Too Smart For Their Own Good

Technology should be in the service of people, not the other way around

In 2017, Sidewalk Labs won an RFP to develop 12 acres of land on the Toronto Waterfront. Sidewalk framed it as a disruptive project that would revolutionize the way places were built through implementing a series of innovations that would finally make cities smart. Over the course of 3 years, the Alphabet (née Google) subsidiary developed a vision for the site replete with a 1,500 page plan, and a $1.3 billion price tag. This vision was cut short in May of 2020, when it was announced (on this platform, no less) that the project would be shelved.

One could reasonably chalk this up to another casualty of the Coronavirus pandemic and that the project couldn’t be sustained. But look a bit deeper, and that logic doesn’t entirely hold up. On the same day that Dan Doctoroff announced the end of Sidewalk’s Quayside development, one of its sister companies, Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, announced that it had raised $400 million from Alphabet and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan. $400 million from a pension fund based in the same province Sidewalk was planning its smart city, on the same day its Toronto project was given the kibosh. It doesn’t sound like every major construction venture was struggling through the pandemic to me.

No, what many point to as the true downfall of Sidewalk Lab’s Toronto project was the fierce and continued opposition from activists and the local community. Paramount were concerns over privacy, data collection, and the objective of the city’s creation —was it built to help people, or take their data? Sidewalk was keenly aware of this vocal opposition, hiring nearly 50 lobbyists to advocate their project to Toronto and Canadian authorities. Despite this, it seems the pressure hit a boiling point.

Disrupt. Revolutionize. Innovate. Make Smart.

With the benefit of nearly a year removed from the project’s termination, and our collective re-entry into society post-pandemic imminent, this feels like an appropriate time to look at the broad state of smart cities. If you haven’t come across one yet, a primer from the World Bank: “a technology-intensive city, with sensors everywhere and highly efficient public services, thanks to information that is gathered in real time by thousands of interconnected devices.” Or, in Doctoroff’s words, building “a city ‘from the internet up’.”

Smart cities have been billed as utopias. Not quite in the same vein of Thomas More’s communist island, but more tech-centric free economic zones with limited rules & oversight. This has attracted a lot of capital from those attracted to such buzzwords. Depending on what data source one looks at, there are anywhere from ~450 smart city projects to thousands. Smart Cities are big business: the industry was valued at $100 billion in 2019, with estimates that it could grow to more than $250 billion in the next decade. They’re popping up everywhere. From The Emirates to Japan, Kenya to South Korea, and California to Canada.

Smart city initiatives range from WiFi kiosks and LED lighting retrofits to neighborhoods like Sidewalk’s Quayside and cities like Songdo in South Korea.

Songdo is one of the most notable smart city projects in the word. The $40 billion venture is located 20 miles from Seoul, with a goal of ultimately housing 250,000 people (it’s currently home to 70,000). Though not yet complete, Songdo has undoubtedly made progress on it’s promise to be a sustainable high-tech utopia.

But the reality on ground has left much to be desired. The KPF designed city is rigid with a palpable sterility. The plan seems to take inspiration from Brasilia and Soviet Khrushchyovkas — meticulously planned to maximize the experience from a birds-eye view, but more or less hostile to people not in cars or planes. Skyscrapers plopped down and parks sprinkled here and there do little to disguise the hallmarks of Corbusieran planning — wide highways and negative open space — that were long ago debunked as bad city-making. Despite its marketing materials, Songdo hasn’t appeared to prioritized people within its ambitious plan. Sure, there are shiny objects and trees (yes, yes, people like both of these things, the planners must’ve nodded), but unlike their neighbors in the older communities of Incheon and Seoul, Songdo’s residents are fitting themselves into a city, as opposed to a city shaping itself to meet their needs.

Part of this sterility can be attributed to the city’s incompletion, but only a small part. The bones of Songdo have been laid. There will be no infill to create more walkable, people oriented communities. That’s the thing with master planned places — they’re built to a finished state with little wiggle room to organically grow into the places their residents’ hands shape them into being. Tech and public image have come first and second, with people somewhere on the list, but too far to care much about.

Disrupt. Revolutionize. Innovate. Make Smart.

Smart cities & projects are almost exclusively the domain of multinational tech companies and large institutional entities. Like any top down initiative, they’re imbued with the biases and world-views of their creators. These aspirations can easily become detached from the lived-reality of people on the ground, whether they are existing or prospective residents.

With respect to cities, one of the most dangerous biases among technologists is an obsession that anything designed from or for the internet is superior to its real world analogue. In effect, prioritizing technology over people. Instead of observing how one uses space and asking them questions about what they like and what they want, there is a presumption among techies that people don’t know what they want because it doesn’t yet exist. But not every product is an iPhone.

When the world’s richest and brightest have access to near infinite reserves of resources to support their moonshot ideas, it becomes even more difficult to tell those that are predisposed to God-complexes that they must be considerate in what they build, and cooperative with those they’re building for. Given this context, people are justifiably wary of top down entities.

This context isn’t helped by the early returns from smart cities. Peel back the layers of blustery marketing, and push aside the monuments to their creators, and there are some seriously distressing underpinnings to these places.

In practice, smart city projects have been less like high-tech sustainable utopias and more like vessels to aggregate massive amounts of personal data. In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs had planned to package and sell location data from Quayside, which, oh by the way, would have kept tracking data outside of its borders. In Rio de Janeiro, IBM worked with authorities to police areas for the 2014 World Cup & 2016 Olympics, using 24/7 CCTV coverage from a central command center. If this is all feeling a bit too Social Dilemma for you, good.

Facial recognition systems have been rolled out in the smartest of cities. In China, its been used to do everything from fine jaywalkers to track people’s movements and “rate individuals according to a national scoring system for how trustworthy a citizen each person is.” The consequences of scoring low are chilling — from being prohibited from traveling to disappearing for weeks at a time. We’re not immune to these dangerous effects in the US: facial recognition has been used to profile and arrest innocent people at alarming rates.

These are all precarious, and potentially dangerous, steps towards a physical surveillance capitalist state. We must be wary of leaning into a world resembling a dystopian Black Mirror episode.

Disrupt. Revolutionize. Innovate. Make Smart.

Make no mistake, I’m no luddite. Technological advancement has improved nearly every aspect of our lives. There are a great many innovations that can help our cities, too, like timed street lights to manage traffic better, programs that monitor air quality to mitigate pollution, and a robust network of streetlights that automatically turn on when it gets dark. We can even build neighborhoods integrated with technology from the ground up. But we must use these technologies to supplement our lives, not supplant us.

There are few more enthusiastic about the mission of building better places than me. Urbanization is increasing at a rapid rate, with millions moving into cities every week. We not only need better places to live, we need more of them. This requires ambitious plans. But these plans cannot be divorced from humanity. When decoupled, as this first generation of smart cities has proven, we’re turned from producers & consumers, to the products & the consumed.

At best, it seems to me that these projects are more marketing than true ambitions of city making. In many ways, they feel like the 21st century equivalents to the early 20th century skyscrapers: brazenly ambitious statements that often defied economic logic and vainglorious monuments to the companies and governments that built them. While the people at ground level may have been neglected, they were hardly exploited. At worst, smart cities are insidious aggregators of personal data to be sold off for private gain. Instead of building places for people, smart cities may end up being industrial grade hog houses that harvest us. Sustainably, of course.

Traditional urbanism was built by and for people, iteratively growing and responding to meet our needs first and foremost. Post-War American cities departed from this pattern, developing in impersonal, out of scale and off-putting modes because they were built for cars, not for people. With the level of recent interest & investment into cities and urbanism, no doubt driven by exciting smart city projects like Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside, we have an opportunity to return to the era of people, strengthened by technology.

But we must be careful. A bull-in-a ChinaShop mentality may work well for software companies operating on a Testnet, but this framework can’t easily be transferred to experiment on people and our environments. Let’s stop the incessant drumming to disrupt everything, or make everything smarter. We must listen to what people want from their places, and be transparent with the mission of city-building. We can look to the failures of Sidewalk Toronto not with glee, but a measured respect from a cautionary tale. As a supporter of much of what they were seeking to do, I hope the next smart city project learns from their mistakes, and puts people over tech.

Post-pandemic, smart cities are at a crossroads: will they use technology to enhance quality of life, or will they be the extractive agents of Big Tech that sever the last straining fibers of privacy we enjoy?

For my part, I’m happy to be a little dumb.

Passionate about cities and the potential to create better places at the intersection of Real Estate Development & Urban Planning. Twitter: @cobylefko

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