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The New York Times had an interesting op-ed piece the other day by Shoshanna Saxe, an assistant professor of civil and mineral engineering at the University of Toronto, in which she expressed considerable skepticism about the smart city movement; there is a certain irony to that, since Toronto also happens to be where Sidewalk Labs, a sister company to Google, plans to “remake two neighborhoods with things like snow-melting roads and an underground pneumatic-tube network,” not to mention an enormous amount of technology tracking and responding to what happens there.

“Smart cities,” she writes, “make two fundamental promises: lots of data, and automated decision making based on that data. The ultimate smart city will require a raft of existing and to-be-invented technologies, from sensors to robots to artificial intelligence. For many this promises a more efficient, equitable city; for others, it raises questions about privacy and algorithmic bias.

“But there is a more basic concern when it comes to smart cities: They will be exceedingly complex to manage, with all sorts of unpredictable vulnerabilities.”

While some of these vulnerabilities will be technological, they also more than likely could be rooted in human behavior. Software will be required to run these smart cities, she says, but we all know that software has to be updated and replaced on a regular basis. Can politicians be counted on to budget for these updates on a regular basis?

Plus, “Cities must also plan for the inevitable moments when the sensors fail no matter how often we maintain or replace them. Failures in engineered systems tend to come at the most inconvenient times, like when a storm drops high levels of water and simultaneously knocks out the electricity to a smart storm water management system.

“Managing all the sensors and data will require a brand-new municipal bureaucracy staffed by tech, data-science and machine-learning experts. Cities will either need to raise the funds required to pay a tech staff or outsource much of their smart city to private companies. Since current average salaries for tech workers are typically higher than for public employees, such a bureaucracy is likely to be expensive. If the answer is to outsource that staffing to private companies, then cities need to have frank conversations about what that means for democratic governance.”

Plus, she writes, smart solutions aren’t always the best solutions, and they rarely are the easiest solutions:

“Congestion can be tackled with autonomous cars, true; it can also be tackled with better railways, bus rapid transit and bike lanes. Houses can be covered in sensors to control an automated heating and cooling system; they can also be built with operable windows and high-quality insulation.

“And public garbage cans can be emptied when sensors say they are full, or on a regular basis, based on the expertise of experienced, well-paid city workers. Smart solutions might be exciting, and they might seem cheaper in the short run, but that alone doesn’t make them better.”

Saxe concludes: “For many of our challenges, we don’t need new technologies or new ideas; we need the will, foresight and courage to use the best of the old ideas.

As we consider the city of the 21st century, we do well to remember that the things we love most about cities - parks, public spaces, neighborhood communities, education opportunities - are made and populated by people, not technology. Tech has a place in cities, but that place is not everywhere.”
KC's View:
At the same time that this piece ran in the Times, there also was a piece in the paper about the difficulties some medium sized cities are having competing with big cities, using Winston-Salem as an example. In that piece, the following passage stood out to me:

The city made a bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. But though Amazon will build a fulfillment center in nearby Kernersville, where FedEx runs a distribution hub, Winston-Salem didn’t make the short list for HQ2. “If you go down the Amazon checklist, it requires all the things that we don’t have,” said Koleman Strumpf, a professor of economics at Wake Forest. “We don’t have mass transit. No Amtrak. No good airports. It’s not a walkable city. It doesn’t have great amenities.”

“Smart,” I suppose, is a word with a variety of implications. “Smart” can mean all the things that Sidewalk Labs envisions - and, having been to Toronto and seen what is planned, I must say that I am energized by the possibilities. But “smart” also can mean having great mass transit, walkable green spaces, access to a terrific airport … as well as having great retailers. (I’m particularly in tune with this at the moment because I’m in Portland, Oregon, doing my annual summer adjunctivity at Portland State University, and as always I find myself thrilled with the options that an urban environment offers compared to the suburbs.)

I hope there isn’t a move away from the concept of smart cities. Though it might not be a bad thing if we’re just smarter about how we build them.