Smart cities will be cleaner, accessible, even more democratic, proponents say. But governments adopting new tech must contend with risks, too
BARCELONA-On an overcast day in November 2019, thousands of people from all over the globe streamed in to Barcelona’s cavernous suburban convention centre to partake in what’s become an annual celebration of a utopian vision for 21st-century cities - a vision fuelled by the potent confection of cutting-edge digital technology, urbanist idealism and an enormous amount of money.
Sprawled across two giant trade halls, the Smart City Expo, founded in 2011, featured exhibits by tech companies of all sizes, as well as local, regional and national governments. Bureaucrats, investors, academics and journalists roamed aisles lined with screens, cafes and Sim City-type renderings. Smart city sales people, meanwhile, offered “seminars,” handed out brochures and enticed attendees to try devices ranging from sophisticated surveillance and mapping gear to electric scooters. Signage throughout encouraged visitors to be inclusive and sustainable. Cisco, a network tech giant and major sponsor, had its logo everywhere.
The Government of Canada operated a single modest booth off in one corner, while Sidewalk Labs, Apple/Google’s ambitious smart city disrupter, was conspicuous by its absence.
The location of the event was no accident: Over the past decade, the picturesque Catalonian capital has established itself as an exponent of progressive smart city policy as well as a hub of smart-city investment and entrepreneurship. Barcelona’s smart-city congress itself has become something of a lucrative export product, with well-attended spinoff trade-shows in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
Perched at a high table in the City of Tel Aviv-Yafo’s bar-style booth, Liora Schecter, the harried-looking chief information officer, described what has become the region’s smart city calling card - a seven-year-old service called Digi-Tel that showcases Tel Aviv’s brand as a lively and fun-filled metropolis and a global centre for tech research and investment. In 2014, in fact, Tel-Aviv won the “world’s smartest city” award for its Digi-Tel platform during the Barcelona expo that year.
Residents, she half-shouted over pulsing electronic dance music, can register by providing “just a bit little bit of information” - anything from addresses to interests, children’s ages, and so on. The analytics behind Digi-Tel’s smartphone app, in turn, push out personalized notifications ranging from the location of nearby schools and washrooms to discounts on tickets for musical events. “If you have a small child and we have an activity for children nearby, we’ll proactively invite you,” Schecter said. “It gives you information about things you actually expect a municipality to arrange for you.”
The project, which coincided with the launch of public Wi-Fi, was conceived as an inexpensive means of improving citizen engagement and trust in local government, according to a 2016 case study by the Inter-American Development Bank, which noted that the city has also deployed security-focused smart systems such as hundreds of CCTVs coupled to an automatic image-analysis software used to combat property crime and other threats.
Digi-Tel allows users to register for city programs, pay bills, check beach conditions and express their views about neighbourhood planning matters. During the past five years, according to Schecter, Tel Aviv-Yafo has signed up 231,000 households, representing 70 per cent of the city’s adult population. Privacy, she added, hasn’t been a sticking point because the service is entirely voluntary. “You will deliver your data only if you believe it will get value.”
The system conforms to Israel’s privacy laws and the municipality only hands over information to authorities if there’s a court order; none, Schecter added, is sold to third parties, in spite of its obvious commercial value. “I’m a resident myself,” she shrugged. “I wouldn’t want it to happen to me.”
The fast-growing world of smart city tech is redolent with such upbeat narratives - stories, or “use cases,” in industry parlance, about technologies that claim to improve or at least help navigate the complexities of urban life. Smart city technologies, proponents say, have the capacity to make urban spaces cleaner, more accessible and even more democratic. Some industry leaders say these innovations can displace a sluggish and older generation of municipal technologies built around mainframe computers.
“There’s billions of dollars flowing into this space,” says University of Toronto urban geographer Matti Siemiatycki, a Canada Research chair in infrastructure and finance. “This activity is happening in a small number of cities and Toronto is one of them.” The GTA, he adds, can become a leader in how cities leverage data and technology to support broad social goals, like sustainability and inclusion, while making municipal operations far more efficient and responsive.
Yet, as this series will explore, it’s increasingly clear that the utopianism that burnishes smart city technology should prompt us to pose tough questions about ubiquitous surveillance, the risks of technocratic control, mission creep and the growing influence that profit-minded tech firms exert over city government clients who want to find savings in their budgets and show voters they’re not dinosaurs.
As urban historians know, earlier visions of utopian cities turned out to be markedly dystopian. “If the history of city building in the last century tells us anything,” tech critic Anthony Townsend warned in his 2014 book Smart Cities, “it is that the unintended consequences of new technologies often dwarf their intended design.” Others note how the seduction of a tidy and rational digital solution to complex urban challenges can foster a blinkered mindset - what Ben Green, a former City of Boston data scientist and author of The Smart Enough City, describes as “tech goggles.” “They cause whoever wears them to be perceive every ailment of urban life as a technology problem and to selectively diagnose only those issues that technology can solve.”
In certain cases, the underlying systems have become so powerful, complex and, in many cases, opaque, that they compel us to imagine new forms of urban politics, civic engagement and approaches to regulation and governance that are every bit as innovative as the technologies themselves.
Some observers also argue that some of these technologies have failed to live up to marketing promises. “There’s been 10 years of smart city hype about how smart cities will save the world,” says New York University urban planning and informatics expert Constantine Kontokosta. “We haven’t seen any systematic analysis that using these smart city models has actually helped.”
Shannon Mattern, a professor of anthropology at New York’s New School for Social Research, tracks the debates about smart city tech and its ethical implications. In a widely cited 2017 essay in the journal Places, she argued for more public scrutiny of digital systems that purport to “optimize” urban regions. “We don’t know how these experiments will fare,” she cautioned. “A city is not a computer.”
When I spoke to Mattern in 2020, she said the computational heft of artificial intelligence-fuelled technologies had become far more complex in just the two years since she had penned her essay. Watching the evolution of the technology, Mattern saw positive applications, in fields like health and transportation, but also alarming ones, like facial recognition. “It’s very situational.”
Mattern, however, stressed that technologies capable of processing and drawing inferences from vast pools of data can’t be seen as a surrogate for other ways of understanding how urban communities function. Memory, sensory perception, experience - all of these forms of nondigital, nonquantifiable ‘information’ mustn’t be elbowed aside in favour of technological solutions that draw on apparently objective data sources and algorithms.
The city-as-computer metaphor, she warned in her essay, “give(s) rise to technical models, which inform design processes, which in turn shape knowledge and politics, not to mention material cities.”
The question, then, is whether the wider social, political and even economic context in which these powerful technologies take root will determine whether they contribute to sustainable and progressive city-building, or produce its opposite.
It’s likely that most Torontonians first encountered the expression “smart cities” in the fall of 2017, when Sidewalk Labs, then a little known New York startup, arrived with an intriguing buffet of futuristic plans for developing a swath of the eastern waterfront, dubbed Quayside, and the Port Lands.
Computer networks, analytics and data processing have been integral to urban development and management since military information systems began to take root in municipal government during the Cold War, according to Jennifer Light, who studies the impact of science and technology on urban planning at MIT
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