Will the Techies Save Our Cities?

Fifty percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that number will go to 60% in the next decade. Yet these growing cities the world over are often beset by issues like rotting transportation infrastructure, troubled policing, poor quality schools, pockets of poverty and water supply problems. For many of them you can make the case that they have already outgrown their ability to provide services and a clean, safe environment.

Silicon Valley, and other outposts of technology providers, believe they have the answer. Make our cities smart.

Steel cityThe Utopian vision for the smart city goes something along the lines of what Steven Poole describes in the Guardian: “A woman drives to the outskirts of the city and steps directly on to a train; her electric car then drives itself off to park and recharge. A man has a heart attack in the street; the emergency services send a drone equipped with a defibrillator to arrive crucial minutes before an ambulance can. A family of flying maintenance robots lives atop an apartment block – able to autonomously repair cracks or leaks and clear leaves from the gutters.”

The technologists vision of the smart city in a result of the shrinkage of computing combined with the enlargement of data. It potentially puts to use all of the buzzword technologies of the 21st century: sensors, drones, machine learning, big data, cloud computing, the internet of things, artificial intelligence. At its core is the proliferation of sensors, ultimately almost infinitesimally small, that can be installed everywhere, utility poles, cars, bikes, traffic lights, heating systems. The U.S.-based research firm Gartner estimated that by 2020 there will be 25 billion connected “things.” These sensors can capture various information and wirelessly transmit it to cloud computing systems where various forms of data analysis can supposedly tell us what to do about traffic, how to reduce energy usage, where to deploy our law enforcement resources or even when trash cans need to be emptied.

The promise of smart cities is not new. Yet I live in a relatively affluent urban corrider and I can say with some certainty that neither New York, Newark nor Philadelphia seem particularly smart. Is the smart city a realistic solution to the bevy of problems that potentially accompany urban growth? Or is it merely, in Poole’s words, “rhetoric that has, for the past decade or so, been promulgated most energetically by big technology, engineering and consulting companies.” According to Gartner, the technology market for local, state and federal governments will amount to $430 billion globally this year and will grow to $476 billion by 2020.  That’s some powerful incentive for tech companies big and small to enthusiastically make the smart city pitch.

Others, including some social scientists, have raised questions about whether the smart city is really someplace where we would want to live.  There’s the issue of privacy and surveillance. Not to mention the potential for always on, always with you marketing. And, as Boston Globe writer Courtney Humphries notes, “the more successful smart-city programs become, the more they risk diverting resources into the problems that can be solved with technology, rather than grappling with difficult issues that can’t be easily fixed with an app.”

In next week’s post, I’ll look at some smart things that some cities are doing.

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20 Responses to Will the Techies Save Our Cities?

  1. BroadBlogs says:

    Living in Silicon Valley I hope that tech can help!

    Like

  2. Donna Janke says:

    The smart city concept is interesting. I can see it dealing with a number of problems, but I would also fear the risk of diverting attention from difficult issues which cannot be solved by technology. Parts of the freeway going around the city of London are “variable-speed” zones. Studies have show that when traffic becomes congested, getting everyone to drive at a lower speed actually makes the traffic flow better rather than stop and go turning the freeway into a parking lot. We were on the freeway last fall when one of the overhead digital signs announced a slower speed limit was in effect and it did seem to help. Would this be considered a smart city concept? I’m looking forward to your upcoming posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. pjlazos says:

    I am terrified of this idea of a smart city, Ken. I already feel like I am being watched all the time by the cameras at street signs, on top of buildings, etc. If we have to live in that kind of city, I’m going off the grid!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, Ken. I hope the cities improve, but only if the technology reduces costs. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Erica says:

    Los Angeles, where I live, is definitely not a “smart city”. We need help in most departments. At least NYC has the subway system. We just have millions upon millions of people in cars with constant gridlock. Though, I’m not so sure if becoming a smart city would help our most urgent problems. For instance, our schools are horrible, and we can’t afford more teachers. Perhaps all teachers will get 2 robot teacher assistants. That might help. I’m interested for the rest of of this series to see what different cities are doing.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I will really be looking forward to your next post, Ken. I find the topic of “smart cities” very fascinating and would love to learn more. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Phoenicia says:

    Your “smart city” illustrations have made me think – a lot. Is this really the way the world is going? We will be under surveillance all of the time. There is little freedom in this.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. heraldmarty says:

    Fascinating and timely topic and makes me feel like an old fuddy-duddy for digging my heels in and refusing to allow technology to take over my life and choices. Having recently moved from a small Island back to the mainland I expected to see more evidence of technology creep, but other than there’s land-lots-o-land, rather than ocean surrounding my home, not much has changed. Look forward to learning more about what’s going on out there in the world. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  9. The smart city concept (and even the smart house concept that I have see in action somewhat) all hold a lot of promise. Smart cars definitely hold a lot of potential for easing traffic flow, but it would take a bit of getting used to when it comes to no longer being in control. A novella series I’ve been copy editing takes place in such a city. Alas, the robots go wonky and try to destroy humanity 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  10. klagowski says:

    Oh, the smart city sounds a little scary! I think we need to temper all that technology with human emotions and thought – after all, not even the most perfect machine is infallible. What happens when there’s a breakdown? And I can tell you that quite a few of the sensors on cars have shortcomings, especially in inclement weather. When snow covers a parking sensor, it doesn’t work very well!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Ken, Big cities have so many human problems to solve — poor education systems, poverty, poor transportation systems — that they don’t have the money to invest in smart technologies. I disagree somewhat with your assessment of New York City, where I lived most of my life before moving to Florida last year. Michael Bloomberg was the “technology” mayor and he instituted many improvements, such as dial 311 for city services (now adopted by several other cities) and was instrumental in the development of Cornell Tech. LinkNYC is rolling now and will provide hot spots throughout the city. Much more to be done but it’s a good start.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great topic. I’m fascinated by the idea of smart cities, there is so much potential there to improve lives. Like any use of technology how far we want to go is up to us. Perhaps rather than being inclined to focus on those things we can fix with technology, we will instead have more time to focus on the complex social issues that require more human intervention.

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  13. It is funny how in history that technology is presented as the savior of the problems we encounter. We sometimes look at the positive, and ignore the negative. The industrial revolution, because of metal technology, allowed huge cities to be built up to the sky. However, it also caused the pollution that is causing climate change, and we are paying for that now.
    I think you did address surveillance and privacy and marketing attacking you directly. Is this our “pollution” problem of the future, where we will gain the benefits but future generations pay the price?

    Liked by 2 people

  14. What an interesting post. I can totally imagine a smart city as one of those cities depicted in futuristic movies. For now though, I’d just be happy with good, efficient public transport system in my country. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Andy says:

    You mentioned last week that the Jersey Shore was being threatened by a tropical storm. Speaking as someone who used to live in New Orleans, I will say that if smart cities can effectively maintain levees and other barricades that lessen the effects of hurricanes and tropical storms, then they need to arrive as soon as possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. susht says:

    Your post reminded me of the Coruscant seen in Star Wars. Interesting post each coin has two sides to offer so has the concept of ‘smart cities’ if it does come into existence will be looking forward to it!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I am fascinated by the ‘idea’ of smart cities.

    But when I fantasize about ‘upgrading’ the United States technology…I think more along the lines of creating an actual public transportation system as a priority, and repair and replacement of our deteriorating infrastructure.

    Looking forward to reading more of your Smart Cities essays. Thank you. 🐞

    Liked by 2 people

  18. eben4u says:

    Great piece Mr Ken. Please I am the founder of techgenez.com , I am 22 years boy from Ghana-west Africa. Please I am pleading on your behalf to write for http://www.techgenez.com . please send me a mail at bloggers@techgenez.com so that we can reach a lot of people with your rich tech posts.God bless you for accepting my humble plea.

    Like

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