A little personal news: I just got back from the Washington Ideas Forum, where I was invited to a dinner with some leading thinkers on smart cities. Much of the conversation went above my head, but I ended up leaving with a few takeaways. (Apologies if I mischaracterize people’s positions. All theses recollections are based on memory, since I didn’t record the conversation.)
1) Some people don’t think a true “smart city” yet exists.
At the beginning of the discussion, Philip Bane of the Smart Cities Council made a provocative remark: That there currently are no true smart cities. Yes, some cities are undoubtedly smarter than others, but if we think of smart cities as ecosystems for people and governments to innovate, even the most advanced cities are only at their very early stages of development. This viewpoint is certainly true to some extent: The internet of things—the technology that promises to connect homes, workplaces, and cities—is at its very early stages of development.
2) The term “smart city” isn’t well defined.
During the first part of the discussion, I was lost. Most of the participants worked in governments and agencies advising governments using data in novel ways. Having never worked in city government, I am not experienced in this area. Eventually another participant essentially asked, “What even is a smart city?” which made me feel better about my own ignorance. When we talk about smart cities, are we only talking about data? Are we exclusively referring to government initiatives? Or are we also referring to initiatives by private companies, like Sidewalk Labs? What about citizens using “unglamorous” smart devices to transform their cities?
3) Technology isn’t a replacement for good infrastructure.
I don’t think anyone doubts this fact. In a city plagued by traffic congestion, poor public transit, and dangerous streets, no number of connected devices will magically solve these problems. IoT devices can help make existing infrastructure more efficient, but they aren’t a replacement for traditional placemaking.
4) There are serious privacy implications of having a connected city.
In order to collect the data for smart cities to work, you need to install a lot of sensors. Many of these sensors collect impersonal data, such as information about traffic and noise, but many others forms of data collection involve personal data, such as license plate scanners and security cameras. Presumably, all of this data will be used to provide better city services, but it also creates the potential for abuse by bad actors—whether they be corrupt bureaucrats, crooked cops, or hackers.
I was honored to be invited to this event, and I hope to be invited to more in the future. But I think there’s a problem with only inviting elites to such discussions. If you ask me what technology has transformed cities in the past 5 years, I would say, without question: Google Maps. A generation that grew up in suburbs is now returning to cities, with all their bewildering complexity. Luckily for them, a supercomputer in their pockets lets them find the best restaurants, bars, and entertainment. It also tells them the fastest way to get there, which route to take, and when they should leave if they want to catch the last bus. That’s useful, actionable information that improves people’s lives. Meanwhile, Metro doesn’t even know how to operate its reversible fans.