• Opinion
  • June 19, 2019
  • 16 minutes
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How smart should a city be?

Opinion: There’s a dangerous ideology behind "smart cities"

This opinion article is an excerpt from the book “The Smart Enough City” by Ben Green. For more like this, see our smart cities newsfeed.


Thanks to the development of new technologies that make previously unimaginable capabilities routine, cities appear to be on the brink of a revolutionary breakthrough.

We are promised that the benefits of these technologies — and the “smart cities” they help create — will be tremendous. Everyday objects will be embedded with sensors that can monitor the world around them. Machine learning algorithms will use this data to predict events before they occur, and to optimize municipal services for efficiency and convenience.

Through apps, algorithms, and artificial intelligence, new technology will relieve congestion, restore democracy, prevent crime and create free public services. The smart city will be the city of our dreams.

Illusory promises

From major technology companies to the Obama White House to the National League of Cities, the smart city has garnered widespread support and emerged as the consensus vision for the future of municipal governance.

A 2016 survey of fifty-four U.S. cities found that they had collectively implemented or planned almost 800 smart city projects.

Here’s how the CEO and vice president of the technology company Cisco describes where we are heading: “By definition, Smart Cities are those that integrate information communications technology across three or more functional areas. More simply put, a Smart City is one that combines traditional infrastructure (roads, buildings, and so on) with technology to enrich the lives of its citizens.”

This general description — applying data and technology to traditional objects or processes to enhance efficiency and convenience — has come to define what it means to make something “smart,” in cities and beyond. It is in this sense, as a term of art, that I will employ the word throughout the book.

Yet the promises of smart cities are illusory.

Their deception stems from their very definition, which overemphasises the power and importance of technology. Notice how Cisco grounds urban progress solely in the application of technology. This same focus is what produced the dangers of “intelligent intersections,” predictive policing and LinkNYC. As we will see, the problem with smart cities is not merely that technology is incapable of generating the promised benefits but also that attempts to deploy technology in pursuit of a smart city often distort and exacerbate the problems that are supposedly being solved.

Although presented as utopian, the smart city in fact represents a drastic and myopic reconceptualisation of cities into technology problems. Reconstructing the foundations of urban life and municipal governance in accordance with this perspective will lead to cities that are superficially smart but under the surface are rife with injustice and inequality. The smart city threatens to be a place where self-driving cars have the run of downtowns and force out pedestrians, where civic engagement is limited to requesting services through an app, where police use algorithms to justify and perpetuate racist practices, and where governments and companies surveil public space to control behaviour.

The fundamental problem with tech goggles is that neat solutions to complex social issues are rarely, if ever, possible

Technology can be a valuable tool to promote social change, but a technology-driven approach to social progress is doomed from the outset to provide limited benefits or beget unintended negative consequences.

As the philosopher John Dewey wrote, “The way in which [a] problem is conceived decides what specific suggestions are entertained and which are dismissed.” The philosopher Bruno Latour adds, “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them.” Dewey’s and Latour’s logic highlights where dreams of the smart city go astray: when we conceive of every issue as a technology problem, we entertain technical solutions and dismiss other remedies, ultimately arriving at narrow conceptions of what a city can and should be.

Technology goggles

I call this perspective “technology goggles” (or simply “tech goggles”).

At their core, tech goggles are grounded in two beliefs: first, that technology provides neutral and optimal solutions to social problems, and second, that technology is the primary mechanism of social change. Obscuring all barriers stemming from social and political dynamics, they cause whoever wears them to perceive every ailment of urban life as a technology problem and to selectively diagnose only issues that technology can solve.

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People wearing tech goggles thus perceive urban challenges related to topics such as civic engagement, urban design and criminal justice as being the result of inefficiencies that technology can ameliorate, and they believe that the solution to every issue is to become “smart” — internet-connected, data-driven and informed by algorithms — all in the name of efficiency and convenience. Seeing technology as the only variable that can or should be altered, technophiles overlook other goals, such as reforming policy and shifting political power.

The fundamental problem with tech goggles is that neat solutions to complex social issues are rarely, if ever, possible. The urban designers Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber describe urban social issues as “wicked problems,” so complex and devoid of value-free, true-false answers that “it makes no sense to talk about ‘optimal solutions.’” Suggesting that technology can solve these types of problems — an attitude that the technology critic Evgeny Morozov decries as “solutionism” — is misguided at best and duplicitous at worst.

Tech goggles do more than merely produce well-intended but ineffectual gizmos, however — they engender a dangerous ideology that has the potential to reshape society. Through a process that I call the “tech goggles cycle,” tech goggles warp behaviours, priorities and policies according to the logic of technology. The cycle operates in three stages. First, tech goggles create the perception that every issue can and should be solved with technology.

By conceptualising urban issues as technology problems, smart city ideologues lose sight of these issues’ normative and political elements

This perspective leads people, companies and governments to develop and adopt new technology intended to make society more efficient and “smart.” As municipalities and urban residents adopt this technology, their behaviours, beliefs and policies are shaped by the misguided assumptions and priorities embodied in these artefacts — reinforcing the perspective of tech goggles and bolstering the technologies shaped in their image.

Through this process, alternative goals and visions that are not grounded in technology become harder both to recognise and to act on. The perspective of tech goggles becomes more deeply entrenched in our collective imagination.

Embedded in these technologies, and the social changes they beget, is politics. For technologies are not mere neutral tools. As the philosopher Langdon Winner explains in The Whale and the Reactor, technologies “embody specific forms of power and authority.” Winner adds:

“technological innovations are similar to legislative acts or political foundings that establish a framework for public order that will endure over many generations. For that reason, the same careful attention one would give to the rules, roles and relationships of politics must also be given to such things as the building of highways, the creation of television networks, and the tailoring of seemingly insignificant features on new machines. The issues that divide or unite people in society are settled not only in the institutions and practices of politics proper, but also, and less obviously, in tangible arrangements of steel and concrete, wires and semiconductors, nuts and bolts.”

Political consequences

Cities cannot escape the need to grapple with values and politics by adopting newer and more efficient technologies.

The ways in which we develop and deploy smart city technologies will have vast political consequences: who gains political influence, how neighbourhoods are policed, who loses their privacy. Yet tech goggles cause their devotees to perceive complex, normative and eternally agonistic political decisions as reducible to objective, technical solutions.

By conceptualising urban issues as technology problems, smart city ideologues lose sight of these issues’ normative and political elements. In turn, they evaluate solutions along technical criteria (such as efficiency) and overlook the broader consequences.

As Adam Greenfield, who presented one of the earliest and most trenchant critiques of smart cities in his 2013 book Against the Smart City, explains, such thinking “is effectively an argument [that] there is one and only one universal and transcendentally correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something which can be encoded in public policy, again without distortion.”

This logic makes the smart city appear value-neutral and universally beneficial — as if it were the only reasonable way forward. Cisco’s Urban Innovation team explains, “The debate is no longer about why a Smart City initiative is good for a city or what to do (which available options to choose), but instead about how to implement Smart City infrastructures and services.”

IBM’s president and CEO Samuel Palmisano expressed a similar position at a 2011 SmarterCities forum in Rio de Janeiro: “Think about it. What is the ideology of a transportation system? Of an energy grid? Of an urban food or water supply? . . .[If] the leaders of smarter city systems . . . do share an ideology, it is this: ‘We believe in a smarter way to get things done.’”

Such rhetoric suggests that society has already reached a consensus about what type of cities to pursue, or perhaps that such a consensus can simply be assumed owing to the splendour of smart city possibilities. To technologists, the benefits of enhanced efficiency are so obvious that the smart city transcends political and social debate — nay, renders it obsolete.

The ideology of urban systems

Of course, it is remarkably clear that urban systems such as transportation and water bear an ideology.

Just ask anyone who used to live in the black communities that were destroyed last century to make way for highways that connect cities to white suburbs. Or the majority black and impoverished residents of Flint, Michigan, who were poisoned with lead after state officials decided in 2014 to save money by changing the city’s water source. Winner famously describes how Robert Moses designed the overpasses on Long Island to be abnormally low as a way to prevent poor and black New Yorkers (who travelled by bus rather than private car) from reaching his prized beaches.

But the mirage of objectivity is a common fallacy when quantitative and technical methods are involved. “A decision made by the numbers . . . has at least the appearance of being fair and impersonal,” explains the historian Theodore Porter. “Quantification is a way of making decisions without seeming to Decide.”

This siren song of finding objective, technical solutions to social issues is dangerous, especially when we are dealing with technologies as potent as those in the smart city. Believing that such answers exist leads us to underappreciate technology’s social and political impacts and ignore alternative approaches for addressing those same issues. By blocking off legitimate political debate in the name of technological progress, presumptions of neutrality tend to bolster the status quo and obstruct more systemic reforms. —Ben Green.

The book “The Smart Enough City” was published in April 2019 by MIT Press.

(Photo credit: Unsplash)

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