appropriate security measures. These are isolated incidents, but I wonder if consolidating too many technological systems into one streamlined smart city makes us more vulnerable to larger scale threats from more points of entry. A city that enables hackers to access our driving patterns from our GPS data stored in public sensors or purchase history from Amazon Echo records suddenly doesn’t seem so “smart.”

In addition to security uncertainties, critics of smart cities have also raised questions of equality and fairness among the citizens it seeks to serve. In a recent interview with Government Technology magazine, urban scholar Frederico Caprotti analyzes some of the potential drawbacks that smart cities could face. He warns that the smart city concept risks reducing human beings to mere “providers of data” and inherently favors those on the right side of the digital divide. If citizens do, as Caprotti suggests, just become “providers of data,” could this not create the false impression that certain citizens matter more just because they produce more data? Perhaps policymakers would even focus disproportionately more on the needs of those who are highly connected simply because their needs are more heavily advertised than digitally excluded demographics. In this regard, Caprotti believes that smart cities could actually worsen the lives of their citizens by exacerbating urban inequality.

Ultimately, utilizing data from the products we use every day seems like an intuitive and even accessible solution to help policymakers better understand our behaviors and needs. Yet in addition to safety and security concerns, we need to consider that technology does not reach everyone equally, and people with disabilities, older age, or lower incomes could disproportionately suffer if their needs are not as publicized in digital records. As former NYC chief of urban design Alexandros Washburn says, “the light cannot turn green in both directions. The elevator cannot be waiting at every floor. Decisions have to be made and those decisions, even in small ways, effectively create winners and losers.”

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor