What cities need now

Urban technology projects have long sought to manage the city—to organize its ambiguities, mitigate its uncertainties, and predict or direct its growth and decline. The latest, “smart city” projects, have much in common with previous iterations. Again and again, these initiatives promise novel “solutions” to urban “problems.” 

The hype is based partly on a belief that technology will deliver unprecedented value to urban areas. The opportunity seems so vast that at times our ability to measure, assess, and make decisions about it almost feels inadequate. The message to cities is: You don’t know what you’re dealing with, but you don’t want to get left behind.

After a decade of pilot projects and flashy demonstrations, though, it’s still not clear whether smart city technologies can actually solve or even mitigate the challenges cities face. A lot of progress on our most pressing urban issues—such as broadband access, affordable housing, or public transport—could come from better policies and more funding. These problems don’t necessarily require new technology.

What is clear is that technology companies are increasingly taking on administrative and infrastructure responsibilities that governments have long fulfilled. If smart cities are to avoid exacerbating urban inequalities, we must understand where these projects will create new opportunities and problems, and who may lose out as a result. And that starts by taking a hard look at how cities have fared so far. 

The birth of the smart city craze

The “smart cities” buzz began with IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge in 2010. The company vowed to award technology worth millions of dollars to cities that wished to upgrade their infrastructure. Among other things, that initiative established a highly competitive approach to urban innovation that pitted cities against each other in a bid to win free products and services from the private sector. 

The 2010s brought a wave of these competitions, backed by corporations that selected cities to host pilot projects. Many philanthropic organizations, including Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Rockefeller Foundation, launched similar events. And in 2015, the US Department of Transportation used this same approach for its Smart City Challenge, selecting one winning city (Columbus, Ohio) from the 78 that applied to serve as a test bed for transportation technology.

Many of these early initiatives were partnerships between tech firms and individual cities aimed at upgrading large urban systems for transportation, energy, waste, or communications. Hardware, software, business services, and connectivity companies formed alliances to offer system-wide solutions. 

An alliance that AT&T launched in 2016 was emblematic of this approach. The company partnered with Cisco, Deloitte, Ericsson, GE, IBM, Intel, and Qualcomm in Atlanta, Chicago, and Dallas. The goal was to develop smart city systems made up of a whole package of integrated products and services. This industry-led consortium model left little room for small firms and startups.

Virtually all of those projects have failed to adapt technology “solutions” to the needs of individual cities and regions. 

Looking back, that first phase feels very different from today. In 2021, a greater diversity of firms are exploring a wider array of revenue models and marketing strategies, including Civiq Smartscapes (which sells communications network infrastructure), Nordsense (embedded sensor networks for waste management), Soofa (information and wayfinding kiosks), and UrbanFootprint (a mapping analytics platform and service). However, these newcomers are generally less focused on building city-wide systems or upgrading physical infrastructure than on developing new digital services for a particular sector, or apps targeted at residents themselves. 

This highlights a change in business models as well as in technology strategy. It also underscores what has been most challenging for the tech sector: not developing the technologies themselves, but understanding the market for smart city projects and the context in which they will unfold.

Many of these projects have been driven by tech companies accustomed to making their own markets for emerging products. Virtually all of those projects have failed to adapt technology “solutions” to the needs of individual cities and regions. 

When we consider smart cities in the context of earlier urban technology projects, it’s clear that this struggle is not new, but it does have a different flavor. In previous waves, other industries with disparate interests also drove the push for urban innovation: the auto industry, the cement industry, steel manufacturers, railroads, real estate developers, and more. The tech sector is simply the industry of the moment trying to steer projects and influence public priorities.

The city is not the customer

Urban planners have long debated how best to integrate new technologies into the built environment. Change is often difficult, disruptive, and expensive. Projects that are too big or move too fast generate political pushback and economic upheaval. 

New York City’s massive push for roads, bridges, and urban renewal during the mid 20th century, for example, instigated a backlash against “big plans” that persists to this day. The legacy of the Cross Bronx Expressway looms large in the collective memory of urban planners, and it’s reignited as each generation picks up The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s classic biography of Robert Moses, the powerful public administrator behind much of New York’s midcentury transformation. His name has become a metonym for the bulldozing of vibrant neighborhoods to make room for highways.

Since then, we’ve made substantial progress. Community involvement in planning is now the norm rather than the exception. Residents often help set priorities and define the scale and scope of urban projects through neighborhood planning units, public meetings, online platforms, and electronic mailing lists. This doesn’t happen for every project, or every time, and tensions between technocratic planners and community development groups remain. But it isn’t the 1960s anymore.

However, urban planners haven’t been driving the smart cities trend. Instead, it’s been driven by the tech sector, which has very different norms and goals. Test beds and experimentation are common in tech but uncomfortable for cities, for example. At their best, cities tailor complicated networks of old and new sociotechnical systems to work in a particular place for communities with different cultures, interests, and priorities. But for the tech sector, such local variation challenges the whole notion of creating an urban operating system that can scale.

Rose F. Kennedy Greenway
In previous eras, partnerships between cities and industries
brought investment in infrastructure projects like Boston’s Central Artery, now site of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.

And for cities, especially US cities, competing with other cities for private investment sets off a race to the bottom in which public agencies vie to win new technologies that don’t work well with the technical systems or processes they already have in place. Many experienced the smart cities craze of the 2010s with a sense of anxiety: they joined in as much because they feared being left behind in the battle for the creative class and the new innovation economy as because they thought new technologies could provide real solutions. 

All this is to say that in many ways, the city is no longer the primary consumer for smart city firms. Rather, it functions primarily as an innovation sandbox that the tech sector uses to prototype products and distribute services. For the industry, cities are mainly just the places where its customers live.

A lighter touch

In previous eras, partnerships between cities and industries gave rise to new roads, bridges, buildings, parks, and even whole neighborhoods. These changes, from sprawling suburbs like Levittown to the vast Eisenhower-era Interstate Highway System to Boston’s Central Artery, drew plenty of criticism. But at least they involved real investment in the built environment. 

Today, though, cities such as Toronto have organized against large-scale smart city initiatives that propose changes to physical infrastructure, and many tech firms have pivoted toward “lighter” projects. Popular among these are smart services such as ride-sharing and food delivery apps, which gather a great deal of data but leave the physical city unchanged.

One real problem is that smart city projects, in their many manifestations, don’t look backward to see what must be modified, adapted, unwound, or undone. Functionally, cities sit upon layers of interconnected (and sometimes disconnected) systems. To stand on any downtown street corner is to observe old and new infrastructure (traffic signals, light poles) installed at different times for different reasons by both public agencies and private firms. (Regulations also vary widely between jurisdictions: in the US, for example, local governments have highly tailored land use controls.) But most of today’s projects aren’t designed to be backward compatible with existing urban systems. The smart cities idea, like the tech sector itself, is forward focused. 

The “light” interventions that are now popular float above the complexity of the urban landscape. They rely on existing platforms: the same roads, same homes, same cars. These business models demand (and offer) few upgrades and minimize tech companies’ need to negotiate with incumbent systems. Soofa, for example, advertises that its smart wayfinding kiosks can be installed with only “four bolts into any concrete surface.” But these displays barely integrate with a city’s existing transportation system, much less improve it.

The tensions these business models trigger are largely regulatory and not physical—they’re invisible to a casual observer. The privatization of the city—of its public services and spaces—has made it possible for companies to access and use data that local governments collect about residents. The flash points become issues of data rights rather than rights of way. 

Covid-19 exposed smart cities 

Many have speculated about the implications of the covid-19 pandemic for cities. Some argue that people will leave for the suburbs; others predict a renewed commitment to public spaces. Whatever happens, covid-19 has shown that failing to invest in critical infrastructure is both an acute problem and a chronic one. 

Foreshadowing this disaster were tragic, but arguably limited, urban problems like the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where a 2014 switch in the city’s water supply caused pipes to leach lead into drinking water—an infrastructure failure that set off a public health emergency.

Before 2020, people could tell themselves that such things happen only in other places. But the pandemic proved that systems—like the US public health system—can fail anywhere, and even everywhere at once. And it has shown that a decade’s worth of smart city projects weren’t primarily about upgrading existing urban infrastructure. They were more about developing a market for technology gear and services and the data that they generate.

A viable future for smart city technology would mean engaging with tough questions that the tech sector has often avoided—questions about what advances would best serve cities as such. 

The pandemic has destabilized a loose truce between the tech sector and the cities it sought as partners in testing these products. The utility of pilot projects designed for shared urban spaces (both private and public), like wayfinding kiosks and Wi-Fi-enabled waste cans, declined precipitously as people avoided high-traffic areas. 

Many of the most visible “smart city” success stories of the last decade were actually software-based shared services like ride hailing, car sharing, home sharing, and co-working. Those services have been little used during the pandemic. Meanwhile, the shared services that people everywhere need most are still clean water, emergency communications, reliable heat and electricity, flexible transportation, and responsive public health systems. 

The potential for technology to produce more sustainable, equitable, and resilient cities remains very real. The lesson of the last decade is that the emphasis was on the wrong word in “smart cities.” The attention must be on the city. 

We’re always making choices about how we organize cities and the economy to produce the outcomes we want. But it’s economics and politics, much more than technology, that determine who benefits from (and who pays for) the systems we choose, and under what conditions.

That said, the availability of technical solutions certainly does influence our choices about what’s possible and what we prefer. But even those choices are highly variable and reflect our local priorities. A viable future for smart city technology would mean engaging with tough questions that the tech sector has often avoided—questions about what advances would best serve cities as such. 

Realizing that future will demand three things. First, creators of smart city technology must draw on specialized knowledge of the local context. Second, we need a framework for data governance: agreements on how data is collected, shared, and used. And finally, public participation is essential. Simply put, the way forward is to respond to the needs of the community, not the motives of industry. 

Jennifer Clark is a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University and author of Uneven Innovation: The Work of Smart Cities. 

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