Maybe We Don’t Want Our Cities to Be Smart

The promise of the smart city is one that runs more efficiently, more cost effectively and more sustainably. But that all comes with a cost and it is a cost that may be over and above the dollars spent. It’s for that reason that some have questioned whether or not the smart city would actually be a place where we would want to live.

NYC police cameraWhile the internet of things may offer a vision of a tech-fueled utopia to some, to others it suggests an omnipresent Big Brother that goes far beyond anything envisioned by Orwell. We all have seen how easily and thoroughly we are tracked online. Imagine when that tracking occurs in public places and in our homes because sensors are everywhere, sensors that record video and sounds not just info we choose to input. At minimum that suggests a virtual bombardment of so-called personalized marketing pretty much everywhere we go.

But there may also be some less benign ramifications. The internet of things, and hence the smart city, runs on wireless technology. The security vulnerabilities of wireless technology have been repeatedly demonstrated. Friendly hackers have shown how they could take control of a connected vehicle’s brakes, steering and acceleration. They even have a name for a terrorist attack of hackers that would, for example, disable the brakes on all connected vehicles in a given area. It’s called a “zero day” attack. And there’s no reason to assume that the sensors that might manage a water and sewer plant, a nuclear power stations or a medical device are any less vulnerable.

Technology has already begun to be adopted as a way to improve police effectiveness. “Shotspotter” identifies the location of gunfire. Predictive analytics are being used to determine deployment of policing manpower and a cell phone tracking technology called “Stingray” is used to predict crimes. A civil rights group in Baltimore recently filed a complaint with the FCC about the use of Stingray in a racially discriminatory manner. Do the analytics lead to the appearance of racial or ethnic profiling. One can argue that the data is the data, but the perception alone could lead to the kind of social disruption that we’ve experienced as the result of discriminatory policing.

Aside from the hackers, terrorists and rogue law enforcers, we would also have to be comfortable with turning over certain areas of governance to private concerns, since cities do not, and are not likely to get, to level of expertise and resource necessary to implement a smart city operating system. What happens when the board of your town’s technology provider decides that their first priority is their shareholders? That is the same thing that happens in many corporations now. We get lower quality product, diminished customer service and higher prices (think banks or airlines), all in the name of enhancing shareholder value by increasing profits. The Chicago Tribune warned “it’s wise to remember that the driving force behind smart city endeavors should be the civic benefit they provide — not the profits they create for the Ciscos and IBMs that get billions from smart city contracts.” Writing in the Guardian Stephen Poole asks “And what role will the citizen play? That of unpaid data-clerk, voluntarily contributing information to an urban database that is monetised by private companies?” That’s a little like what we all do on Facebook now.

A few weeks ago, one of the world’s largest airlines, Delta, was brought to its knees and shutdown by a system outage. What happens if Chicago or Milan or Beijing is being run on a single operating system. Will it be immune to crashes?

And finally, there is the question of what the smart city does to the social and economic inequality which already plagues so many of our systems. If all city services and citizen information is online, what does that mean for the unconnected? According to the New York Times, one out of every five Americans does not have internet access. In households with income of less than $20,000, half have no access. Many of those folks live in cities and putting our cities online creates an even more disadvantaged class, one without equal access to education or job opportunities.

In her article The Too Smart City in the Boston Globe, Courtney Humphries suggests that as opposed to the high tech vision of the smart city, “…there’s an equally compelling vision of the city as a chaotic and dynamic whirl of activity, an emergent system, an urban jungle at once hostile and full of possibility—a place to lose oneself.”

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17 Responses to Maybe We Don’t Want Our Cities to Be Smart

  1. ramonamckean says:

    What an eye-opening blog, Ken! We humans have gotten too smart for our own good? The double-edged sword is swinging, in a thought-arresting (scary) way. George Orwell, Isaac Asimov and others would be nodding their heads. We humans need to NURTURE our humanity every single day, big time. What are smarts without heart and a soul?


  2. There is a question that comes up for me while reading this. Will a smart city help poorer people live better or will it isolate them to the point where they need to leave the city? I’m not sure. Thanks for sharing.


  3. Phoenicia says:

    I really do not agree in one single operating system. One element goes and the city/country comes crashing down. A plan B would need to be put in place as the system WILL crash at some point. They always do.

    With regards to policing technology, will everyone be assumed as suspicious until they can prove otherwise?


  4. This is cool how you’re doing these posts as I’m copyediting another novella that features a smart city. The main character is currently dealing with the security issues inherent to wireless connections. Somehow, I’m guessing the baby robot in the book that’s about to become sentient is probably going to wreak some real havoc this time once it gets its Wi-Fi connection back 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  5. susht says:

    Ken, your series of smart cities is each week raising its bar! I agree with the development of smart cities one needs the decrease of the gap or inequality between different classes of the society!


  6. heraldmarty says:

    I think you’ve definitely hit on a valid point Ken! I spent a lot of time in rental cars when I was trolling up and down Oregon looking for a place to live and I recall having a conversation with an Enterprise agent who glumly shared several stories about hackers being able to take control of the electronic system of cars. She was genuinely concerned about it and seemed fixated on the whole “big brother” issue, so yeah, I believe there are a lot of people who feel the same way. Thought provoking article as always.


  7. Donna Janke says:

    Interesting discussion. We really need to be “smart” about how we implement smart city concepts. The impact on social and economic inequality has to be part of the consideration.


  8. lenie5860 says:

    Ken, I find this rather scary but then I still think the ideal way of life is by having small communities where people look out for each other, not a place where technology spies on us. I mean, just look at Amazon – I buy a fair bit from them but I now get emails and popups from them about items i not only purchased but browsed. If they can do that, can’t governments and big business do similar?


  9. Good points about the downside of smart cities. I think the problem is, our privacy is not taken away, we give it away. The software on our phones, and computers have basically sold all your information to others, but you have to agree to it to use that software.
    Soon, people will get used to not having any privacy, and then it will be almost impossible to get it back.


  10. Erica says:

    The thought of an entire city crashing is really terrifying. Where I live, it becomes chaos when even 1 stoplight starts blinking. Progress does certainly come with some scary repercussions. And after recently watching the movie, Snowden, I’m feeling more aware than ever that your privacy is never guaranteed anymore.


  11. Ken Dowell says:

    I just watched Snowden too and I have to admit I came home and put a piece of masking tape over the camera on my laptop.


  12. Andy says:

    A key benefit to living in a large city is the anonymity it affords you – it would be awful to lose that.

    The “unpaid data-clerk … database that is monetised by private companies” Stephen Poole quote made me think of a classical definition of fascism: an economic system in which profits are privatized and risks are socialized.


  13. inesephoto says:

    I would say, it is our nearest future.


  14. Hareesh Jayanthi says:

    Your points are well-taken. Information that is gathered by the city or on behalf of the city should be strictly regulated. Maybe only keep it for 30 days? On the other hand if the city is able to sell some data to private companies income taxes could be kept very low or even zero so citizens could benefit as well. Sounds scary, but many people might be ok with that. Not saying I would though. There some important issues highlighted here regardless. Good post.

    Liked by 1 person

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