The too-smart city

We’re already building the metropolis of the future—green, wired, even helpful. Now critics are starting to ask whether we’ll really want to live there.

Michael Kirham for The Boston Globe
Michael Kirham for The Boston Globe

Parking in Boston can be a grueling experience, but Christos Cassandras envisions a way to make it almost effortless: Have the city itself sense when spaces are opening up, and guide drivers to the most efficient spot. The engineering professor at Boston University and his students have already piloted a “smart parking” system in a garage at the school, which uses a smartphone app and software that finds the optimal spot for each driver and tells drivers exactly where to go. “Everybody wins,” he says. “Less time wasted, less fuel consumed, less pollution.”

Cassandras’s scheme is just one step in the march toward what futurists and urban planners call the “smart city”—a wired, sensor-filled streetscape that uses cloud computing and sophisticated software to transform cities into intelligent machines that adapt to people’s lives and steer behavior. Smart city advocates envision a future in which tech-savvy cities offer better civic services, move us faster through traffic, reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and gather so much data that the complexities of urban life can be understood and smoothly managed.

The smart city has become a buzzword in urban planning and university engineering departments, and a topic of breathless coverage in science and business magazines. Although today the vision exists more in the realm of promise than reality, cities such as Boston have begun to invest time and chunks of their budget to laying the groundwork. At MIT, the Senseable Cities Lab is developing new technologies to gather and visualize city data, and a recent symposium at Boston University brought together leaders from the city government, IBM, and BU to discuss potential partnerships, including a possible smart-city incubator at the university.


But as political leaders, engineers, and environmentalists join the smart-city bandwagon, a growing chorus of thinkers from social sciences, architecture, urban
planning, and design are starting to sound a note of caution. Building a new, intelligent urban infrastructure could be every bit as momentous as building a water supply, or roads, or a subway system—setting development patterns for decades. Though they share enthusiasm for what a smart city could do, they also point out that smart-city programs could—with little public oversight—put us on track to a kind of urban future that not everyone thinks is ideal.

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Behind the alluring vision, they argue, lurk a number of troubling questions. A city tracking its citizens, even for helpful reasons, encroaches on the personal liberty we count on in public spaces. The crucial software systems and networks that underlie city services will likely lie in private hands. And 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.

Michael Kirham for The Boston Globe

“We’ve had a very good debate in the technology community and business community about the benefits, but very little assessment of the risks,” says Anthony Townsend, an urban planning researcher at New York University and the Institute for the Future, who has spoken and written critically about smart cities.

Cities are focal points for human civilization, the places where people live, work, and create. And they may well be on the verge of new transformation, one that not only alters how they run but what their residents’ lives are like. As they move forward, there’s not just one inevitable path: Different ways of implementing technology could create very different cities, not all of them desirable places to live.



Today, smart-city programs tend to be limited and fairly granular, though people might be surprised to know exactly which parts of their cities are already sensing and analyzing information. Boston is wired with a system called ShotSpotter, which uses acoustic sensors to detect and pinpoint the location of gunshots. The MBTA has been building an extensive network of thousands of surveillance cameras throughout the subway system, monitored from an operations center, and has also installed sensors to detect biological weapons. Equipment on the Prudential Tower and other buildings tracks greenhouse gas emissions; analytical software even helps predict maintenance needs in parts of the sewer system.

Other cities are testing more extensive projects. A control room in Rio de Janeiro, created by IBM, allows city workers to monitor information from the sprawling metropolis to better manage public events and disasters. London’s Greenwich peninsula is testing an “urban operating system” by a firm called Living PlanIT that offers a single platform for integrating services like water, traffic, energy, and street lighting across the city.

The ultimate vision is a city that is hyperefficient, easy to navigate, and free of waste—and which is constantly collecting data to help it handle emergencies, disasters, and crime. “The idea here is to improve the quality of life for citizens,” says Dave Bartlett, vice president of industry solutions at IBM. As a city like Boston becomes more fully wired, the vision is to link its isolated systems to make them more powerful, merging functions like safety surveillance, traffic counting, and environmental monitoring into a shared stream of data that turns the city into almost an organism of its own.

But critics watching these developments—and listening to the dreams of its visionaries—see something else at work as well: a massive shift in urban priorities conducted largely out of the public eye. Many of them compare the networks being built today to the way cities were redesigned for car travel in the first half of the 20th century: As dirt roads were paved, then widened, then run through neighborhoods, and raised into overpasses, they remapped cities completely, for better and worse. Smart-city infrastructure like software, sensors, and networked systems may seem more ephemeral than a highway or a water supply, but its legacy will similarly shape how cities work for the next generation.

These critics are advocating not that cities shun technology, but that they foster a more open debate about how best to adopt it—and a public airing of the questions cities need to ask. One question is how deeply cities rely on private companies to set up and maintain the systems they run on. Smart-city projects rely on sophisticated infrastructure that municipal governments aren’t capable of creating themselves, Townsend points out, arguing that the more they rely on software, the more cities are increasingly shunting important civic functions and information into private hands. In recent talks and in his upcoming book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” Townsend portrays companies as rushing to become the indispensable middlemen without which the city cannot function.


Cities can easily lose leverage to private companies their citizens rely on, as the persistent battles of political leaders against telecom companies over price increases show. And private-sector software can operate behind a veil: Townsend says that while cities have made lots of data freely available online, there’s less concern about opening up the proprietary tools used to analyze that data—software that might help a city official decide who is eligible for services, or which neighborhoods are crime hotspots. “It’s the algorithms in government that need to be brought out to the light of day, not the data,” he says. “What I worry about are the de facto laws that are being coded in software without public scrutiny.”

Networks and software could reshape city life as permanently as highways did.

Another concern is what will be done to protect the huge amount of data cities can gather about their citizens. The wealth of video at the Boston Marathon bombings, though it came from private cameras, showed how useful surveillance footage can be—and also how pervasive. Cameras, sensors, and tracking technologies like the Mass Pike’s EZPass can reveal a great deal about your life: where you live and travel, what you buy, even what time you take a shower. Smart grid utility-metering systems, for instance, collect and transmit detailed energy consumption information, which help consumers understand and curb their energy use but can also reveal their habits. As such, they have come under fire for threatening privacy and civil liberties, and several states have adopted legislation governing what kind of data can be shared with third parties and how customers can opt out. In Massachusetts, automated license plate recognition technology used by police cruisers has raised concerns about authorities tracking the whereabouts of citizens. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has been pushing for a License Plate Privacy Act that would limit law enforcement’s ability to retain and use the information.

On a broader scale, the debates over smart cities tend to reflect a larger battle over city planning, one that pits top-down measures from governments against grass-roots reshaping of urban life—control rooms versus the crowd. This split can be seen even within the smart-city movement itself, where two competing visions of smartness are emerging—the “urban operating system” approach in which a central brain solves the city’s problems, versus a more self-organizing system in which technology gives citizens more control over public services, allowing them to gather data about crime in their neighborhoods or creating volunteer-based public services.

Adam Greenfield, an urban designer and author of the upcoming book “The City is Here for You to Use,” has written on his blog Speedbird that the centralized model of the smart city is “disturbingly consonant with the exercise of authoritarianism.” To him, it repeats many of the blunders of high-concept, 20th-century urban planning, when sections of cities were razed and refashioned. Townsend has argued for a decentralized approach, cities that are “less like a mainframe and more like the Web.”

Dan Hill, an urban designer based in Italy who has written critically about smart cities, says that for him, “the real smart city is social media and smartphones and the things happening on the street at the level of citizens.” But Hill admits that crowd-funding and social media have limits as cures for urban ills, and could deflect responsibility from government. “Can you make a light rail system that way? Can we make a hospital like that? Probably not,” he says.

In Boston today, there are elements of both ideas. Bill Oates, Boston’s chief information officer, who leads the city’s technology initiatives, acknowledges that partnerships with private companies are crucial, since government isn’t in a position to build sensors and networking software, any more than it can build its own subway cars or office buildings. Up to now, he says, none of Boston’s projects have required letting a company control city data, though he is weighing policies on where to draw the line in the future. Even if the city builds closer partnerships with private firms, he says, there will be limits: “We have no intention of turning these things over to a company and saying, ‘We need a smart city with your stuff.’”

He also points to an emphasis on citizen engagement, to keep Boston’s programs grounded in what people want, and not just what City Hall decides. “Our theme has always been to connect with citizens in new ways,” he says.

To that end, one of its key creations is the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a deliberate counterweight to the heavy-handed, control-room vision of urban technology. Its leaders, Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, have launched projects to connect citizens to city services and facilitated city pilot projects by start-ups and community groups. It has worked with Emerson College’s Engagement Lab on a 3-D game designed to engage residents in Chinatown’s master planning process, and on a game called Community PlanIt that allows people to learn about and contribute to community planning, which has been piloted in the Boston public schools, Quincy, and Detroit.

Townsend sees this office as a sign of a city already asking the right questions, calling it “the first smart-city effort that feels like it was designed by a political scientist and not an electrical engineer.” It focuses on engaging citizens through means such as a scheme for turning people’s cars into voluntary road monitors: A new app called Street Bump uses smartphone accelerometers to detect potholes in roads and send the information to the city, which could reduce the need for expensive road surveys.


Whether technology comes from citizens or the city, there’s a philosophy built into the smart-city vision, one in which there’s always a technological answer to a city’s ills. “It’s almost as if things can be boiled down to a simple equation: technology plus innovation equals urban sustainability,” says Rob Kitchin, a geographer who directs the National Institute of Regional and Spatial Analysis at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

The biggest human issues cities face—like persistent poverty, social injustice, or public education—aren’t technological problems with single “best” answers that can be optimized by a system, Kitchin argues. They’re fundamentally political questions about where our priorities lie. The more energy cities invest in running according to “smart” principles, he and others suggest, the easier it becomes to neglect the aspects of our problems that have no technological solution. Critics like Columbia’s Laura Kergan have also pointed out that we will always measure what is cheap, convenient, technologically possible, and politically expedient to measure. Even the best-engineered control room will see only a slice of urban reality.

There’s also a more fundamental—and slippery—question about what kind of life, exactly, smart cities create. How will it feel to live in smart cities? Kitchin has written about this question in his book “Code/Space,” which explores how new technologies shape our day-to-day life in cities. He’s now embarking on a project to study how software affects life in Dublin and Boston, both centers of innovation. “There’s a way in which our lives get codified into the software,” he says.

Kitchin points out that he lives in a building near Dublin with no light switches, just sensors; if the system shuts down or malfunctions, he’s in the dark. Though we often think computing technologies as neutral, they reflect the values of their creators (in this case, energy efficiency over personal control). How much do we want our cities to think for us? Townsend criticizes the idea that we can “have our cake and eat it, too” by living an energy-intensive lifestyle while our buildings quietly reduce our energy use in the background. Perhaps there’s an advantage to educating people to turn off their own lights, instead of asking buildings to do it for them.

Take that smart-parking system at BU. The convenience of hassle-free parking requires people to park only in the spot reserved for them by the system’s software. But, modest as it may sound, the freedom to park where we want—to make our own small daily choices—helps give our lives meaning, and the challenges of city life may well be part of what makes urban existence so attractive.

The orderly, manageable city is a vision with enduring appeal, from Plato’s Republic to Songdo, an entirely new smart city constructed near Seoul. But 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. Hill points out that efficiency isn’t the reason we like to live in cities, and it’s not the reason we visit them. Tourists come to Boston for the bustling charm of the North End, not the sterile landscape of Government Center. In a city where everything can be sensed, measured, analyzed, and controlled, we risk losing the overlooked benefits of inconvenience. It’s as if cities are one of the last wild places, and one that we’re still trying to tame.

Courtney Humphries is a freelance writer in Boston and the author of “Superdove: How the Pigeon Took Manhattan...And the World.”