How Smart Cities Can Solve Real Problems

Writing in City Observatory, Joe Cortwright recently raised a good point regarding smart cities: so far, their solutions are neither very smart nor very useful. “Color us skeptical:  It’s hard to see how we’ll make better decisions with even bigger data when policy makers seem to routinely ignore the small and obvious data that’s already well in hand,” he wrote. “The way the ‘smart city’ and technology folks approach it, ‘fixing’ cities and transportation is all about vehicles, as their simulations illustrate.” 

The trouble is not that using sensors to monitor traffic congestion or build autonomous vehicles that can talk to their surroundings isn’t clever, it’s that traffic management software and AVs don’t actually come near to solving the problem of traffic congestion, which is that there are too many cars on the roads. It doesn’t matter how autonomous your car is, there’s a limited amount of space for it. AV companies have thus far ignored this problem entirely and instead proposed a future where cars move at high speeds through cities and never stop. The problem with this is obvious: how do you get in, get out, refuel/recharge  or otherwise practically use a car that never stops?

Being “Smart” isn’t about the amount of information you collect, or the number of gadgets you can cram somewhere, it’s about what you do with that information and those gadgets. Mashable dug up an old render of a hilariously unstable-looking bus thing on two enormous, skinny legs so it could carry passengers down road medians (not unlike the Chinese traffic-straddling bus) and proclaimed it “the future of public transportation”. Sure, it’s shiny and new and well-rendered, but the video doesn’t tell us how it works. By contrast, a public works department can spend a few hundred bucks on paint and make a busway that would carry just as many passengers per hour as those things, using existing technology and infrastructure. It’s elegant and affordable and wouldn’t require completely retraining all the city’s bus drivers. But buses aren’t sexy or new, so they get ignored. 

Still, it’s not as stupid as Elon Musk’s idea that building tunnels for cars everywhere will somehow fix congestion.

This sort of thinking fundamentally misunderstands what a city is. It’s not an obstacle to be negotiated, where success is measured purely in terms of throughput, it is, as Andrew Price put it “a platform of productivity”.

Instead of taking their queues from 1950s engineers whose idea of “urban renewal” was more like urban dismemberment, they should think instead about user experience, process and information feedback.

User experience, or UX, is a neglected part of city life. Often confined to things like the design review phase of a new development, the general consensus is that it doesn’t work. We don’t get beautiful places and beautiful buildings, we get ugly  places and uglier buildings. For a while this was treated as an argument over aesthetics, but recently psychologist Ann Sussman and organizations like CreateStreets have applied data to the issue. They have found that there are measurable and statistically different responses to places based on things such as street width, building height, building design, streetfront retail, the presence of trees or other living things and so on. It’s amazing research and it awaits a clever team to turn the data into a smart cities tool that can be used to evaluate not only building designs, but also streets, parks and other elements of the city a citizen might interact with.

Process is at the heart of many of the fiercest urbanist debates right now. It has become increasingly clear that many of the processes used by cities to evaluate proposals and involve the community are deliberately designed as chokepoints for use by opponents while also ensuring that the whitest and wealthiest stakeholders are overrepresented. Community meetings are routinely held at times when working people are commuting or having dinner with their families, notification laws require that property owners, not tenants, be informed and cities often hold the meetings through the agencies of self-appointed and self-perpetuating neighborhood associations, who are not representative of the community at large. But no one has any ideas as to how they can be done better.

One smart cities company that is working on this fraught issue is coUrbanize, which operates a website that shows the different developments in a city and lets citizens, officials and developers connect on their own time to supplement current meetings. An even simpler idea I was told about once involved distributing PRS devices to meeting attendees — they allow people to express themselves anonymously and it turned out that plenty of people were in favor of development, but were intimidated into silence by the loud hostility of opponents.

Finally the big issue affecting cities that smart city companies can change is the issuer of feedback. For about 300 years the main way people have gotten information about what’s happening in their city has been the newspaper. In the last century they were supplemented by radio and TV. But now newspapers are dying, so in many places it will become impossible to get information about what your city is doing if you have no special connections or the spare time for sitting in on three hour long city council meetings.

Some commentators believe that the end of local news is an existential threat to democracy. The need for a financially sustainable model replacement is clear even if such prognostications are unwarranted. Many cities and towns lack any institutions dedicated to informing citizens of current events and even those that do are more often than not failing to reach younger and newer residents or attracting the ad revenue from local businesses to sustain themselves.

There are many reasons for this, from a driver to centralize operations and consolidate different newspapers to cut costs to the traditional wall of separation between the editorial and business sides of the office that keeps editors ignorant and unskilled when it comes to promoting the paper or attracting readers. There is also a deep-seated reluctance to innovate in the newsroom – editors and reporters love their cliched, interchangeable headlines, they love looking down on web-based initiatives and they love their Walter Lippmann-esque objectivity and public service journalism (which they longer do, really, since the public isn’t paying them any attention). Well, William Randolph Hearst ate Walter Lippman for breakfast back in the day.

These are just a few of the issues where a skilled and creative application of technology by a smart cities company could go a long way to improving the quality of life in cities and probably make some entrepreneurs very wealthy.

Tearing down ‘New Hong Kong’ ideas

As China cracked down progressively more on Hong Kong this summer, arresting more pro-democracy protestors and clamping down on the city’s autonomy, a number of commentators from the intersection of urbanism, policy and tech proposed establishing “New Hong Kong” or “Hong Kong 2.0”, where another sovereign state would cede a small territory, build infrastructure and then invite the people of Hong Kong to immigrate there, establishing a haven from Communist China.

Sounds great, but the trouble is that a city is more than just infrastructure plus population. On top of that, the commentators seemed to miss the point of China’s crackdown and the reasons for the protest: Hongkongers increasingly want to govern themselves democratically, not be a sort of corporate playground. The CCP has no problem with Hong Kong’s capitalism as far as I can tell, it’s things like democracy and freedom of the press and trial by jury and inalienable human rights they’re not keen on. And in a charter city, these are the things that get left by the wayside. We should support Hong Kong because it’s the right thing to do, not hope that it can boost some flagging Western economy. 

And so, I wrote about it in The American Conservative.  

New article: remaking cities after Covid

My article “How to Retrofit Your Neighborhood to Save Urban Civilization” was published at The American Conservative on June 26. It’s about how American cities and towns can redevelop around walking, biking and “15 minute neighborhoods” that are more resilient to the disruption wrought by pandemics. 

Resilience will be one of the most important concepts of the coming decade, along with sustainability.