- Smart cities utilize cameras, sensors, and data analytics to try and solve challenges.
- But this vision distracts from city actual needs such as homelessness and crumbling infrastructure.
- Instead of helping, smart cities deepen inequality and keep cities in the past.
- Katya Schwenk is a journalist writing about tech and surveillance.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Last month, the city of Los Angeles laid out a strategy for its reinvention. By 2028, when the Olympics arrive in LA, the city will lose its status as “car capital of the world,” according to its new, lengthy roadmap. It plans to employ additional policing technologies, digitize public transit and, in essence, “strive to be a ‘smart’ city.”
Over the past two decades, the idea of the smart city has captivated city bureaucrats. It’s difficult to overstate its popularity: Mayors and policymakers nationwide have rushed to roll out their own versions of the strategy, referencing the “smart city” concept in tones of grandeur.
The term smart city, though often applied loosely, refers to the integration of “smart” technologies into urban environments: sensors, cameras, real-time analytics, all feeding a constant, centralized flow of information. Smart city proponents insist that this approach will ultimately solve the enduring challenges that cities face – even if it hasn’t yet. Housing search algorithms are billed as a solution to homelessness; increasingly expansive camera networks are advertised as the answer to crime.
“Cities seek tools that can positively transform the urban environment,” explains LA’s chief information officer. “The most promising of these tools is technology.”
Smart cities have faced robust criticism, largely for the cybersecurity risks that come with an entirely digitized city, or for a multitude of privacy concerns. Yet, the problems with the smart city framework are more fundamental. The vision has wholly replaced many cities’ visions for urban development, distracting from the dire problems cities are facing with the onset of climate change – which came into sharp relief in recent weeks, as heat waves buckled roads and strained power grids. Instead, urban progress has become synonymous with heightened surveillance, policing, and corporate control, failing cities’ most vulnerable residents. We need a new vision for that city of the future.
The mobilizing force of the Olympic Games
Take a closer look at Los Angeles’ smart city plan, for example, and the failure of the buzzword becomes sharply apparent. The plan lays out a slate of bold promises for a highly-digitized, highly-accessible city. Yet, instead of focusing on the needs of its residents, the plan revolves around the Olympics – which is already expected to cost the city an estimated $7 billion.
The Games have always served as a potent force in cities, leaving behind major changes in the urban centers where they alight. As Stephen Graham wrote in 2012 as the Olympics sent London into lockdown, the Games “are society on steroids. They exaggerate wider trends.”
In 2002, during the Salt Lake City Olympics, the National Security Agency used the Games as a “golden opportunity” to “fine tune a new scale of mass surveillance,” a whistleblower said in a court declaration more than a decade later. The agency, he said, used geofencing to conduct blanket surveillance across the city, recording the contents of text messages and emails.
In Sydney, Australia, the Games left behind an Olympic ghost town. In London, they displaced neighborhoods. And in Los Angeles, the city hopes, the Games will usher in this destructive vision of a smart city.
The promise of smart tech
The term “smart city” has been in use since the 1990s. The concept initially drew inspiration from cities like Singapore – or the “intelligent island,” as it billed itself – which were making major investments in information technology and digital infrastructure at the turn of the century.
Although smart tech is now commonly associated with its urban applications, early research on US smart cities borrowed the concept of “smartness” from the military. The applications of smart technologies “evolved from what was originally and primarily a military and aerospace focus,” reads one early report on the topic. “In the long term Smart Cities vision,” it continues, “systems and structures will monitor their own conditions and carry out self-repair, as needed.”
The two-birds philosophy of the smart city was appealing: The investments would both spur economic growth and provide wide-ranging public benefit. “Significantly,” reads one early analysis of Singapore’s smart city initiatives, “the final goal is not just economic growth but an enhancement of the quality of life for all people.”
It is increasingly clear, however, that the primary beneficiaries of the smart city are the companies that provide the tech. They are certainly the biggest proponents of the concept.
Companies like IBM and Cisco have played a pivotal role over the past decade in ensuring that the term smart city is known and revered by city leaders, partly through insisting that the smart city mission is an urgent one: “Cities must prepare for change that will be revolutionary,” writes IBM. Following such urging, some local proposals have taken the smart city to bizarre extremes: Earlier this year, Nevada mulled over allowing tech companies to literally create their own cities and govern them, a proposal not too far off from Google’s failed Sidewalk project, which envisioned a smart neighborhood on the Toronto waterfront.
The trouble with smart cities
LA may have started billing itself as “smart” recently, but its use of big data analytics dates back decades. In the 1970s, one now-retired city bureau used infrared aerial photography and cluster analytics to map out the social challenges that the city faced – highly valuable information for policymakers. Yet, instead of spurring action on the bureau’s policy suggestions, the data was used to inform the city’s grant applications. The effort succeeded in securing money for the city’s coffers – but failed to change its priorities.
This is par for the course for smart cities. The modern smart city framework emphasizes data collection over the policy that is supposed to follow. It assumes solutions are automatic if cities employ the latest high-tech sensors and neural networks. But, as smart city development efforts illustrate again and again, this vision does not enable change. It is pulled from the marketing language of some of the world’s most powerful corporations, who have no interest in making cities truly accessible.
We are instead witnessing the smart city deepen social inequalities and reinforce longstanding systems of surveillance. In New Orleans, a Cisco camera network provides police live footage of the city’s French Quarter via a “real-time crime center” – a common fixture among modern police forces.
Yet, that camera network wasn’t just billed as a method of policing, but as part of a larger system, which can be used for natural disaster response, historic preservation, and even to “identify cultural trends.” This is a key feature of the smart city: Seemingly mundane, or even critical, data collection is increasingly embedded within larger systems of surveillance.
In San Diego last year, the end result of such practices came into sharp relief. In 2016, the city announced plans for a “smart streetlamp” system, which embedded sensors and cameras in street lights across the city. While originally intended to monitor everything from bicycle traffic to air quality, by 2020, “the cameras had become exclusively a tool for police.” A system that the city had claimed would aid its livability and climate response efforts was, instead, used to enforce the status quo. Despite this, the smart city industry has continued to claim that “the future of ‘smart’ cities is in street lights,” suggesting that cities even sell the data collected by the sensors for profit.
This is the interconnectedness imagined by smart cities, and it’s one that should be rejected. The data gathered through these systems is weaponized against the vulnerable, and disproportionately harms poor communities and communities of color. At the same time, the tech distracts from critical, overdue investments in social services and infrastructure.
The infrastructural issues that cities are facing nationwide make the smart city vision look increasingly inadequate – from Portland, Oregon, where a scorching heat wave melted power cables to Surfside, Florida, where the recovery effort continues after a devastating building collapse. Cities – smart or not – are disastrously unprepared for climate change, as they were for the fallout of the global pandemic, which has accelerated rising homelessness and inequality.
Cities must redirect their attention to these pressing problems. Often, the solutions are intertwined: Investments in green transit can also improve equity in cities, for example. Rolling back single-family zoning is critical for combatting the climate crisis, and also racial discrimination.
Some of those investments may indeed be in technology. In Seattle, organizers are demanding municipal broadband, a critical driver of digital equity. But policymakers do not need new smart tools to understand the challenges and deep fault lines that run through their cities. The solutions to, say, Los Angeles’ worsening homelessness crisis, or epidemic of police violence, are not hidden in smart technologies. Until cities recognize this, the smart city will keep us in the past.