The Boston Globe: The Too-Smart City


By Courtney Humphries -The Boston Globe 5/19/13

We’re already building the metropolis of the future—green, wired, even helpful. Now critics are starting to ask whether we’ll really want to live there.

Parking in Boston can be a grueling experience, but Christos Cassandras envisions a way to make it almost effortless: Have the city itself sense when spaces are opening up, and guide drivers to the most efficient spot. The engineering professor at Boston University and his students have already piloted a “smart parking” system in a garage at the school, which uses a smartphone app and software that finds the optimal spot for each driver and tells drivers exactly where to go. “Everybody wins,” he says. “Less time wasted, less fuel consumed, less pollution.”

SMARTPARKCassandras’s scheme is just one step in the march toward what futurists and urban planners call the “smart city”—a wired, sensor-filled streetscape that uses cloud computing and sophisticated software to transform cities into intelligent machines that adapt to people’s lives and steer behavior. Smart city advocates envision a future in which tech-savvy cities offer better civic services, move us faster through traffic, reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and gather so much data that the complexities of urban life can be understood and smoothly managed.

The smart city has become a buzzword in urban planning and university engineering departments, and a topic of breathless coverage in science and business magazines. Although today the vision exists more in the realm of promise than reality, cities such as Boston have begun to invest time and chunks of their budget to laying the groundwork. At MIT, the Senseable Cities Lab is developing new technologies to gather and visualize city data, and a recent symposium at Boston University brought together leaders from the city government, IBM, and BU to discuss potential partnerships, including a possible smart-city incubator at the university.

But as political leaders, engineers, and environmentalists join the smart-city bandwagon, a growing chorus of thinkers from social sciences, architecture, urban planning, and design are starting to sound a note of caution. Building a new, intelligent urban infrastructure could be every bit as momentous as building a water supply, or roads, or a subway system—setting development patterns for decades. Though they share enthusiasm for what a smart city could do, they also point out that smart-city programs could—with little public oversight—put us on track to a kind of urban future that not everyone thinks is ideal.

Behind the alluring vision, they argue, lurk a number of troubling questions. A city tracking its citizens, even for helpful reasons, encroaches on the personal liberty we count on in public spaces. The crucial software systems and networks that underlie city services will likely lie in private hands. And the more successful smart-city programs become, the more they risk diverting resources into the problems that can be solved with technology, rather than grappling with difficult issues that can’t be easily fixed with an app.

“We’ve had a very good debate in the technology community and business community about the benefits, but very little assessment of the risks,” says Anthony Townsend, an urban planning researcher at New York University and the Institute for the Future, who has spoken and written critically about smart cities.

Cities are focal points for human civilization, the places where people live, work, and create. And they may well be on the verge of new transformation, one that not only alters how they run but what their residents’ lives are like. As they move forward, there’s not just one inevitable path: Different ways of implementing technology could create very different cities, not all of them desirable places to live.