The Too-Smart City (Probably) Won’t Be a Problem. The Too-Privatized City Would Be

Recently, The Boston Globe had an interesting article about the rise of the ‘smart city.’ What’s a smart city? This:

Cassandras’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.

Wick-ed Smaht! Sounds good, but all of this information gathering could lead to problems (boldface mine):

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…

Cities can easily lose leverage to private companies their citizens rely on, as the persistent battles of political leaders against telecom companies over price increases show. And private-sector software can operate behind a veil: Townsend says that while cities have made lots of data freely available online, there’s less concern about opening up the proprietary tools used to analyze that data—software that might help a city official decide who is eligible for services, or which neighborhoods are crime hotspots.

While the classic civil liberties issues shouldn’t be discounted, I’m actually far less concerned about those. What worries me is unaccountable privatization of government functions. This isn’t just an issue of being a smart city: when governments outsource basic functions, such as tax and fee collection (e.g., Chicago giving up parking revenue), they are transferring money and power to unaccountable private entities. In Chicago, the city now has a very difficult time allowing free parking when that would be desirable because that is a violation of their contract–it actually has to pay fines (on top of not collecting revenue). Contrast that with Boston which, after the bombings, allowed free parking in the shutdown areas to help businesses. Smart or not, there is a distressing trend towards the privatization of governance–and if you’re not an owner, you’re a customer. The concept of rights-possessing citizen doesn’t enter into the equation.

The other issue is the privatization of public space. One of the reasons large protests are held in cities and not suburbs is that suburbs have very little public space, other than schools and government facilities. Thinking about where I grew up in Northern Virginia, other than sidewalks, the streets themselves, road medians, and soccer fields, there was essentially no public space. Public space, whether used for political purposes or simply living, is an essential part of city life. The transfer of public spaces, or the management of those spaces, to private corporations is another disturbing trend.

So while the monitoring aspects of the smart city are worrisome, it really is just part of a larger trend of privatization of the public commons. That is the real danger and one that is rarely discussed.

This entry was posted in Civil Liberties, Urban Planning. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Too-Smart City (Probably) Won’t Be a Problem. The Too-Privatized City Would Be

  1. Matthew says:

    I mostly agree with you, except to say that allowing free parking does not help business. The entire reason for existence of parking meters is to help business, by promoting turnover of valuable and limited parking spaces. That’s why they were invented in the first place, in Oklahoma City, in the 30s. Before that, business owners were annoyed that people would monopolize the street space in front of their building for hours, or days.

    The idea of giving parking away for free can only work when you have abundant cheap land … such as the suburbs. Trying to use that strategy in cities just detracts from our public realm by turning it all over into traffic sewers and parking lots. Some cities have tried that, and self-destructed in the process.

    When Menino posted the “free parking in the Back Bay” announcement, he was doing local business a disservice by making it harder for customers to find an open space. He also revealed, yet again, that he is a suburban mayor with a suburban attitude, somehow stuck in Boston’s city hall. I’m glad he’s finally going.

    Chicago’s privatization scheme has other problems, but making it difficult to post “free parking” is not one of them.

Comments are closed.