Are Smart Cities Really That Smart?

The fun thing about a smart city is that when you watch it, it might be watching you back. Image courtesy of aotaro via FlickrCC.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction, and also a lot of articles about smart cities. And the two seem to be converging to a single point. I’m not entirely sure what “smart city” means as a term of art, but it seems to have something to do with using technology to make a city more adaptive to its inhabitants, and thus to serve them up with a better, healthier, richer, and safer city. From what I’m reading, I’m not entirely sure this is happening.

On the one hand, increased technology has given us access to a better understanding of what humans need. One could easily argue that tracking the movement of people en masse, and studying traffic data available from smartphones should help develop better roadways and infrastructure to serve humans. And one would not be wrong. The MIT SenseableCity lab’s Global Mobility Index gives a gives cities a measure of movement that helps guide their funding towards the right resources: bike shares, car services, public transport. One could also see that knowing such granular details about where people are moving is not always in the best interests of humans. For example, look at the kind-of-hilarious-if-it-weren’t-so-scary Strava debacle of earlier this year.

Cyberpunk science fiction writer and Wired blogger Bruce Sterling says “stop saying ‘smart cities.’” Sterling argues that cities being touted as “smart”…well, they aren’t. They’re just a magnet for capital. He talks about the bygone notion that the internet boom was creating a “flat-world” where equal access to the internet would be the final and ultimate democratizer and unifier. Certainly we have seen access to wifi technology open up avenues for healthcare and create economic inroads in developing nations. But Sterling argues, that the so-called smartness is gutting cities by prioritizing the needs of big tech giants over the needs and wants of the citizens. Instead of using technology to tabulate citizen input and make decisions in accordance with their voiced wishes, they are using technology to track citizen movement and consumer habits and make decisions as their proxy (from which the big companies involved stand to profit in a big way). It seems I read a book about this once, it didn’t end well for those involved.

Sterling may be overstating the case a bit, but not by much. Already there are some mega-creepy surveillance programs being sanctioned in the smart cities of China. These programs follow people’s movements online and IRL to generate a “social credit.” Much like a traditional credit score — which BTW is already totally fraught on an Orwellian scale — will determine what sort of opportunities and freedoms a person is entitled to. And again, it seems I’ve seen a dystopian show about this somewhere. And again, it didn’t end well.

Having said that, technology can bring some good to cities. Ridesharing services, have proved to be a reasonable driver of infrastructure funding in cities. Chicago has already raised massive municipal funds by collecting a surcharge on all Uber rides, and New York is poised to do the same. Of course Uber is not without its share of gloom. A recent study out of Stanford giving some of the metrics on driving for Uber was the subject of a post on the blog TheRideShareGuy.

In my own smart-ish city of Pittsburgh — which has made it to the short list of possible new homes for Amazon’s second headquarters — I’ve seen technology bring a renewed vitality to the metropolis. The launch of the Steel City as a testing ground for self-driving cars was a mixed bag. You can consult with blogger Laura McLay on PunkRockOR on whether or not automation is really a smart choice.

For tons of spooky articles about our cyberpunk futures, The Atlantic is currently running a series on smart cities. And if you need me, I’ll be out in a field somewhere wrapping my entire body in aluminum foil.

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