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.
The 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.