Sprinkling cities with ‘digital stardust’ won’t make them ‘smart’

smart cities
Image credit: Jesus Sanz / Shutterstock.com

Next week at Mobile World Congress you are going to be getting an earful (and eyeful) about smart cities – tech, solutions, use cases, case studies and demos demos demos. But will these technologies really make cities “smart”? Bruce Sterling doesn’t think so. And he may be right.

If you don’t know, Sterling has been covering IT since at least the 80s – most famously as one of the pioneers of cyberpunk fiction, but also as a social observer, journalist and essayist. And in a recent piece published at The Atlantic, he argues that we need to stop using the term “smart cities” because, frankly, whiz-bang “digital stardust” won’t necessarily make cities smart – or even better places to live:

… the cities of the future won’t be “smart,” or well-engineered, cleverly designed, just, clean, fair, green, sustainable, safe, healthy, affordable, or resilient. They won’t have any particularly higher ethical values of liberty, equality, or fraternity, either. The future smart city will be the internet, the mobile cloud, and a lot of weird paste-on gadgetry, deployed by City Hall, mostly for the sake of making towns more attractive to capital.

Sterling isn’t arguing against digital tech being put to municipal use. That’s already happening to an extent as internet and mobile infrastructure become increasingly ubiquitous with enough density and capacity to connect more and more “things” that will enable “smart” parking meters, rubbish bins, buses, traffic management, etc. The networks will be there anyway – city governments are really just a new(ish) customer segment.

The point is that many city governments aren’t going digital just for the sake of their citizens – they’re also doing it for the usual political reasons: reelection, soft power, etc. Sure, the citizens also get something out of it – but perhaps not all of them, or at least not equally, Sterling writes:

… what future cities have in store, I surmise, is not a comprehensive, sleek, point-and-click new digital urban order, but many localized, haphazard mash-ups of digital tips, tricks, and hacks. […]

The “bad part of town” will be full of algorithms that shuffle you straight from high-school detention into the prison system. The rich part of town will get mirror-glassed limos that breeze through the smart red lights to seamlessly deliver the aristocracy from curb into penthouse.

That may sound like exaggeration, but remember that the digital divide is already a serious issue, and by some accounts is getting worse instead of better despite increasing awareness of the problem and the consequences of failing to address it. Smart cities face this same issue, not least because cities by their very nature aren’t level playing fields to begin with. As Sterling adds to the above blockquote, those future smart-city characteristics won’t be the result of “smart” tech – “they’re just the standard urban practices, with software layered over.”

Plenty of city officials might argue that this is too cynical and an unfair criticism because they have the best intentions in mind. Which may be true. The problem with that defense is that even the best and most well-intentioned city planning can’t account for any unintended consequences or side effects, both good and bad.

That’s partly because next-gen tech will enable services and use cases that we can’t even conceive of today. But it’s also because most if not all cities – like every other government organization – are dynamic, evolving ecosystems run by humans who are all too prone to political shenanigans, power dynamics, territorialism, labyrinthian bureaucracy and corruption (whether it’s endemic or occasional low-level opportunism). And in many countries, they’re also subject to the political policies of the national government (China’s Great Firewall or India’s demonetization policy, for example).

Consequently, Sterling contends, it’s disingenuous to assume that smart-city initiatives will be somehow immune to these factors, let alone serve as a cure for them. Even for cities who implement “smart” services well, those dynamics will remain, as will the problems that come with them.

Also, because this won’t be happening uniformly, Sterling adds, some cities will be “smarter” that others, which will have an impact on their ability to attract outside investment (witness the mad scramble by cities worldwide to host Amazon’s second major HQ base):

Instead of being speed-of-light flat-world platforms, all global and multicultural, they’ll be digitally gated communities, with “code as law” that is as crooked, complex, and deceitful as a Facebook privacy chart.

Or is that too harsh?

Maybe. But it’s worth discussing, especially at a massive global event like MWC whose core message to the world is that unfettered mobile investment will make the world a better and wealthier place for everybody. Smart cities are often touted in the same way. Certainly cities and their citizens will benefit to some degree from going digital, but it’s unwise to gloss over the real-world challenges and shortcomings that smart-city initiatives face – or worse, pretend they don’t exist when the people at street level know better.

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