What might a city look like in the future if a tech company had a say in it? How can cities harness all the data at their disposal — on things like traffic, crime, health and income — and use it to eliminate the most common woes of urban living? At its core, the goal of a smart city is to improve the quality of life for its residents, by providing them good jobs, a clean environment and safe, sustainable infrastructure.
But as cities race to implement technology that can respond to the needs of its citizens, concerns over things like privacy, ownership and the energy needed to power millions of data-collecting sensors have increased right along with it.
Everything Is Connected
Though the term “smart city” is relatively new, the concept of cities using data to inform policies isn’t. More than a decade ago, for example, Seattle passed an ordinance that instructed its department of transportation to conduct a data analysis of city streets, taking into account traffic patterns, speed limits and collision history with the goal of encouraging residents to walk, bike and ride public transit more often.
More recently in 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched the Smart City Challenge. A total of 78 mid-size cities responded, presenting ideas for revolutionizing their highways, roads and public-transit systems through the use of data, applications and other technology. (The winner: Columbus, Ohio.)
Besides easing the burdens of city life for residents, technology plays a major role in keeping them safe, too, especially as America’s infrastructure rating continues its steady decline across the board.
In September 2016, a team of engineers from Michigan State University and Washington University in St. Louis put self-monitoring stress sensors on the Mackinac Bridge — one of the longest suspension bridges in the U.S. — to log information on wear and tear, and send alerts when maintenance or repairs are needed.
“These sensors are going to continuously monitor the health of the structure, and if something goes wrong, then it’s going to report that to the cloud,” said Shantanu Chakrabartty, one of the sensors’ developers. “If something happens, you can go back and see that a certain part of the structure experienced abnormal levels of strain, and then according to that, you can schedule your emergency response and your maintenance.”
A New Model Emerges
Half the fun of envisioning a smart city isn’t just the nifty gadgets that make roads more stable, water cleaner or traffic lighter. What’s most exciting for many engineers and developers is the idea of making a city responsive to the people who live there.
An example is New York’s LinkNYC program, which is replacing thousands of pay phones around the city with kiosks that provide free Wi-Fi, phone calls, device-charging stations and touchscreen tablets that connect residents and tourists to city services and maps.
A more futuristic example is Sidewalk Toronto — a partnership between Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet company, and Waterfront Toronto, a local organization charged with the revitalization of the city’s waterfront. The goal: Design an entirely new neighborhood on the city’s east side that will include sustainably built homes, roads designed for self-driving cars and green spaces that can adapt to how people act within them. (“Nobody’s using that bench? Let’s try moving it to a sunnier area then.”) If a tech company took over urban planning, this is what it might look like.
Private-Public Partnerships Put to the Test
But despite the competing interests of the private sector, which looks for ways to monetize its efforts, and the public sector, whose goal is to provide free services, there is the sense that tech companies will eventually be viewed as trustworthy gatekeepers of data — so long as they provide benefits to the city.
“This is a change in outlook,” Roman Serdar Mendle, smart cities program manager at the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, said a brief. “In the past, those concerned with sustainable cities saw the private sector as bad, and governments and NGOs as the ones that were fighting the good fight. Now companies are seen as the solutions providers.”
And then there is the confusion about who actually owns the data being harvested: the outside companies hired to collect it through sensors and other means, or the local officials who rely on it to make their cities smarter.
“We’re in the learning business, that is wholly true,” says Tracey Cook, executive director for Municipal Licensing & Standards for the City of Toronto. By regulating Uber, for example, the city was able to gather data on every single trip that occured, down to where people were getting picked up and dropped off, “within inches.”
That information could inform the city’s future endeavors with Sidewalk Toronto, for example.
As cities become more reliant on the private sector to fill gaps that government can’t, the way forward, it seems, is two-fold: Cities will continue to use the data it collects on its citizens with the goal of improving their lives, and then partner with for-profit companies to ease concerns on privacy.
The Future Is (Almost) Imminent
At first blush, smart cities sound like the ultimate solution for bridging the opportunity divide by giving people in all neighborhoods equal access to technology, creating a sort of digital utopia. But a backlash is brewing, not only over reasons of privacy but also over resources. The more a city relies on the Internet of Things — an interconnected network of devices that communicate with each other — the more energy is needed to power said “things.”
Currently, 7 percent of the world’s internet is used by the information technology sector, with that percentage expected to triple within the next two years. Annual Bitcoin transactions, for example, consume as much energy as the entire country of Iraq, according to the Bitcoin Energy Index.
As more and more people flock to urban areas, a partnership between tech companies and the services people use every day in a city — be it public buses or green spaces — is warranted. But given the privacy and environmental concerns that have yet to be addressed, the full-on smart city still has its obstacles.