Your Smart City Is Stupid

Opinion

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on iOS? What about users of other mobile platforms? Technology vendors would most likely advise against porting a parking app to a Windows Phone because it’s not worth the investment for 1-2 percent of potential users. That might be a good business decision, but as public policy it’s not inclusive.

There is nothing innovative about spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars on sensors, nodes, and smart devices unless there’s a clear plan of how it will improve the life of citizens. Just as tax breaks aren’t going to turn a dying city into a startup wonderland, neither will deeper metrics and sleek applications alone solve traffic congestion, homelessness, and air pollution. You need to build on strategy, political will, and most importantly, empowered citizens

Plans, of course, are subject to drastic change. Or, as Mike Tyson once put it, everybody’s got plans until they get hit in the face. Plans for a smart city can be smashed by the realities of the technology market, where standards change all the time, new protocols arrive daily, and the cult of creative destruction forces constant change. This is why no smart city project should ever lift off without considering adaptability to the never-ending flux. How costly is it going to be to replace hardware with new models? How difficult is it going to be to update software? Can the city walk away from a tech vendor without paralyzing its infrastructure? What happens with collected data if such changes occur?

Now, about the question of data. One common denominator of smart city initiatives is that a big tech company comes and installs a piece of infrastructure at low cost, or even for free—just as long as they control data. They give you a free app to use instead of swiping a card to get on the trolley, and with this they know where you are and where you’re going each time you’re using public transport. This is a step into an Orwellian surveillance state, except it’s business that’s doing the surveillance instead of government.

We’ve already seen what happens when tech giants become the gatekeepers of data. Facebook has a long and shameful history of manipulating users’ mood, developing painfully insensitive algorithms, and suppressing content that doesn’t fit its worldview. Don’t think any company would behave differently if given control over data generated by a whole city.

Of course, there will always be technology vendors involved, many of them huge corporations. Local governments do not have legions of skilled developers, computer scientists, and hardware engineers to make our cities smarter. They need to source them somewhere. But if cities want to go smart, it’s not about who lays down the pipes, it’s about who owns what flows through them, and who sets the rules and the boundaries. It should never be left to the corporations.

One could say that government isn’t by any means a better keeper of data about citizens than Facebook or any other tech giant. We should not cede the ownership of our data to the state or to Big Tech. We should control our own personal information.

Somehow we came to expect that because companies know how to manage a software project, they also know how to manage the lives of millions of people. As the urban planner and human-centered designer Adam Greenfield has noted, “We live in a time when the popular imagination positions any individual who made their name and fortune in information technology—a Bill Gates, a Steve Jobs, a Jeff Bezos, or even, latterly, a Mike Bloomberg, a Marissa Mayer, or a Mark Zuckerberg—as some kind of universal genius, capable of speaking meaningfully to just about any domain of human endeavor, and the enterprises they founded as being capable of productive intervention in just about any state of affairs you care to mention.”

But that perception is ludicrous and dangerous. Tech CEOs are not urban planners. They are not elected officials. Creating a smart city needs planning, bottom-up thinking, and consent. Cities are supposed to facilitate the growth of a healthy society and economy, not require that we give away our privacy and govern to the lowest bidder.

[Editor’s note: This is part 3 and final installment in a series on Smart Cities. Here are parts 1 and 2.]

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Mark is the general manager at Treeline, a US-based technology development and advisory firm. He has co-founded five venture-backed companies, with three successful exits. Follow @

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