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Scientific American: The Inconvenient Truth about Smart Cities

Plans for more wired, networked, connected urban areas face challenges if they fail to account for existing, local, non-digital elements such as government and socioeconomic conditions -by Kendra L. Smith.  Last week we learned that tech guru and mega philanthropist Bill Gates purchased 25,000 acres of land in Arizona with the intent to build a smart city from the ground up. The community, called Belmont, will “create a forward-thinking community with a communication and infrastructure spine that embraces cutting-edge technology, designed around high-speed digital networks, data centers, new manufacturing technologies and distribution models, autonomous vehicles and autonomous logistics hubs,’ according to a spokesperson for Gates’ real estate firm Belmont Partners.

This announcement comes on the heels of the release of 2017 Smart Cities Index by EasyPark Group, which highlights cities at the forefront of smart urban growth in such areas as advanced transportation and mobility, Internet connectivity, environmental protection, and several other elements. Given the global investment and public attention devoted to smart cities in recent years, critical explorations of their potential and challenges are worth discussion.

Somewhat of a catchall term for wired, ubiquitous, connected or networked cities, a smart city refers to the technological and data-driven urban systems designed for efficient, resilient and economic growth. They are supposed to be cities of the future that leverage technology and data to improve the lives of citizens and to become more proactive and responsive to the needs of the city. These goals are achieved, the theory goes, by running the city on an integrated operating system where ubiquitous broadband service and sensors master myriad city functions in real time.

The movement toward smart cities signifies attempts by public and private industry to tackle the complexity and, oftentimes, incoherence of urban design efforts to create livable and sustainable communities. However, the potential of smart cities to deliver on their goals should not be mistaken with reality of smart cities.

The current reality of smart cities is that there aren’ t any. At the end of the day, most so-called smart cities are just cities with a few or several standout smart projects. Such projects can take shape in a variety of ways. In Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is piloting a $30 million smart-signal system that utilizes adaptive traffic signals to read traffic conditions and make adjustments to keep traffic flowing. Kansas City invested nearly $15 million in a smart lighting project that will install 200 lights along its new streetcar line. The lights have built-in sensors and cameras that detect the presence of people and can turn off when no one is around to save 20’“30 percent in electricity costs. Both efforts represent the potential of smart city technology, but they certainly do not represent the networked, end-to-end planning of an entire smart city.

A big reason for the disconnect between smart city potential and reality is the fact that smart cities are where the digital world blends, but can also collide, with the non-digital world. Non-digital issues such as legacy governance, social justice, politics, ideology, privacy and financial elements that are not so smart, efficient or resilient when smart-city planning starts can become large factors. Any one of these elements can pose a challenge in and of itself and grow to monstrous proportions when combined with other longstanding problems in a city. Imagine the entanglements that existing public and private industries must go through to implement a single smart city project, let alone numerous projects such as smart lighting, smart transportation, smart buildings and the like to actually make a more complete smart city. Bill Gates’ effort is notable because Belmont is a blank slate to be built from the ground up.

For stakeholders not fortunate enough to build a smart city to their specifications from its inception, finding the best way to implement smart city projects can present a major challenge. The cities highlighted in the 2017 Smart Cities Index are at the forefront of truly making their communities smart but even these cities must contend with the challenges of their past and present. Considering the trajectory of smart city, a few critical questions should come to the fore of any successful implementation effort:

  1. How will a smart city affect social justice in my city? Dialogue around smart cities often favors a narrative that they will be places that allow us to thrive by improving our quality of life. Without discussions of how to implement projects in inclusive ways, the efforts can reinforce institutional privileges and protections as well as exclusionary practices. Smart cities will not be utopian societies that, by the sheer presence of their technology, make everything better. As such, we must spend more time on our pressing socioeconomic issues of today to prepare ourselves to create smart and just cities.
  2. What does it really cost to develop a smart city? Columbus, Ohio won a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’ s Smart City Challenge in 2016. By 2017, the city had developed several public-private partnerships that turned the $40 million into $500 million in private funding aimed at supporting a smart city project focused on transportation systems. It is unclear if other cities could pull off such a financial feat. Without government funding and strong partners off the bat, city leaders’ ability to raise sufficient funds for a smart city is an uphill battle that cannot be ignored.
  3. Who decides what the city really needs and will operate going forward? With a smart city comes a significant amount of decision making on what to do, who will do it, why and when to do it. The answers to the questions are not easy and can have massive repercussions. Take, for instance, the challenge of gentrification and urban displacement, which has long been framed simply as a symptom of wealthier people moving in to communities and effectively nudging out lower-income individuals. However, public investment can play a critical role in this process too. Perhaps the most shining, unfortunate example of this is what San Francisco Federal Reserve researchers refer to as “transit-induced gentrification‘ in which public investment in transit’”light rail, buses, subway’”attracts affluent individuals. So much so that several studies have found that transit investments can alter the demographic composition of the surrounding neighborhood, resulting in pushing out lower-income individuals and creating new problems within the city. Potential outcomes like these should prompt questions about who should be making these decisions about public investments associated with smart cities. Finding pathways to figure out what the public wants from its city (and perhaps more importantly, what it does not) is critical. This requires citizen participation early in the process and throughout. The New Delhi-based Housing and Land Rights Network released a report, “India’ s Smart Cities Mission: Smart for Whom? Cities for Whom?‘ The report highlights the massive problems with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’ s pledge to build 100 smart cities by 2020. Among the problems is the focus on technology of the future instead of issues of the present such as an agrarian crisis, insufficient civil rights for women, forced evictions to make room for the implementation of smart city projects, and so on.

The promise of smart cities is enormous but they require much work to prepare long before network switches are flipped. Creating truly smart cities will require that communities find a satisfactory balance between the present and the future.

Kendra L. Smith is the associate director of community engagement in the Center for Population Health Sciences at Stanford University. She recently co-authored “Big Data and Smart Cities,‘ a report published by the American Planning Association.

Access the original artical on Scientific American here.