The “Smart Enough” City

Can the cities of tomorrow be both technologically advanced and socially just?

The term “smart city” conjures a promise of streamlined traffic patterns, reduced crime, and open accessibility to WiFi. But these proposed technological developments often fail to acknowledge the complex political and social factors of cities, which may lead the seemingly utopian technologies to present short and long term harms to residents and to democracy.

Ben Green

“The smart city is ultimately a vision full of false promises and hidden dangers,” explains Ben Green, an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and a Ph.D. Candidate in Applied Math at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) during a recent talk about his work and forthcoming book, “The Smart Enough City: Putting Technology in its Place to Reclaim our Urban Future”.

Green cites an example of self-driving cars moving through a modeled urban environment without stoplights. By thinking about a complex environment in the abstract, Green says, the model fails to take into consideration the broader context of the city, including bicyclists, pedestrians, and other social contexts that surround particular spaces, such as drug use and homelessness.

Instead of simplifying complex challenges so that technology can try to alleviate the problems, as the example above illustrates, Green proposes a concept of what he coins “smart enough cities.” Smart enough cities both “value technology and see the role that it can play, but fundamentally are grounded in broader and more holistic social and political visions, rather than trying to be ‘smart.’”

While cities across the country have moved towards making their cities “smart”—Kansas City, MO even boasts itself as “the world’s most connected smart city”— many fail to recognize that, despite the myth that technology holds “neutral and objective solutions to social problems,” there may be potential harms if these technologies are not considered within the broader context of urban spaces.

“It’s not just that the technology is unable to actually even achieve the benefits that are promised—in many cases, if you dig into the technology, what they’re promising is incoherent and unachievable—but more fundamentally the problems that we think we’re solving are fundamentally distorted versions of the actual problems that exist in society because all we’re seeing is the technological aspects of those problems,” Green says.

During the talk, Green delineates five principles for promoting “smart enough cities” that take into account the broader context, including the needs of citizens. The principles are grounded in case studies from his research working with cities across the United States—including the City of Boston—and range from prioritizing policy reforms over new technology, promoting democratic values, and using data effectively.

In discussing democratic values, and specifically the ownership of the technology used in smart cities, Green describes the free public WiFi around New York City as an example. Technology companies profit from these services by collecting data, which in turn leads to more targeted advertising. There are solutions to this power asymmetry, however. Green notes that there are examples of more open surveillance ordinances that cities, including the City of Cambridge, are using and are publicly sharing the types of data collected and technology used.

“Despite the hype that tells us that the age of smart cities is inevitable and imminent and desirable,” Green says, “we can and we must chart an alternative path to pursue smart enough cities that integrate technology into holistic visions of democratic and egalitarian urban futures.”

Green’s talk, which was part of the Berkman Klein Center Luncheon Series, is available as a video and podcast on the Berkman Klein website. The Luncheon Series is a weekly forum for conversations about Internet issues and research. It is free and open to the public.