Smart City: Dumb Idea?

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Speaker 1: Thank you very much. Hello, everyone. What a pleasure to be back here.

Lizzie O’Leary: On a chilly day in October 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in front of a series of Canadian and provincial flags greeting a crowd. He was there to promote a marquee project in Toronto’s Quay side neighborhood.

Speaker 1: I’m pleased to announce that Waterfront Toronto has found an extremely promising partner in Sidewalk Labs, a world leader in urban innovation. Sidewalk Labs will create a testbed for new technologies in keysight technologies that will help us build smarter, greener, more inclusive cities, which we hope to see scaled across Toronto’s eastern waterfront and eventually in other parts of Canada and around the world.

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Lizzie O’Leary: It was supposed to be a smart city. Sidewalk Labs is a subsidiary of Alphabet a.k.a Google, and it had big ambitions for Toronto. It would come in and transform the neighborhood with everything built on top of the tech. It would be robotaxis, autonomous trash pickup and an extensive system of data monitoring. For Jennifer Keesmaat, who had just stepped down as Toronto’s chief city planner, it sounded like a nightmare, one that people in Toronto didn’t want.

Speaker 3: All hell broke loose. And one of the reasons all hell broke loose was because right from the outset, because of this lack of definition, there was a suspicion about a tech coming company from a way showing up almost in a colonial kind of way and imposing its own vision on a city that is actually doing a pretty good job. Thank you very much of creating great places to live.

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Lizzie O’Leary: She says a lot of residents were suspicious of the Sidewalk Labs plan and its intentions.

Speaker 3: Is this a data grab? Is this about trying to get access to people’s data as they go about their everyday lives? Is that what this is about?

Lizzie O’Leary: Sidewalk Labs was never really able to assuage those concerns or convince everyday people of the benefits of the project. After years of wrangling, they pulled out in 2020, citing the COVID pandemic.

Speaker 4: CEO Dan Doctoroff writing in a blog post It has become too difficult to make the 12 acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed.

Lizzie O’Leary: And this spring, Toronto hired a group of designers to try a new project in the same neighborhood. One focused on green development, what the MIT Tech Review called an attempt to kill the smart city forever. Something that will be hard to do, but maybe a recognition that we don’t want technology in our lives the same way we did in 2015 or 2017.

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Speaker 3: Technology has a critical role to play in transforming our cities, but the technology isn’t the objective. The objective is a higher quality of life with a lower environmental footprint. And the objective is to be creating more inclusive places where more people can thrive.

Lizzie O’Leary: So today on the show, the death of the smart city and the attempt to build something better. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. And you’re listening to What Next TBD a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stick with us.

Speaker 5: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Before we talk about getting rid of smart cities, it’s probably worth defining them. So we reached out to Ben Green. He’s a postdoctoral scholar in the Michigan Society of Fellows. As an assistant professor in the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, he also wrote the book The Smart Enough City. I asked him What makes a smart city anyway?

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Speaker 6: I really think of it as embedding technology into urban life and urban governance in particular. And I think it’s important to center at the start that it’s really a definition that came from the technology industry, from major technology companies, from Siemens, Cisco, IBM and so on. I think it’s really a marketing term more than anything else. When I say marketing term, what I really mean, though, is that it’s it’s a vision that is, you know, put out by a technology company sort of creating this idea of you have all of these problems. You know, city managers and mayors and so on. And our technology platform under this banner of smart cities is the solution to those problems.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Can you give me some examples of what kind of technology has been employed and I guess what kinds of problems the tech was intended to solve?

Speaker 6: One that’s often incorporated into discussions of smart cities would be self-driving cars, which is a little bit different than many of the others, because that’s not necessarily captured by government technology or management of the technology. But, you know, that’s certainly one component of smart cities and really under this idea of getting rid of traffic. If we update our urban planning and transportation system around self-driving cars, we could get rid of congestion because congestion is just this product of people being inefficient at driving.

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Speaker 6: Other examples would be civic engagement apps. Many cities have rolled out apps, typically under the banner of 311, which was the traditional phone number that you would call to report issues such as potholes, broken streetlights, graffiti and so on. So there are 311 apps that many cities have, and then a lot of it really at the core of much of smart cities is data collection and data analysis. So the data collection often happens through sensors under the umbrella of Internet of Things that might be sensors about the weather, environmental conditions, what people are doing in the city. And then data analysis, whether that’s, you know, trying to uncover patterns and then all the way to the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence, making predictions about what’s likely to happen in the future to inform policies around policing, public health and so on.

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Lizzie O’Leary: The city of San Diego, for example, embarked on its smart transformation in 2016. It installed streetlights that could be dimmed, could count traffic and measure air quality. They had sensors and cameras. The mayor was enthusiastic, as was the media coverage. It was a moment of optimism about the possibilities of smart cities facing an annual budget deficit. The city began to replace its streetlights with LEDs. The light bulbs saved the city $2.4 million in energy costs and illuminated a future of endless possibilities. I wonder why you think the idea of a smart city was such an appealing one, especially kind of circa 2015, 2016, 2017.

Speaker 6: I think there are a couple of different factors that led to the appeal of smart cities. I mean, at that time there was just a broad culture of technology excitement where people really viewed technology as something that could that was a powerful force for good in society and in politics and core. Making more aspects of society, more technological would be good. And so that that cultural positive orientation towards technology, I think then shaped the sort of political incentives that mayors and city managers were feeling, where they viewed being connected to smart city projects as something that would be good for good politics, good for PR, good for economic development, where, you know, you have some of the other Sidewalk Labs efforts from Link NYC. You know, de Blasio was really excited about that.

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Speaker 1: Okay. Good afternoon, everyone. Well, you just witnessed some live history in the making. It’s an exciting moment for New Yorkers because it means a lot more access to things they care about deeply and a lot more ability to access information and to make life easier and more convenient in this city.

Lizzie O’Leary: That program replaced public payphones with structures called links. They’re combination Wi-Fi stations, device chargers and tablets with information on them like map. They register a device when someone uses them and they’re paid for, not with city funds, but advertising.

Speaker 6: So you have like major political figures who really wanted to associate themselves with these smart city endeavors. And then one other piece that’s important to talk about, which then connects to this idea of smart cities as a marketing term, is that cities were dealing, particularly in the 20 tens, with issues of austerity and limited resources and budget. So a lot of what the smart city companies were trying to sell cities on was this idea of you have limited resources, you have all of these jobs that you need to complete. The only way to do that is to be more efficient and stretch your personal resources further with better data and management. And we have the tools to help you do that.

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Lizzie O’Leary: I mean, it makes sense, right? If you hear someone say your streetlights are inefficient and if we put sensors on them, we can save you money and your kind of city wide electricity bills and also provide some environmental benefit. That sounds great.

Speaker 6: Yeah. It’s a great pitch. You know, it sounds almost too good to be true, right? Like, we’ll give you this technology. We may or may not even make you pay for it. And it will save you money. It’ll be energy efficient. You’ll maybe get some better information to help manage traffic. So, you know, the sales pitch, I think, was quite appealing. And, you know, without negative examples to point to, you know, if people are positively inclined towards technology, then that sounds like a no brainer decision, I think, for many city managers to sign on to.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Who or what was the driving force behind making this happen? Like on a really granular level.

Speaker 6: Probably primarily from the large technology companies. I mean, that was really where I think sort of the most, especially in the early days, you had really the most pushing of this. Google was almost a later player in smart cities. I mean, it was really sort of the core infrastructure companies like Siemens and Cisco and IBM and others that, you know, we’re sort of at the early stages of or were sort of at the forefront of really pushing this vision of smart cities as this comprehensive data management and analysis and optimization toolkit for cities.

Lizzie O’Leary: One of the things that I find so fascinating here, particularly as we’re talking about money, is that a lot of this stuff from the viewpoint of a city is free. Why were the tech companies getting out of this? Because as I know you have written about, there is no such thing as free.

Speaker 6: The free technology is sort of an interesting place where the the convergence and the divergence meets in a weird way because the first level, like, free sounds like an incredible convergence, right? Like, what could be better if you’re a city trying to save money than to get some efficiency and house enhancing tool that you don’t even have to pay for? That sounds incredible, right? But then the divergence comes in on what are the trade offs that come alongside that? What is the. Business model that the technologies are following that enable them to put some of these technologies into the hands of cities for free.

Speaker 6: So, you know, the major piece there is data collection where, you know, being able to put sensors on city streets or have access to a bunch of city administrative data and so on, is giving technology companies access to new types of data that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get their hands on.

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Speaker 6: So when you have the digital economy, I mean, increasingly how companies make money is by collecting data and either selling that data or selling insights based on that data. So a lot of time a company will say it doesn’t sell your data, but it does provide faster service access to insights about you based on analyzing that data.

Lizzie O’Leary: So someone can sell ads to you.

Speaker 6: Exactly. So they can sell ads to you without technically ever seeing your data or being sold your data. So getting out of the, you know, off your browser and onto city streets is an incredible sort of opens up this incredible new terrain for data collection. So in many cases, what you have are what the city is essentially granting the technology company access to use public infrastructure or to put their their sensors on public infrastructure. And then that gives them access to, you know, pervasive data around the city they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.

Lizzie O’Leary: I wonder when you feel like you started to see public opinion on on smart cities and this kind of infrastructure shift?

Speaker 6: I think around 2018 and 2019, you had just that broader cultural turn and skepticism towards technology, sometimes labeled under the term the tech lost. And you had issues around Cambridge Analytica and I think Trump coming into office and there were the partnerships with Google, with the DOD and ICE. And then I think the Sidewalk Toronto story was really the, you know, the crux of sort of this turn of broad, broad public opinion towards greater skepticism around smart cities. And I think a lot of it in Toronto and other places comes back as well to, you know, organizing in particular in particular cities to really point out why some of these technologies were harmful and why some of these partnerships were harmful and so on.

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Lizzie O’Leary: In San Diego, the smart street light sensors were turned off in 2020 when it became clear that footage from the device’s cameras was used for police surveillance and investigations. Neither local government nor the public had previously known that San Diego’s police department accessed streetlight footage more than 400 times. That included footage surrounding Black Lives Matter protests.

Speaker 6: Certainly one piece of that is back to this question of budgets, because the promise of cost savings often doesn’t actually get realized in practice. And what we saw in San Diego is this great example of how it actually was costing the city a bunch of money. It was going over budget. There were more maintenance costs than they expected. And the actual benefits that were supposed to come from this platform and from the data analysis were never realized. So even, you know, there’s lots of overhyping of the technology in with Smart City pitches, but a closely connected element of that is overhyping the cost benefits and the low costs that will be associated with these projects.

Speaker 6: And so then what you see is, yeah, this sort of. Creep towards other uses, right? Because once the technology has been installed and particularly I think when the technology sort of doesn’t have a clear benefit for its particular use case, there’s sort of this interest in trying to almost like kind justify it by saying.

Lizzie O’Leary: What else can we do with this thing?

Speaker 6: Exactly. Like, Well, we have it here, so let’s start doing some other stuff with it. And I think actually if you look at the San Diego case, like the the company that was that they worked with, it was not in their initial plans, but they sort of know and had some interest in working with law enforcement because law enforcement has long been, I think, a side of city government that’s been the most eager and quick to adopt new technology because it has sort of an institutional interest in having more information, trying to know as much as possible and so on.

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Speaker 6: And so, you know, working with the police has long been a pretty successful business model for smart city companies and other sort of energy and technology and data management companies.

Speaker 6: And so I think with the turn against smart cities, a lot of it was due to the convergence of smart cities and policing, because the issues of surveillance were not just broad views of the government knows a lot about me or these technology companies know a lot about me, but particularly that this information was being used and wielded by police forces and even groups like ICE, really in ways that were particularly harming low income and minority populations.

Lizzie O’Leary: The pushback is obviously happening now.

Lizzie O’Leary: You know, on on a broader frame, the tech clash, as you as you mentioned, but also people are skeptical of tech creeping into their daily lives. Does that mean that the. Smart City Tech goes away or that it emerges in a subtler or different form.

Speaker 6: Much of the the movements have been really about having the technology go away. But then the question is, yeah, what happens next? Yeah, I think there is this turn towards smaller scale, more subtle and subtler implementations like Sidewalk Labs in some ways has pivoted towards just finding ways to embed their technology into cities in ways that aren’t so flashy and PR heavy, that are more just finding ways to be embedded in financial investment in real estate and data collection that they realize, you know, maybe we can do all of this stuff and we don’t need to do all the big PR hype. And we can find smaller ways of getting invested in even companies like Palantir, which often are in the news.

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Lizzie O’Leary: Palantir, the data analytics company founded by Peter Thiel, has worked with the Los Angeles Police Department, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. military.

Speaker 6: They work with the police department here or Ice Fusion Center there, and it’s not this massive, smart city program, but in some ways is actually more permanent success in terms of its ability to fly under the radar and create many of the same harms. And then I think sort of the alternative positive vision of what would be an alternative approach to incorporating technology into urban governance doesn’t really have a. Clear not just vision, but also sort of institutional capacity and sort of set of actors to really push that forward in a way that counteracts all of the pull towards data collection and maximizing efficiency and conducting surveillance and so on, because those imperatives are still very much there, even despite the pushback against smart cities.

Lizzie O’Leary: Well, I’m wondering if there’s a way that this transforms into to something else or can capture some of the. Beneficial stuff. I’m thinking about Toronto. You know, they are trying to develop this neighborhood that was that was part of the Quayside project just differently. Can the energy efficiencies be harnessed without the surveillance component or can the cost savings be realized without mining people’s data without their consent?

Speaker 6: It really starts from stepping away from the idea of the smart city entirely. Our idea is not to reclaim or repair the smart city, but actually to come up with a different sort of orienting vision of what we’re even trying to accomplish. So I think about it in terms of the smart enough city where we are shifting from this idea of technology being the central component of improving urban life and policy towards technology, much more as a tool that’s incorporated into larger policy reforms and so on. And so I think that that involves both this sort of mindset shift in terms of putting technology into much more of a secondary position and not viewing it as the primary agent of reform.

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Speaker 6: And then also really thinking about. The governance and the oversight of that technology, where we’re able to think about these questions of do we want this technology to actually be put in place? Who should have access to the information? What information should even be collected? How should we decide how that information is stored, how long it’s stored for, and so on.

Lizzie O’Leary: One imperfect example of attempting a smart enough city might be Columbus, Ohio. The city won a $40 million grant from the Department of Transportation in a National Smart Cities challenge to use technology to solve municipal problems.

Speaker 6: They beat out many different cities from San Francisco, Austin, Boston, you know, many that we would typically think of as more tech centric and smart city forward. But what was really cool about what they were doing in Columbus was that it wasn’t the typical smart city plan that said, We’re going to have a bunch of self-driving cars and that will get rid of traffic and we’re going to have sensors everywhere. What they were really thinking about was how can we incorporate digital technology and algorithms into the broader vision for our transportation system that we’re already trying to put forward?

Lizzie O’Leary: Columbus had some modest successes creating an autonomous food bank delivery shuttle, testing a transit app for citizens with disabilities, and a ride service for maternity patients. But it was not a civic transformation, in part because outside investors didn’t want the modest stuff.

Speaker 6: There was a ton of private sector money and interest that flooded into the city and really tried to push other types of proposals forward that were more about the typical things you would see for how self-driving cars and other smart city tech can improve the transportation system.

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Speaker 6: So I think that and many of the other policies, the more the plans that I was more excited about. You know, you’re also engaging not just with developing a tech platform, but really thinking about how technology interfaces with the existing policies that you have and getting multiple institutions or departments or actors to work together and to, you know, really push this forward. So they’re still making progress in those directions, but it’s it’s slower and there’s always going to be, at least for now, that much stronger sort of tailwind on the tech forward stuff because technology companies want to have a piece of that.

Lizzie O’Leary: Ben Green, thank you so much for talking with me.

Speaker 6: Yeah, thank you. Really enjoyed it.

Lizzie O’Leary: Ben Green is a postdoc at the University of Michigan in the Ford School of Public Policy and the Society of Fellows. He’s the author of The Smart Enough City. All right. That is it for our show today. What next? TBD is produced by Evan Campbell. Our show was edited by Tori Bosch. Joanne Levine is the executive producer for What next? Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio for Slate. TBD is part of the larger what next family. And we’re also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. We’ll be back next week with more episodes. I’m Lizzie O’Leary. Thanks for listening.