Last year, American newspapers published more than 800 stories about “smart” cities. Readers could learn how municipal governments are deploying sophisticated technology to ease the flow of local traffic, link residents with city hall, police communities better, and regulate energy use. Soon, some stories predicted, governments will use data—gathered through sensors installed in sidewalks and other spaces—to anticipate, say, where a fire might start or which crucial city systems might fail. Data-driven cities could help fight climate change, cut poverty, reduce sprawl, and even end American’s love affair with the car, the press enthused. Most of the stories focused on existing cities getting smarter, but a few depicted new high-tech metropolises rising from the ground in countries like South Korea or praised the plans of visionaries like Bill Gates to wire American communities in ways that will transform how we live.
Among the glowing futuristic predictions, though, a few reports struck a cautionary note, troubled by the prospect of government, in tandem with technology contractors, gathering vast data from intimate observation of city dwellers—even if for worthy goals. Further, though cities have engaged in planning for thousands of years, most of the world’s great metropolises have largely grown organically, neighborhood by neighborhood. By contrast, the smart-city movement—marrying the ambitions of government planners with the know-how of a new generation of disruptive tech firms—seems intent on redesigning urban life from the top down. So far, the real-world results have been unimpressive, at best, with the handful of existing smart cities across the globe having difficulty luring residents, who seem repelled by their alienating coldness.
In a short time, the “smart city” has evolved from simple proposals to help municipal leaders operate more efficiently to an overarching vision of what kinds of communities people should live in, and even how those people should live. The typical urbanite might find himself asking: What can smart cities actually do for me—or to me?
The smart-cities push grew out of the “smart-growth” urban movement of the 1990s, which argued for planning urban expansion around transit, mixed-use development, and walkable, densely populated neighborhoods. Gradually, the terminology shifted as tech giants like IBM and Cisco began touting their data-crunching abilities to government officials. In 2008, for instance, IBM debuted its Smarter Planet initiative, promoting the idea that, in an ever more interconnected world, information would be essential to managing communities. Out of that project emerged an effort aimed at municipalities, dubbed “smarter cities.” The company drew worldwide attention in 2010, when it built a comprehensive operations center for Rio de Janeiro, integrating data from 30 government agencies. An IBM marketing push then began to popularize the notion of cities getting “smart.”
Rapid technological advances have expanded expectations of just how intelligent cities can get. In particular, the rise of the Internet of Things—a network of sensors and other intelligent devices embedded in homes and public spaces, connected with central computer systems—has massively boosted the speed and scale of information-gathering. Governments can now put sensors in streetlights to observe traffic, enabling officials to make swift decisions about adjusting its ebb and flow. Sensors on streetcars and buses can warn officials about congested intersections or where illegally parked cars clog streets. Strategically placed electronics can detect gunshots, monitor noise and air quality, and may eventually guide autonomous vehicles through city streets and into available parking. (See “How Far Can Driverless Cars Take Us?”)
American cities are ramping up their tech. A recent National League of Cities survey found that two-thirds of local governments have invested in technologies such as intelligent traffic signals, public WiFi kiosks, and e-governance applications that let citizens go online to register complaints, apply for permits, and reserve parking spaces. The Department of Transportation tried to nudge the smart-city idea along when it asked cities to come up with ways to combine technology, data, and transit to move people and goods more efficiently. More than six dozen cities entered the competition. In early 2017, DOT awarded first prize—$40 million in federal grants—to Columbus, Ohio, for proposals that include installing electric self-driving shuttles to connect transit stations to retail districts and outfitting streetlights with sensors that light up an area at night when pedestrians come passing through. Other cities advanced similar initiatives—Pittsburgh proposed connecting a residential neighborhood to downtown with a 30-mile loop traversed by self-driving shuttles, for example.
The DOT challenge asked cities to apply new technologies and ideas about transit to close the gap between rich and poor, “so that the future of transportation meets the needs of all city residents, not just those who are technology savvy.” Portland, Oregon, responded with a plan for a bulk purchase of low-emission electric vehicles for low-income communities and to promote bike- and car-sharing services in those neighborhoods. Los Angeles, meantime, has concentrated some of its smart-city efforts on “digital inclusion,” such as a project to make the Internet available in homeless encampments.
These efforts reflect a call by the National League of Cities for urban leaders to wield smart tech in pursuit of social justice. A 2015 report from the group urged government leaders and businesses to make more jobs available to low-income urban residents by reducing “job sprawl” and directing economic development to dense urban centers, which could be linked with poor communities via new smart-transit systems. It’s all part of a new “equity movement,” the report declared.
Similarly, the Smart Cities Council, an international group of companies, universities, and policy organizations, has launched a Compassionate Cities initiative, seeking to “ensure that digital technologies improve the human condition.” Among other things, the group has advocated for technology that it says can help reduce child hunger by encouraging mothers to breastfeed children—such as Momsense, a device that helps track how well a baby is taking in its mother’s milk. Compassionate Cities also touts efforts like a New York City pilot program that combs public records, including court proceedings and shelter data, to identify families at risk of becoming homeless.
As the smart-city movement has expanded, it has become more ideological—and more controversial. Earlier this year, for example, a group of nonprofits, governments, and firms released a list of “shared mobility principles for livable cities.” To be sustainable, the group maintained, twenty-first-century cities must be increasingly dense and should emphasize “walking, cycling, public transport and other efficient shared mobility.” Key to this agenda: a push to “discourage the use of cars, single-passenger taxis, and other oversized vehicles transporting one person.” Eventually, cities should ban private cars outright, the group said, and instead sanction public fleets, shared by all city residents. Among the signatories to the plan, unsurprisingly, were ride-sharing firms like Uber and Zipcar.
Over the last decade or so, America has witnessed the rise of Silicon Valley giants that want not merely to sell the public their latest gadgets and apps but—far more ambitiously—to disrupt society and reshape it according to their own dictates. Such an enterprise should raise fundamental questions about the evolution of the smart-city idea. “[T]he discourse around smart cities is carried by an urban ‘tech-elite’ of IT corporations, young, well-educated, mostly white and male professionals, and apolitical aspiring city managers,” observed Erasmus University sociologist Liesbet van Zoonen, in a 2016 article in Government Information Quarterly. That reality recalls the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century, which imagined a society governed by a cadre of educated elites instead of by ordinary people through their elected representatives.
The type of urban future that smart-city enthusiasts envision is reflected in the plans of several technology giants for developing residential communities abutting their headquarters—twenty-first-century versions of the company town. Facebook intends to build a “mixed-use village” adjoining its Menlo Park corporate headquarters. The 56-acre site will offer some 1,500 housing units, 126,000 square feet of retail space, and several office towers, all situated in a dense, walkable neighborhood. While conveniently located for employees, the planned community seems designed solely for single workers, content with living childless in small units in high-rise towers; raising a family in such a compact environment would be difficult, to put it mildly. Google’s community-building plans go even further in this direction. It has won approval for a massive campus of housing, retail, and offices near its Mountain View headquarters. Of the nearly 10,000 units of housing that the company will create, 70 percent will be studio or one-bedroom apartments, a plan that officials said would “set a tone for residential development in the Bay Area.”
Many observers have noted that the rapidly expanding tech companies have helped cause the problem that they’re trying to solve—a wild increase in the price of shelter in and around Silicon Valley. Less often acknowledged is that California’s restrictive land-use policies have slowed construction, contributing to a chronic housing shortage that also drives up costs. New zoning initiatives would only accelerate the process of pushing people into the smart-city model of increasingly dense, compact neighborhoods. “Once seen as a human-scale alternative to the crowded cities of the past, California’s cities are targeted by policymakers and planners dreaming of bringing back the ‘good old days,’ circa 1900, when most people in the largest cities lived in small, cramped apartments,” Wendell Cox and Joel Kotkin wrote recently.
It’s doubtful, however, that most Americans yearn for the ever-greater density that smart-city enthusiasts are championing. As Cox and Kotkin observe, 2017 census figures confirm that the “trend of people moving to metros with the densest urban cores . . . is clearly over”; migration to suburbs is increasing. Similarly, observations by smart-city advocates “that millennials are eschewing cars,” a view used to justify urban planning that seeks the end of private automobile ownership, turn out to be premature, as consumers aged 21 to 34 rush to purchase automobiles.
A few countries have already tried to build smart cities from scratch; to date, things haven’t gone that well. Starting in the late 2000s, South Korea has forged Songdo on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea, roughly 40 miles from Seoul. Situated close to Inchon International Airport and designed as a low-carbon, super-high-tech modern metropolis, Songdo was supposed to be a magnet for international businesses and top educational institutions. Advanced systems reprocess waste in Songdo, reducing the need for garbage collection, while hundreds of cameras throughout the city monitor traffic and public order. Yet, despite its newness and amenities, Songdo hasn’t lived up to expectations. So far, firms have brought about 70,000 jobs to the city—well below the 300,000 originally projected. Songdo’s reputation as a dehumanizing urban landscape may be partly to blame. “I’m, like, in prison for weekdays. That’s what we call it in the workplace,” one woman who commutes to her job in Songdo from Seoul told a reporter several years ago. Another critic describes the city as “silent and post-apocalyptic.” Even Songdo’s chief designer, Park Yeon Soo, is disappointed. While he characterizes his elaborately planned city as a luxury car, he admits that he’s still waiting for a good driver to “accelerate” it.
An eco-friendly, technology-rich metropolis under construction near Abu Dhabi International Airport in the United Arab Emirates, Masdar has proved even less successful. A proposed combination of residential, retail, and commercial projects—including research-and-development centers and light industry—the city was to serve as a model of high-tech economic development at near-zero carbon emissions, featuring electric self-driving cars and sophisticated recycling systems. Masdar has had trouble generating business or residential interest, and the project has moved along glacially: it was originally scheduled for completion in 2016, but advocates now hope that it will be fully built by 2030. Visitors call it a ghost town, and designers admit that it won’t meet its original environmental goals any time soon.
Masdar is further along, though, than Yachay, a project of the Ecuadoran government at one time dubbed the City of Knowledge. Government leaders hoped to build a world-class research university in the country’s northern Andes and surround it with a new smart city that would attract private high-tech firms. The City of Knowledge would then help power the nation’s economy. But the cost of the project exploded, even as Ecuador’s energy-based economy struggled, and the government began withdrawing its support. The City of Knowledge may wind up dying before it is built.
Closer to home, much of the work of building smart communities from the ground up will likely be done by private groups. Microsoft founder Bill Gates and other investors have purchased 25,000 acres of land west of Phoenix, where they plan to construct a smart city that one day would be home to 180,000 people. The project remains in the planning stages, but cutting-edge technology will be a feature. Meantime, Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google parent Alphabet, is working with Toronto and the development group Waterfront Toronto to create a smart neighborhood along that city’s waterfront. The technology-supported environment would boast a thermal grid to recirculate energy, embedded snow-melters to clear sidewalks after storms, and autonomous transit systems.
Whether such top-down, planned communities will prove attractive to potential residents and workers remains to be seen. But that’s only part of the challenge that smart cities face. In an age when data breaches and misuses of information at government agencies and private firms make news regularly, some critics worry about the vulnerability of heavily wired communities. In an April 2017 Harvard Business Review essay, “Smart Cities Are Going to Be a Security Nightmare,” Todd Thibodeaux, president of the information-technology trade group CompTIA, noted that smart cities already contain an estimated 2.3 billion networked devices, often connected with critical systems. Many are highly vulnerable to cyberattacks—as hackers know. A video game called Watch Dogs challenges players to hack the central operating system of a futuristic Chicago and spy on residents or disable critical infrastructure; real life is quickly imitating the game. Last year, hackers set off 156 emergency sirens in Dallas, to take one example. In another, hackers hijacked the controls of an Illinois utility and destroyed a water pump serving some 2,200 households. Hackers are probing ways to inflict truly serious damage, as when Iranian cyberterrorists launched a failed 2015 attack on the controls of a small dam used for flood control in New York State.
Some fear that the smart-city movement will produce a society conceding ever more governing functions to technologists, urban planners, and the algorithms that they design—undermining democracy. Such anxieties have been heightened by growing concerns over the casual way that big-tech companies like Facebook have treated the data that they gather about users. Declarations from Silicon Valley leaders that modern society should fret less about privacy and welcome the benefits of Big Data haven’t reassured critics. Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf sparked a controversy in 2013 when he observed that privacy was relatively new in human experience and “may be an anomaly,” adding that, in the future, “it will be increasingly difficult for us to achieve privacy.” “Privacy, as we understand it, is only about 150 years old. For 3,000 years, people have generally chosen convenience or money over privacy,” Silicon Valley observer Greg Ferenstein has written.
Those attitudes seem less prevalent outside Silicon Valley. When Toronto held the first public meeting to discuss Sidewalk Labs’ project, the Torontoist website gathered questions that residents wanted answered. Many were about privacy, including: Who will own the data that city sensors gather? Residents also wanted to know whether individuals would be tracked in real time and whether data would be collected anonymously. Underlying the worries is the real prospect that a project so committed to data as the basis of governing society will have trouble restraining itself. “[T]he potential to mine the data for more personalized information and targeting of city services [is] endless and hence, there is a continuous risk of these services being pulled . . . away from service to surveillance,” van Zoonen observes.
Progressive advocates see the smart city as a planning tool that could help them achieve their ambitious agenda, but urbanist Adam Greenfield views such thinking as based on the wrongheaded belief that “there is only one universal and transcendently correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need” and that “this solution can be arrived at algorithmically.” In a 2016 report to the Irish government on smart cities, social scientist Rob Kitchin warned that the smart-city movement “treats the city as a knowable, rational, steerable machine, rather than a complex system full of wicked problems and competing interests,” and that increasingly, smart-city thinking “promotes top-down technocratic forms of governance.”
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed that a persistent myth of post–War World II urban planning was that if we just had enough money, we could solve problems like housing the poor and reversing neighborhood decay by building the right kind of neighborhoods. Instead, Jacobs pointed out, much of the public money made things worse—for the poor, the middle class, and those living in luxury communities. As the concept of the smart city evolves, one wonders if we’re heading in the same wrong direction all over again.
Top Photo: South Korea’s Songdo was built from scratch as a smart city but so far hasn’t lived up to expectations. (TUOMAS LEHTINEN / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)