What’s the Difference Between ‘Smart City’ and Surveillance?

Speakers at the recent Micromobility World conference debated the future of smart city tech and whether it’s actually been improving urban mobility, or simply facilitating a growth of the surveillance state.

a city at night with virtual connections
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Nearly a decade into the “smart city” movement, observers from planning, transportation and privacy arenas are turning a critical eye to technology in search of a problem to solve.

Too often, smart city projects end up being “just plain old surveillance,” said Julia Thayne, a founder of Urban Movement Labs who is helping to lead mobility innovation within the office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“And so, I think we want to take elements of smart cities,” said Thayne, on comments on a panel at the Micromobility World conference last week. “I don’t think the concept is the same as what it was introduced as seven years ago, or whenever it was.”

Citing the controversies around a $30 million smart streetlights program in San Diego, where residents claimed the police department was often allowed access to video footage gathered from the cameras mounted on the lights, speakers at the mobility conference took a questionable view of how “smart city” has evolved in the lexicon of urban planning, innovation and the general notion of what makes up a modern city.

“‘Smart cities’ is almost an impossibly vague term,” remarked David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, during the conference.

“What’s ‘smart’? It’s anything you want it to be. It’s by definition good — smart,” he added.

It’s not that technology and innovation have no place in the aim of making cities work better and more efficiently, Zipper and others argue.

If smart city applications are addressing a particular city problem that technology can solve, Zipper said he’s all for it, but he draws the line at products that aren’t addressing an immediate issue. 

“... When you start talking about ‘smart streetlights,’ that’s not a problem,” he said. “That’s a product in search of a problem.”

In September, the San Diego City Council hit the pause button on its smart streetlights program by turning off the cameras, following pressure from social justice activists. Too often, experts argue, cities lack policy guardrails to narrowly tailor smart city applications against overreach when it comes to privacy.

“The methods by which you make real great use of big data are not really ones that are very conducive to the way we govern in a democracy,” said Lilian Coral, former chief data officer for the city of Los Angeles, in an interview with Government Technology in June 2020.

“And I think that’s the big tension. I think, in a lot of ways I believe cities really need access to more data, more data that is actually available out there, in order to make better decisions. But the challenge is, I don’t think they’ve been able to quite develop a vision for how to use that data,” said Coral.

Not all innovation is tech, and sometimes to be truly smart, cities just need to stick to the basics, according to the experts.

“If I could think of one really smart thing the Biden administration could do with Secretary of Transportation [Pete] Buttigieg, hopefully about to be installed, it would be to have a Marshall Plan, if you will, of sidewalk construction, which I think starts to get us to where we need to really make it possible to be without a car,” said Zipper.

Janette Sadik-Khan, who chairs the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), echoed a similar low-tech message.

“The important thing isn’t the technology, as much as what the technology makes possible,” Sadik-Khan remarked. “The point isn’t to have cooler or smarter cars, or bikes, or scooters. It’s to have better cities. And I think we need to rethink what transportation infrastructure needs. And update the hardware of our streets. Those physical bus lanes and bike lanes and better sidewalks.”

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