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Smart Cities Don’t Always Mean Better Cities

Raise your hand if you moved to your city because of its smarts (or don’t, I can’t really see you anyways). My point is that, despite all of the press around smart cities, the smartness of a city isn’t really a huge factor in their appeal. Exuberant tech optimism has led us to believe that cities of the future have to be smart in order to meet the needs of their citizens but recent events have shown us that this is not necessarily the case. 

One of the first signs of disillusionment around smart cities was when Sidewalk Labs scrapped their plans for their “smart city from the internet up” development in Toronto. Here we are talking about literally the most publicized smart city development ever that was being designed by a subsidiary of one of the biggest, most technologically advanced, and richest companies in the world (Google it). It all started when Sidewalk Labs won a request for proposal from the City of Toronto and committed $50 million to develop a plan to redevelop a piece of harbor that was being used as little more than a place to store construction equipment and pile dirt. 

I’ll be the first to admit that their development plans were amazing. As I wrote about here back in 2018, they had an impressive amount of features that would make the place livable, usable, and flexible. They had planned for pedestrian only streets with mixed-use, timber buildings. They had modular road tiles with lights that could be reconfigured to change the traffic patterns in an instant. They even had see through wings that would hand off their buildings and lower during the cold months to protect pedestrians from the elements without blocking out the light and solar heating. What was not to like? Well, the company’s intentions, according to Toronto residents.

The Quayside development was scheduled to have an enormous amount of sensors collecting everything that happened inside their smart district. This concerned many who wondered how this data, the kind that would normally be collected by a government agency, would be stored and used by a public company. Sidewalk Labs’ parent company Alphabet, has built one of the biggest companies in the world by monetizing data. One poll showed as many as 60 percent of the residents were concerned about their city collecting data about them. The Canadian Civil Liberties Union filed multiple lawsuits to “reset” the master plan with privacy in mind. 

In response to this pushback, Sidewalk Labs promised to anonymize all the data that was collected and store it with a third party conservator. What could be done with this data would then be decided by a “Data Review Board, assembled of diverse members of the community, would monitor and enforce data collection and use,” according to the proposal. These measures sounded reasonable but didn’t dampen the opposition to the project. 

Then, in May of last year the company abruptly announced plans to scrap the program altogether saying in a statement that “as unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community.” Scrapping a large development due to COVID concerns is completely understandable but the timing of the announcement, only two months into the pandemic, makes me think that they had this in mind for some time beforehand. To put it into startup terms: Sidewalk Labs was not able to find a product/market fit for its smart city product. 

Another eye-opening shortcoming of the promise of a smarter city came from Columbus, Ohio, the winner of the US Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge back in 2016. By submitting the winning proposal the city got $40 million in federal funding and an additional $10 million in private grants to fund the city’s efforts to “help connect the disconnected.” But during the course of the 5 year project, much of the original proposal ended up getting scrapped. The self-driving car shuttle service was halted after one stopped abruptly and sent a rider to the hospital (which is shocking considering it only averaged 4 mph). The trip planning app Pivot only got 1,100 downloads. The idea of “truck platooning” (or making delivery and cargo vehicles drive in tandem using connected technology) was dropped “because the systems engineering process identified user needs that existing technology could not meet.”

Smart cities have not lived up to their promises, even if they never made them themselves. Maybe the problem is that we are using the wrong metric for progress. Just like our phones, we want our cities to be smart but only if it makes them able to do more for us and/or easier to use. It is also important to remember that while public spaces are the most obvious part of our cities, we only spend a fraction of our time in them. Improvement on public infrastructure can only go so far in making cities better. Sidewalk Labs seems to understand this, their new direction includes developing and investing in tech for buildings.

Cleveland has also learned this lesson. Now that the DoT program has finished they have announced the creation of Smart Columbus Energy, an initiative that will serve as an aggregator for commercial and industrial electricity users. When it comes to cities, smarter does not always mean better. Technology can certainly help make cities more efficient, but only if we have a better understanding of how the tech will be used. 

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