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IDEAS

Q&A: What’s dumb about smart cities

In the quest to make cities more efficient, other aspects of urban life get overlooked.

A physical model of a neighborhood was displayed at the Sidewalk Labs office in 2019.
A physical model of a neighborhood was displayed at the Sidewalk Labs office in 2019.Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Smart cities have been hyped for a long time. After all, it makes sense to try to use information and communication technologies to improve government services and increase the well-being of urban communities.

Unfortunately, pilot projects have been disappointing. For example, Sidewalk Labs, owned by Google’s parent company, planned in 2017 to transform a section of Toronto into a “testing ground” for the future of urban life. Public Wi-Fi would blanket the area, and data gathered from sensors in the district would help inform decisions about traffic and housing. But last year, after city residents raised questions about data privacy and the role of a private company in governance, the project was abandoned — although the official reason given was economic uncertainty stemming from the pandemic.

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Still the smart cities idea persists. The Senate’s infrastructure bill allocates $500 million to support smart cities grants. Marc Lore, an Internet billionaire, aspires to confront wealth inequality by founding a smart city somewhere in this country. As Fortune magazine puts it, Lore believes that a mix of “energy-efficient buildings, autonomous electric cars, and high-speed transportation,” plus a novel model of land ownership, will make the city “a new model for society.”

To better understand the promises and pitfalls of smart cities, I reached out to Shannon Mattern, a leading critic of the concept. She is a professor of anthropology at The New School for Social Research in New York City and for the past decade has written a column on urban data and media infrastructures for Places Journal. Her latest book is “A City Is Not a Computer: Other Urban Intelligences.” Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

What’s the positive vision for smart cities?

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Living in a smart city supposedly provides conveniences and efficiencies. Environmental sensors, cameras, and geolocation technologies on residents’ personal devices collectively allow for the deployment of transit systems, waste management, and other public and social services. Automated building management systems and smart energy technologies also ostensibly allow for greater energy efficiency.

Living in a smart city also purportedly offers greater accessibility — not only to fast, ubiquitous Internet connectivity but also to civic participation. The digitization of government services eliminates bureaucracy, allows for more seamless connections between various agencies, and enables citizens to participate in civic improvement programs, like reporting potholes and contributing to community safety initiatives; and in democratic processes, such as deliberations over urban planning initiatives or municipal legislation.

And living in a smart city is also ostensibly safer. Sensors and surveillance systems, especially if connected to networked data management systems, allow for the targeted deployment of public safety resources — and even the prediction and preemptive interception of criminal activity.

Where does this vision fall short?

While efficiency, accessibility, safety, and convenience are laudable goals, prioritizing them often results in the marginalization or preclusion of other values, like generosity, inclusion, and justice. Marginalized individuals are often either insufficiently integrated into smart systems, which means that they don’t benefit from its efficiencies, or are overly represented within its surveillance and security apparatus. The primacy of efficiency ignores the fact that frictions are often productive. Finally, “smart urbanism” also assumes a technical solution for problems that are often entangled in socioeconomic and cultural factors and fraught historical legacies, which don’t readily lend themselves to data-centric solutions and technological control.

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Can you expand on the problem of taking this approach to enhancing efficiency? In principle, when municipal funds are tight, using technology to save time and money should free up resources for underfunded community services.

Yes, we can imagine myriad efficiencies that emerge from integrating data across public health, public transit, public housing, environmental protection, etc. Those efficiencies could potentially eliminate redundancies across city agencies and preclude expensive snafus and crises.

Yet smartness also carries costs — and those costs aren’t solely financial. It requires contracting with commercial service providers and procuring their hardware and software and maintaining those technologies. There are also potential social and political costs: the costs of being locked into proprietary infrastructures, the costs of losing control of all the municipal and citizen data that are captured by corporate platforms. Automation also typically results in a black-boxing of the processes by which data are extracted and analyzed and by which decisions are made. This represents a profound epistemological loss both for city managers and citizens.

We also face broader existential costs: the loss of public trust, the loss of a civic knowledge commons, and the loss of an appreciation that cities benefit from an often messy, irreconcilable mélange of intelligences.

What other forms of intelligence are you saying are lost in the smart city?

Smartness emphasizes problems and solutions that can be operationalized and managed through computational means — particularly through extractive approaches to data collection and corporate, technocratic means of control. Cities have been “intelligent” environments for millennia. Their resilience and vibrance are attributable to a diversity of intelligences: knowledge that’s distributed within communities, embodied ways of knowing, indigenous knowledge, and the sensibilities of other species with whom we share our cities.

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A singular focus on smartness obscures these valuable forms of intelligence and focuses our attention on matters that can be datafied and monitored on a dashboard. Smart as an aspirational category of intelligence can also lead us to overlook and undermine other urban knowledge institutions — including libraries, community archives, grassroots media, oral history projects, and more — that espouse other ways of knowing and other cultural values.

Given the problems you’ve identified, what’s the proper role of technology in urban life?

An excellent way to motivate conversations about [which technologies fit in which situations] is to ask two questions that emphasize what philosopher Ivan Illich calls “conviviality”: How can we deploy urban technologies so that the people whose lives they impact adequately understand their mechanisms? And how can urban technologies promote values beyond economy and efficiency while prioritizing human autonomy and ecological flourishing?

Evan Selinger is a professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an affiliate scholar at Northeastern University’s Center for Law, Innovation, and Creativity. Follow him on Twitter @evanselinger.